Progressives and liberals were quick to praise President George H.W. Bush when he passed away. Some of this was basic human decency. Some of this was honest admiration for a masterful foreign policy practitioner and a decent man. But some of it felt strategic, a way to point out all of Trump’s failings. Highlighting Bush’s virtues emphasized the issues with Trump and his Presidency. The fact that Bush was a Republican seemed to make this more effective; “look,” Trump critics could say, “here are things Republicans used to value.” It seemed an effective tactic.
And then Trump nominated William Barr to be Attorney General. Barr has been skeptical about the probe into Trump’s Russia ties and thinks the “Uranium One” deal is a major scandal that implicates Hillary Clinton. He has also called on the government to promote socially conservative values. So we can expect some potent attacks on him by progressives…except that he was also Attorney General in the George H.W. Bush Administration. It’s going to be hard to accuse him of being unqualified and dangerous without questioning the wisdom of the man so many recently praised.
This highlights the danger of trying to steal Republican talking points. Progressives frequently do this: “Republicans claim to care about X, but they’re not actually doing much on it.” There are many examples:
- When President Obama was calling for nuclear disarmament, he referenced a similar call by Ronald Reagan. He made similar appeals to Reagan when announcing the New START treaty with Russia. And I know, at the urging of a progressive foreign policy group I was then part, I made a similar argument but I haven’t found the article yet (I’ll update this if I do). This provided useful historical context to Obama’s policies, but it was also an attempt to undercut Republican objections.
- When Democrats retook the House in 2006, part of their platform was controlling the deficit that had expanded under George W. Bush. This was also one of Obama’s attack lines in the run-up to his Presidential campaign. Again, this represents fiscal prudence, which is good. But it’s also an attempt to “steal” fiscal prudence from Republicans.
- Another Bush-era attack line had to do with US Special Operations Forces (SOFs). Democrats didn’t just argue against the Iraq War, they argued that it–and the broader war on terrorism-were being mismanaged and that they could do better. One of their proposals was to “double the size of [US] Special Forces.” This was meant to highlight the fact that Democrats could be tough on national security too, taking away an additional GOP talking point.
Most of these worked at the time. But they later backfired. Obama’s praise for Reagan makes it harder to criticize problematic aspects of his legacy, and was countered by conservatives, limiting its impact. Democratic criticism of Bush’s deficits opened Obama up to GOP attacks on his economic policies–some of which require expanding the deficit–and Democrats are running into this problem again. Democrats’ call for more Special Forces was criticized for definitional issues (Special Forces refers just to Army personnel) and infeasibility. It also makes it harder to criticize Trump’s use of SOFs in counterterrorism operations that haven’t been debated or approved by Congress.
And I’m not even going to go into poorly-thought-through but convenient attack lines. Remember when Obama mocked Romney for being stuck in the 80s after he expressed concern about Russia, with a lame “the 80’s called” joke. Progressives at the time (including me) thought it was great, but it’s made current Russia concerns seem opportunistic.
As Democrats get ready for 2020, there are a lot of potential attacks on Trump. Candidates and their campaigns will be tempted to attack him as not being a good enough Republican. If those attacks come from a centrist trying to present a Bill Clinton-esque “third way” that may be ok. And if it is praise for an earlier, more cooperative era of politics, that’s fine too. But more often than not they’ll come from progressive candidates who are just trying to score an easy point. This very well may work, but it will continue to muddle Democratic messaging. Resist the temptation.
There is a spat of ecumenical proportions brewing in the Eastern hemisphere: Patriarch Krill of Russia stopped praying for the Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. The reason for that is simple: the patriarch of Constantinople is rumored to consider granting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church an autocephalous status that would potentially carve out a third of Russian Orthodox Church curacies severely damaging Moscow’s status as the third Rome* not to mention financial repercussions.
