By Ralph Benko
There is a lot of stray voltage pouring out of the mass media about alleged collusion between some members of the Trump campaign and Russians. And much harrumphing about how Presidents Trump and Putin had not one but two extended private conversations while at the G-20. Enter the United States Congress grandstanding on Russia and overwhelmingly passing, by veto-proof majorities, legislation to inhibit the president from lifting sanctions if he deems it appropriate. The Democrats, and some Washington Insiders, are using claims of collusion between Trump campaign operatives and Russian operatives to undermine Trump's legitimacy. Some Republicans are using Russia to demonstrate their toughness. Some say Russia is acting like a thug. I say it's acting like a cornered bear.
Memo to the Congress: To quote that great American social philosopher Oliver Hardy, "Well, here's another nice kettle of fish you've pickled me in!" Politics ain't beanbag and Trump is nobody's patsy. He is quick with a counter-punch, maybe even a little over-enthusiastically. Beyond the political brawl, though, America's real interests and real values have been taken hostage and Trump is in the right here. Congress has gone off half-cocked. As H.L. Mencken pointed out in 1918, "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary." Our practical politicians, intent on keeping the populace alarmed, are intent on making Russia the "imaginary hobgoblin" du jour. This is badly misplaced and prejudices American interests and values.
So. Russia. To which I have never traveled and with which, full disclosure, I have no ties beyond a casual social acquaintance or two. A few words for Russia. With Love. Trump wants to normalize relations with Russia. He campaigned on that and has a mandate for it. Trump is on the side of the angels on this one. Much better to have our old ally from what we call World War II and they call the Great Patriotic War as a friend than an enemy. Our old ally's infractions should not be tolerated. That said, they should be treated with proportionality. During the Cold War, I was a fervent anti-communist and stood, and worked, in solidarity with Reagan in his characterization of the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire. That said, my animus was entirely toward communism, not Russia. I have long been, and remain, an unrepentant Russophile. Yes, Russians can be mystifying. As Churchill said in his famous broadcast of October 1, 1939:
I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest. It cannot be in accordance with the interest of the safety of Russia that Germany should plant itself upon the shores of the Black Sea, or that it should overrun the Balkan States and subjugate the Slavonic peoples of south eastern Europe. That would be contrary to the historic life-interests of Russia.
Russians have some foibles. They can be overbearing, suspicious, and have a proclivity for the covert. These, currently, are modest enough. Trigger warning:
We Americans have a few foibles of our own. I find the Russians - from Moscow to the farthest reaches of Siberia - I encounter consistently charming, lugubriously sentimental, romantically heroic, and sublimely cultured. Russia is the Grand Opera of nations. Less poetically, Russia does not represent a clear and present danger to America. Yet total war can be blundered into, as evidenced by World War I, and so it behooves us to explore an opportunity for a friendship here. For profit and pleasure and, yes, all the better to occasionally whisper into Russian ears blandishments to help them modulate their excesses. Maybe these romantically heroic people can help us modulate our own excesses. Russia ardently wishes to be seated at the Cool Kids Lunch Table, where I have a place of honor reserved for them. I contend that it will, if not made to feel bullied, behave so as to be welcome. It is in our own self-interest to stop Hippie-Punching Russia.
Sixty percent of Republican primary voters voted for one of the three Reaganesque "tough dove" candidates - Trump, Cruz and Paul. Trump was the toughest-doviest of them all and got the nomination, based, in part, on that stance. As nominee, Tough Dove Trump went on to beat the tough talking Hillary Clinton, who, as Democratic nominee, showed a horrifying propensity to rekindle the Forever War in the Middle East and reinsert America back into that quagmire. Mrs. Clinton also took a rhetorically bellicose stance toward Russia, gratuitously antagonizing Putin by, while Secretary of State, comparing him to Hitler, the worst insult imaginable. Some diplomat! Clinton lost, lost on the demerits of her positions on peace, prosperity, and social policy. Not because of election tampering.
