Here’s How Democratic Presidential Contenders Should (Not) Talk About RussiaRoundup
tags: Russia, Trump, Mueller, presidential election
David S. Fogleson is a professor of history at Rutgers University. He specializes in the history of modern America and American-Russian relations.
The next presidential election is still 22 months away, but potential candidates for the Democratic Party nomination have already begun floating their foreign-policy visions. Major statements thus far from leading contenders are deeply troubling, especially in regard to relations with Russia. Fortunately, there is time for those who hope for a more peaceful world and a greater ability to focus national resources on domestic problems to challenge prospective candidates’ tired, conventional ideas and demand more positive and constructive approaches.
A year ago former vice president Joe Biden was first out of the blocks with an article in Foreign Affairs that outlined “How to Stand Up to the Kremlin.” To his credit, Biden was relatively level-headed about Russian interference in the 2016 election: In contrast to those who hyperbolically likened it to the Pearl Harbor or 9/11 attacks, he treated Russian efforts to influence foreign elections as a problem to be managed, not an existential threat. However, Biden also presented a nightmarish view of “tyranny” in a Russia allegedly facing drastic demographic and economic decline. Popular support for Putin’s “kleptocracy” is so shallow, Biden claimed, that it would quickly disappear if the regime did not maintain “a choke hold on society.”
That kind of caricature, which encourages notions that Washington does not need to think seriously about how to engage with Russia, was soon challenged by a high-turnout election in March, when more than 70 percent of voters marked their ballots for President Vladimir Putin. Many American commentators dismissed the election as a sham because of the Kremlin’s domination of television coverage and its exclusion of some potential challengers. But the election result basically reflected genuine popular approval of Putin (ranging between 60 and 80 percent), which is rooted in beliefs that he is a strong leader who restored stability after the chaos of the 1990s and revived Russian national pride. The stereotypical notion of Russia as a backward land of totalitarian repression was also contradicted in June, when more than 80,000 Americans who visited for the World Cup saw for themselves Russian cities that are clean, modern, friendly, and lively. Many American politicians, including Biden, have wished for years that Putin was not the leader of Russia, but the reality we must face is that he will be president until 2024.
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