For the first year of the Trump Administration, the Washington D.C.- based denizens of the U.S. foreign policy establishment assured themselves that although Donald Trump had tipped over the geopolitical apple cart, everything broken could be put back into place without undue difficulty. They were wrong.
Taking their cue from the caustic reactions of American allies to Trump’s twin summit debacles, foreign policy elites on both sides of the aisle are now a chastened bunch–only too aware of the immense damage Trump is doing to the fabric holding together America’s alliances, the de jure and de facto clusters of its closest allies.
The allies have become increasingly disabused of this Administration’s year-long recitation of how much it values them, in both trade and security terms. For they now stand on the precipice of deeming the U.S. a pariah nation state, not to be trusted and sufficiently harmful to their interests that they appear on the verge of sidelining the U.S. in their renewed approach to preventing the world from succumbing to the throes of nationalism. It would appear the world is at an unprecedented inflection point, at least in the postwar era.
Donald Trump’s penchant for lauding dictators and potentates, while denigrating allies and friends–in remarkably personal and pugilistic terms–has caused our NATO, G-7, and WTO allies to begin laying the groundwork for isolating the U.S. when it comes to tending to their core national security interests. Already in the early days of the new Administration, public reports surfaced that the UK and Israel had discussed at the highest levels of their governments whether it might be necessary to begin withholding certain tranches of their most sensitive intelligence.
In recent weeks the President of the European Council Donald Tusk remarked “with friends like this, who needs enemies,” while the new German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas gave a speech in which he equated recent U.S. foreign policy forays with those of Russia’s actions that have directly harmed Europe. Already his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel had declared on his way out that “the U.S. is permanently changed.” And Emmanuel Macron declared this week that France does not share the same values with the U.S. Only our Asian allies have been more cautious in their recent appraisals of American missteps, for traditionally Japan and South Korea are less public about their discontent.
The cost of the unprecedented calumny on the part of the Trump Administration in their eyes is significant, and growing closer to severe with each passing week. For it is increasingly clear that America’s allies are becoming less secure and less well-off due to direct assaults on them from this President, both verbal and consequential. Ipso facto, the U.S. is becoming less secure and less well off as a result. Continue reading
While in the US children are being separated from their parents seeking political asylum and taken to a Walmart prison, some Russian lawmakers are concerned that illegal aliens can enter the country through its citizens’ vaginas during the FIFA World Cup that starts today.
Today is President Putin’s inauguration day and even Avengers couldn’t stop it, as evidenced by the arrested raccoon in the center of Moscow on Saturday during the unsanctioned rally ““He’s No Tsar to Us.” For Russia watchers, the Saturday protests probably created a sense of déjà vu of May 2012 when much larger protests erupted in Moscow and around Russia. They displayed a high degree of social mobilization around the fair elections narrative, but the protesters paid a high price for it: over 30 were criminally charged and 17 were sentenced to several years in prison, some fled the country.
The scale of the protest in May 2012 was so large that a new legislation on rallies was enacted on 9 June 2012. It increased the fines for the violation of public rallies law to up to a million rubles. One of the authors of the rally law – ‘Just Russia’ member Sidyakin – at first stated that the law was supposed to prevent the ‘Ukrainian scenario’ in Russia . Communist Party and Liberal Democratic party members warned President Putin about the ‘orange plague’ and that nobody ‘wants to go back to the 90s’ and the President should not let an ‘orange revolution’ take place in Russia.
One of the most predictable elections is just around the corner: even Google has already proclaimed Putin the winner of the presidential race of March 18th 2018 in Russia. The only marginal hiccup for the authorities might be a low turnout, but a couple of viral videos are already scaring the bejesus out of the electorate: if they don’t show up and vote for you-know-who, somebody else will be elected and they will make each family house a gay man in pink pajamas in their apartment!
