Russia has never really been the place we thought it was. When I was growing up, I would often have nuclear holocaust themed nightmares that someone in the Kremlin finally got nervous enough from Ronald Reagan’s “We begin bombing in five minutes” threats that they decided to push their nuclear button first. Our fear was not completely misguided. The Soviet Union and its nuclear build-up really was a threat to peace, just as the United State’s build-up was. Since then, Reagan’s version of the Evil Empire has become an oft repeated trope in politics. A strategy that could be called ‘create fear, gain votes’. Take for example, Mitt Romney recent response to President Obama’s “hot” microphone gaffe that Russia is the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.”
In grade school teachers instructed us to duck-and-cover under our desks in case of an H-bomb attach. It all added to my nightmares, even though I always thought it was a silly idea. What good would a wooden desk do to block the heat of a nuclear sun and giant shockwave blowing down the school? Didn’t these teachers watch movies?
While I has having nightmares and hiding under my desk little Russian kids were dreaming of Levi’s jeans and bubble gum. Russians I’ve spoken to tell me they ignored stories of evil capitalists coming from their government. “What would they want from us?” they thought, “would they really want to join us standing on line for bread?” If the West had all the good stuff and Russians we’re rationing wheat and vodka, why, they rightfully reasoned, would Americans even bother? The big difference between Russian propaganda and U.S. propaganda isn’t the quantity, it’s that Americans actually believe it.
Today, Romney and Gingrich and the rest of the conservatives want to demonstrate that they are the strong ones who will defend us from evil all around us. This sort of pandering is probably more effective at strengthening our enemies and destabilizing the world. Outgoing Russian president Medvedev insightfully characterizes Romney’s remarks as “Hollywood.” He suggests “they check the time – it is now 2012, not the mid-1970s.”
Did I mention outgoing Russian president? And who is replacing him? Well, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, of course. Recently, Muscovites did something completely out of character for them. They protested voting fraud in sizable numbers on Moscow streets. These brave protesters were unhappy about voting corruption and manipulation by Putin’s political party. Yet, in spite of rising frustration, some months later, Putin was chosen to be president in what outside observers conceded was at least a mostly fair election. His strategy to get re-elected? Pretty similar to Romney’s actually: fear mongering.
I noticed something unexpected when I visited Moscow last year. I thought I was visiting a European nation, with European architecture, European food (more or less), and European clothes. Most western observers see Russia as more closely affiliated with the West than the East. Russia is different and it really is just as close to China as it is to Europe. Spanning ten time zones, you can see Russia from Alaskan islands. Kids in the 70s we’re dreaming about jeans and bubblegum, and not rice and karate. Even though big city Russians probably don’t see themselves as part of Asia, regardless of geography, they are told every day in their media that they are also not part of the West. Battles over natural gas pipelines, and supporting Syria or Iran are justified as standing up to Western encroachment. Putin was able to venture outside Moscow and easily rally support to make up for what may have been lost in the cities, and he did so with vigorous anti-western rhetoric. A short train-ride away and provincial Russians easily buy into the us vs. them mentality.
While the cosmopolitan Muscovites might have their doubts about the Western threat, inflammatory statements by potentially future American presidents, are just what Putin needed to remain firmly in power. Gingrich, Romney and other conservatives may be all over Obama’s apparent weakness, “this is no time to be pulling punches” Romney said, but diplomacy is a delicate thing. It’s very easy, as a mere candidate, to resort to bellicose claims without having to back them up. Romney and others are actually employing the same ploy as Putin, claiming they’ll protect us from a dangerous threat from the outside. The good news, I suppose, is that if Romney elected, he and Putin we’ll probably get along just fine. After all, conservative speeches in the United States, ended up helping Putin get the votes he needed to win overwhelmingly and avoid a “Russian Spring” uprising. I just hope, for Romney’s sake, that the microphone isn’t on when Putin thanks him.
Instead of bullying our potential partners, maybe today’s conservatives ought to consider who’s side they’re really on. Are they for peace and greater democracy around the world, or just getting into office anyway they can? Which of these two strategies will really leave us safer?