Trump was and is right that NATO's main mission is obsolete and that it deserves to be largely repurposed to fight against the revanchists - Daesh, a/k/a ISIS - who use terror in a tormented effort to restore the Caliphate. NATO originally was designed to contain the Soviet Union which, then with around 4 million formidably equipped troops, represented a clear and present danger to Europe, and, then with something like 40,000 live nuclear weapons, to America. Now Russia has an estimated fewer than 2,000 deployed nuclear warheads, about the same as us. Still a concern. Yet we're no longer at DEFCON 1 and, really, I don't want to go back to that. Do you? Yes, we need to maintain a meaningful, entirely defensive, European-American alliance so our friends in Poland and the Baltics, for example, are not, and do not feel, abandoned ... without making Russia feel threatened with possible aggression. That's a comparative grace note for the Cold War artifact that is NATO.
The West won the Cold War. The hideous Berlin Wall fell. Germany reunified. This is the most powerful symbol of the liberation of captive nations of Eastern Europe, once called Soviet satellites. Then, 25 years ago last Christmas, the USSR peacefully dissolved itself into
fifteen independent nations. It was as if the United States had split itself into 50 independent states, each far less formidable than the United States. Times change. The USSR is long gone. Let's get with it. The Russian Federation is the geographically largest of those constituent republics. It, the geographically largest country in the world, is almost twice the physical size of the USA with a population of less than half that of ours. This provides far more territory to defend with only half of the population to defend it. The Russian Federation now has around 1M active duty troops, costing it about $70B a year. Those armed forces are stretched terribly thin protecting the homeland. America has about 1.3M in active military service, without having to protect its homeland due to oceans and docile neighbors, costing about $600B year. NATO members, including the US, have around 3.5 million military personnel (at a cost of $900B). Encircled, outnumbered, vastly outspent and sanctioned the Russians feel vulnerable and defensive.
The Russians have other reasons for feeling vulnerable. This is not just a mathematical exercise in correlation of forces. The Russian "suspicion foible" is well grounded in history. It's not just that the Russian Federation is vastly outnumbered and outspent. Russia has been invaded by Western European powers three times in contemporary history: once by Sweden, in 1707, once by France, in 1812, and once by Germany, in 1941. That is on top of the invasion of the Rus by the Mongols, in the 13th century, leading to a brutal exploitation that lasted nearly three centuries. That's longer than the United States has been a nation. That's a long time. All that may seem like ancient history to the evanescent American mind. Memories are longer in the Old World. Understandably so. Imagine how we might feel if America had been invaded four times in 800 years and dominated by a foreign conqueror for a more than quarter of that.
This history, of which too few Americans are aware, might help grasp the Russian perspective... without exonerating their overreactions. So, at least for our own sake, let's grasp the shrewd Churchill's key: "Russian national interest." This is not a counsel of connivance at authoritarianism. Rather the opposite. When a nation feels threatened it has a propensity to turn to the Strong Man and to cede him latitude. Consider America turning to George W. Bush in the wake of 9/11 and the latitude we gave him, based on false pretenses or flimsy misinformation, to wage a war that had catastrophic humanitarian consequences and squandered trillions of dollars that would have been better spent on rebuilding our roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, aqueducts and pipelines and supporting our own economy. Trump, love him or hate him, has been outspoken on this, clearly and unflinchingly. As reported by The American Conservative opining on Trump's speech before a Joint Session of Congress:
"America has spent approximately six trillion dollars in the Middle East," Trump observed. As media personalities like to say, that's trillion with a T. The sums expended pursuant to U.S. military misadventures in that part of the world are so gargantuan, Trump continued, that "we could have rebuilt our country-twice. And maybe even three times...." A tad hyperbolic? Perhaps, but given that the words were spoken in a building that rings with mind-boggling hyperbole on a daily basis, the judgment comes close enough to the facts to pass muster as essentially accurate.
The more America makes foreign nations feel squeezed, insecure, belittled and even bullied the more they are likely to turn to a "strong man," authoritarian, figure. The more latitude the people will give him to get tough both at home and abroad. This principle applies, if less strongly, even to authoritarian governments. People are similar the world around. By-and-large we prefer butter to guns. That said, we will choose guns if we feel threatened. All things being equal, national leaders prefer to keep their people happy or at least mollified. Let's, Trump seems to say and I believe, tip Russia toward butter.