Surprisingly enough, Putin will have a wee bit of competition on the ballot after all. Pavel Grudinin [I am very tempted to translate his name as ‘boobilicious’], a candidate from the Communist Party, has managed to gain an unexpected amount of support – around 10%. With other candidates polling between a margin of error and about 5%, Grudinin’s rating seems unexpected. The head of the company “Lenin’s Sovkhoz” is popular not just with Russia’s pre-baby-boomers, but also with millennials! And if the Kremlin wants to blame somebody for this, they should be kicking themselves for Grudinin’s success. Millennials like the communist candidate because of governmental idealization of the Soviet past.
With an avalanche of news about the government shutdown, DACA, CHIP and Stormy Daniels, the American news media did not have too much time to cover Putin’s nipples (this time around), even though it was a great opportunity to update the famous horse riding photograph. On the Russian Orthodox Epiphany night Putin was photographed bathing in ice cold water in the Seliger Lake, displaying both his Orthodox Christian devoutness and manly sass. Why does he do that? While for some in the West these displays of machismo can seem gay, in Russia they are gobbled up as the ultimate display of virility and strong leadership. Moreover, they have a deeper political meaning for the population that sees Putin as a spiritual leader, a pastor that would guide Russia to a brighter tomorrow.
Any woman would tell you that. What matters is what you do with it and whether you know how to use it. Whatever Brobdingnagian thing you’ve got going on there, it’s way more important to have a game plan and understand the sweet spots you need to target. Otherwise, both parties may come away less than satisfied from the encounter.
I am talking, of course, about the nuclear arsenal size and the ever-lasting dick-measuring contest that is international politics. After the ridiculous Trump tweet that Kim John Un’s nuclear button is smaller and less powerful than that of #45, IR Twitter was quick to point out Carol Cohn’s seminal “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals” article that discussed exactly that. That the world of arms race is essentially a world of phallic worship and missile envy, replete with “penetration aids”, “thrust capabilities” and “vertical erector launchers”. Who knew that a presidential candidate who mentions the size of his penis during a primary debate would actually bring it up during an international nuclear stand-off?!
Another piece that comes to (my) mind is the book by Stephen Ducat “The Wimp Factor: Gender Gaps, Holy Wars, and the Politics of Anxious Masculinity”. As he observed, the ‘wimp factor’, i.e., the possibility of coming off as too feminine in politics is a major fear in many cultures, spanning from ancient Greece to modern United States. In a culture with a generalized ethos that equates penetration with domination, political hierarchy is often built along the same lines that glorifies ‘real men’ ‘with balls’ hence denigrating femininity and non-cis-gendered males and females. The wimp factor is especially relevant for global politics built on notions of hierarchy, and is often expressed in terms of gender, which favors the male, dominant position.
If anybody is planning to collude with some Russians for New Year’s (but not in order to swing an election), I compiled a brief checklist. Originally, I wanted to take apart an article from a prestigious newspaper that described “a Christmas encounter with a Russian soul”, but then I decided against it. After all, if you don’t buy “the case for colonialism”, then you probably also won’t think that “Russians do not share the ethical heritage of the West, but moral intuition exists everywhere, and is able to be inspired”. But enough with the narcissistic white bigotry, let’s learn about Russia!
- In good ol’ orientalist tradition let’s start with drinking. No self-respecting Russian ever says “na zdorovie” while toasting. Ever. You drink for something – “za”. Want to impress some Russians, say either “vashe zdorovie” or “budem!” – both are correct equivalents to “Cheers”.
- Another important thing, New Year is THE winter holiday in Russia. Not Christmas. You prepare for it in advance, buy presents, decorate a tree, have a massive meal and get together with the family. Atheist Soviet traditions have stuck pretty well and the reflex of cutting an Olivier salad on December 31st is hard to suppress.
- What the hell is an Olivier salad I anticipate you’d ask. It’s a Russian New Year staple food that originally included hazel grouse, crayfish, and a bunch of other expensive ingredients concocted by a French chef in mid 19th century, but gradually became a potato, pea and mayonnaise based delight that you enjoy by the ton.
- So what about Christmas (you might wonder)? Most Russians celebrate Christmas (if they do) on January 7th thanks to the power squabbles with the Catholic Church back in the Middle Ages. While after the Revolution Russia moved almost two weeks ahead (hence the Great October Revolution celebration on November 7th), the Russian Orthodox Church stayed behind and insists on celebrating all Christian holidays based on the Julian calendar. Some even celebrate Old New Year on January 13th!
- Also, Christmas trees. Again, in a post-Soviet mind – a fir tree is a totally secular New Year tradition that has nothing to do with Christmas. To be fair, they have much more to do with Saturnalia than with Christmas anyway. You know how in America people make fun of those who take down their Christmas lights in February? Try keeping your tree until March!
- Last but not least. Russians also have a type of Santa – his name is Father Frost (Ded Moroz), he brings presents, rides a sleigh and he is assisted by his granddaughter Snowmaiden (Snegurochka). Despite his somewhat dubious origin story and unclear family tree (where is his wife? Or Children?!), his is still a far cry from the controversy caused every year by Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands.
I am off to cut the Oliver and obsessively check the statuses of submitted manuscripts. Remember, despite the condescending orientalist horse crap that you might read in the Wall Street Journal, Russians are like everybody else. They just want acceptance with minor revisions.
Happy New Year!
For Russia watchers Christmas always comes early (or Hanukkah comes right on time!) when Putin gives his annual presser in mid-December to the journalists from Russia and around the world. This year was no exception, and Putin provided an almost 4-hour spectacle of economic indicator juggling, question evading and what looked like battling the flu. Even devoted supporters noticed that Putin was not on top of his game that day. He had to constantly clear the throat and looked like he had fever.
There was something for everyone. Putin came out against abortion ban and spun a conspiracy theory about the Olympic doping scandal. Accused the US of North Korean missile program development and encouraged rotation of governmental cadres. Explained the rationale behind a possible retirement age increase and advised the head of Rosneft Sechin to show up to court when he is subpoenaed. Many bloggers and mass media outlets have devised several versions of Putin Presser bingo, because every year there seems to be the same number of shticks that come up. These include drinking from a cup with a lid, making a joke – this year a particularly crass one, – providing reassuring mumbo-jumbo about Russian economic growth and an expected tough question from a Ukrainian journalist.
Let’s start with the last one. Questions from UNIAN journalist Tsymbayuk are a rare aberration from the mainstream discourse on the Ukraine crisis in Russia (this time they were met with boos and “provocation” outcries). He asked whether Putin was planning to exchange prisoners of war and reminded that Russia and Ukraine were not one country. Putin had a long comeback arguing that the accent-free Russian of the journalist was already a sign that the countries occupied the same mental space. After that followed quite a long history lesson riddled some historical inaccuracies and an emphasis on the same Christian foundation of the two countries that make up one nation. Later, Putin also quipped about the scandal provoked by the former Georgian President and ex Odessa governor Saakashvili, who is allegedly “spitting in the faces of Ukrainians and Georgians”. Putin even wondered whether there were “real Ukrainians” available in the country. Oh, snap. A lot of Russians don’t believe Ukraine deserves to be a state in the first place…
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the sovereignest of them all? Asked no head of state — ever. And yet, the Russian Parliament is in the process of devising a document, which assesses levels of sovereignty among the G20, and devises punishments for countries or individuals who infringe on state sovereignty. I have to admit, it fits well with the ISQ’s new online symposium on International Systems in World History. Hierarchy, international system, definition of state, coercion – it’s all there! Russian Parliament does not reflect on the Eurocentrism of their concepts though…
The Interim Commission of the Federation Council for the Protection of State Sovereignty has prepared a plan for an annual report on interference in Russia’s internal affairs (securitization alert!). Apparently, the West is stimulating interethnic and interreligious protests in Russia by way of turning the Russian youth “into an instrument of loosening up of national political systems, implementing scenarios of “color revolutions”, coups d’état, and social destabilisation.” So, if we track the empirical application of Butcher and Griffiths’ article, there is in fact a clear delineation between domestic and foreign politics. The foreign part comes in with the “monitoring of the interference of foreign states and international organizations in the political, economic, cultural and humanitarian spheres of activity in Russia”. Especially worrisome for Russian lawmakers is the expected interference with Russia’s presidential election in spring 2018. See, Russia does care about election meddling! Just not the American one.