The forward path to spreading classical liberalism - Jefferson's "empire of Liberty" - is through soft power: ideas, culture, and the example of free-market-based prosperity. America has something like 800 military bases in 70 countries. The Russian Federation: ten, mostly small and mostly in former USSR constituent republics. America has 11 aircraft carrier groups. Russia has one old, Soviet era craft. As President Obama, love him or hate him, mostly correctly observed, America spends as much on its military as the next eight countries combined. Six of them our allies. That's a lot of military for an era with a long time since the last war between industrialized nations. Some folks might find us ... intimidating. Is intimidation really that which America wishes to project? An expensive hobby.
Enter Trump, who said: No! Special note to my incredulous libertarian friends, to whom I made some comments along these lines on a panel moderated by the wonderful Jon Basil Utley at the most recent FreedomFest. America is the Good Guys. (Which does not make Russia the Bad Guys.) America never sought world domination and has not demonstrated imperialistic ambitions, not for over a century. We reluctantly engaged in the "Great War," World War I, in the context of the fall of the five Empires that then governed most of the world's population: Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Chinese, Russian, and British. We won. Instead of "making the world safe for (representative) democracy" we then encountered tyrants breeding in the ruins of Empire. So, we reluctantly entered WWII - "the Great Patriotic War" - to defeat the tyrants of the West and of imperial Japan: Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo. We won and implanted classical liberal republicanism in Western Europe and Japan.
And dismantled the British empire. We diffidently fought the tyrants of the East in WWIII, the "Cold War," breaking heroically hot in Korea, Vietnam, and with American support, but not troops, at last fatally to the USSR: Afghanistan. We won, then mostly implanted classical liberal republicanism in the former satellites and constituent republics. In victory we moved the metropoles, Moscow and Beijing, from totalitarian to authoritarian.
That's a very big deal indeed. Hooray, us! But when the USSR dissolved itself we kind of got left holding the bag of world hegemony, a bag we never sought (and very expensive to own). Trump gets that America does not desire World Domination. Americans just want to make money. World Domination, Brain, is a really expensive hobby. We liberty-minded Americans built up our own Big Government to take down even bigger, sometimes monstrous, governments. It was a heroic epoch and we should respect ourselves, and the leaders we anointed, for undertaking a heroic fight against tyranny.
Game over! Now we can build down the government to the just right size for peace. Big Government served its purpose of taking down Bigger Government. It did so, heroically. Now that we've won, thank you very much, we-the-people will take our power and money back. That epoch is over and the election of Trump is one of the markers of that. Yes, let's take a small fraction of the overdue peace dividend and build monumental statues to the epic heroes of the 100-year War in which we heroically stood against imperialism and tyranny to spread the empire of Liberty around the world. Then let's spend most of that dividend on butter: marginal tax rate cuts, infrastructure, health care, whatnot.
Except... our current politicos are propagating the imaginary hobgoblin of a long-gone adversary. Pshaw. Trump hasn't fallen for the vilification of Russia. Neither should we. The imaginary hobgoblin of Russia is the subtext behind the Congress's effort to handcuff Trump on the matter of lifting sanctions. Trump, who does not present as particularly mellow and is vividly intolerant of being played for a chump, is unlikely to be tolerant of Russian shenanigans. In this matter, at least, we are in good hands. Trump has shown himself something of a political Houdini. Still, Congress attempting to shackle him on sanctions is just wrong. It's against American interests - making money - and values - peace. One treats the sins of a friend differently than those of a foe. Russia is a great candidate for friend and its infractions should be treated with due proportionality. Also, let's not imagine sins not in evidence. "Imaginary hobgoblins" and all that. In fact, let's get on - as this last election showed America yearns to do - with the political consequences of the peace. Where to begin? How about Russia? With love.
The article originally appears on Forbes.com and has been reprinted with author's permission