While there is a big debate in the US about the old monuments, Russia is erecting new ones. Starting with the eye sore of a Kalashnikov statue in Moscow that had a bit of a glitch of sporting a German rifle instead of the famous Russian export and finishing with a “monument to manspreading” aka Russian Emperor Alexander the Third in Crimea’s Yalta. While manspreading is a great metaphor for the “Crimea reunification”, let’s put aside the Ukrainian side of the issue and take a closer look at the schmock du jour.
Alexander the Third statue is seated somewhat uncomfortably on what looks like a pile of manure, with his hands on a sword and the words “Russia’s only allies are its army and fleet” engraved on the base of the monument. During the unveiling ceremony that was attended by President Putin, the emperor was lauded as the “Peacemaker” who
“The women who accused Harvey Weinstein did not act as women. Because sexual harassment – well, that’s great, honestly. And if you have a role, what difference does it make how you got it. […] In general, how can a man be accused of sexual harassment, is it not what he exists in this world for? If he has the power that he uses in this way, that’s good. It’s wonderful when a man who has so much power is sexually harassing you, isn’t it?”
No, it isn’t. But that is what a relatively famous Russian actress Lyubov Tolkalina had to say about the Hollywood scandal. Even though in the same article about Russian movie industry attitudes to Harvey Weinstein there were other opinions, including from men who sympathized with the victims of sexual assault and derided the hypocrisy of the movie industry in Russia and the US, so far the response to the Hollywood revelations in Russia have not necessarily been #MeToo. The underlying issue here is not just the patriarchal culture, but also the internalized misogyny and victim blaming that go with it, or, as Lyubov Tolkalina puts it, “A woman is always guilty in male sexual assault”. Being a part of a macho patriarchal culture is hard, so a lot of women side with the desirable and hierarchically higher in-group – men – and re-affirm female objectification and disparagement. Moreover, this kind of responses mirror the pushback against the social media campaign #IamNotAfraidtoSayIt (#янебоюсьсказать) initiated by a Ukrainian activist in 2016 where women in Post-Soviet space shared the horrifying stories of sexual abuse.
The stories under those Russian and Ukrainian hashtags showed that sexual assault and violence against women are, unfortunately, everyday and underreported phenomena. Statistics on domestic violence in Russia are disturbing: around 600,000 women suffer annually of domestic abuse, while approximately 60-70% of incidents of domestic abuse never even get reported. This was sarcastically captured in the headline of an article on domestic violence in Rossiyskaya Gazeta: ‘If he kills you, then report it’. In other words, law enforcement officials routinely discard the claims of domestic assault brought forward by women or claim that the women brought the violence on themselves. Apart from the physical violence, there is a general discursive tolerance towards violence against women. Even women who suffered from domestic violence usually tend to justify it or reconcile with their offenders and continue to tolerate the abuse. Continue reading
Yes, you have heard a lot about it. A German version of the ISA just featured a roundtable entitled: ‘Reclaiming the facts: analysis of international politics in the age of fake news and post-facts’. There has been a lot of panic over the new era of alternative facts. Let me assure you: fake news and post facts are not new. Social networks are not new. We all have seen and read about them before. And they are not only as American as George Washington’s cherry tree. They are old and they are universal.
Here’s an example.
Once upon a time, there was a bankrupt opportunist from a notable family who urgently needed cash to pay his financier. No, he didn’t run to the Russian oligarchs (they were hard to reach at that point in time); instead, he decided to avoid the debt by killing his banker in the middle of 5th avenue. When he was brought to court, his lawyer thought of a brilliant defense: instead of claiming that the accused was innocent, he went all the way to acknowledge the guilt of the criminal. The reason he killed the banker was allegedly his way to take revenge on the banker’s own nefarious deed of a child’s murder. The court was so baffled by this defense that the opportunist turned murderer walked free and the fake news about the boy’s murder assumed a life of its own. The year was 1150 and I am talking about the murder of William of Norwich, one of the first recorded accusations of ritual murder that still serves as an inspiration to Neo-Nazis and Anti-Semites around the world.
I am (sort of) on vacation and visiting the Motherland. In the meantime, I allowed myself a couple of days of couch potato mode that included some Russian TV. A political scientist in me is never on holiday so while flipping through some mainstream channels I made a little Russian TV digest for the Duck. I am not repeating Gary Steyngart’s experiment of watching Russian TV for a week at the Four Seasons, mostly because early career researchers don’t have money for 5* hotels and my mum cooks better than Michelin restaurants. Let’s skip the morning shows that, fortunately, don’t include the benefits of urine therapy anymore and just try to persuade Russian women to wear high heels otherwise they won’t find a man and will never be happy.
Footage of toppled Confederate statues all over cities in the US reminded me of the events my homeland went through a couple of decades ago and might go through again in some years. Some experts already compared the toppling of Confederate statues with “Leninopad” – razing of Lenin statues in Ukraine, but renaming streets and bringing down monuments was a la mode in newly independent Russia as well. Most Westerners might be familiar with the iconic footage of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s downfall in 1991 among the jubilant crowds gathered in front of the KGB building. The infamous founder of NKVD lost his base and never came back to the square in front of the now FSB. For the record though, my music school still has the Dzerzhinsky street address and his monument nearby sports fresh flowers every now and then. But I am from the Deep South that consistently voted for the Communist Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union until Putin managed to sway the electorate his way. That Dzerzhinsky is not going anywhere.
Three years ago, on this day, the Malaysian Airliner MH17 flight from Amsterdam to Kuala-Lumpur was shot down over Ukraine. 298 people died. In October 2015, the Dutch Safety Board (DSB) concluded that the airliner was downed by a Buk surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine. These findings were also confirmed in September 2016 by a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT). The Russian government disputes these findings.
Let’s go back 3 years to the Russian mass media and examine what passed as “truth” about the crash.
This is a guest post from Seva Gunitsky, an associate professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto. His book Aftershocks: Great Powers and Domestic Reforms in the Twentieth Century was recently published by Princeton University Press.
To understand the roots of the collusion, set aside Putin and follow the money.
In the endless pursuit of the Russia-Trump collusion story, we sometimes forget a key element: this whole mess began with money, not with election interference. The connections between Trump and Russia were forged years ago, well before he developed any serious political inspirations, and were focused on the shady schemes of Russian oligarchs and their dealings with Trump. Understanding the roots of the collusion means setting aside the usual narrative – Putin wants to destroy American democracy – and following the money first.
Y’all are probably sick and tired of hearing about Russia: hacking, colluding, obstructing, peeing, meddling, trolling, spying… I’m waiting in terror to see what Stephen Colbert has filmed in the Motherland. So far, his mispronouncing of Sergey Kislyak’s name together with fur hat clad ‘Russian hackers’ with vodka and thick accents have not been particularly impressive. To quote Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, ‘Really?’ Throw in a mail-order bride and we have a full house of Russian stereotypes. Has American TV not been able to come up with anything new since Boris and Natasha?
While the Russia probe is expanding to include naïve 36-year old Harvard graduates, pundits all over the world have been worried about elections in other countries. The massive WikiLeaks dump (pun intended) on Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in France did not work, so the next troublesome case seems to be Germany (the UK is fine, they are already leaving the EU).