Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at the town of Krymsk in the Krasnodar region January 11, 2013. Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool
With the full support of a feckless policy elite and an uncritical media establishment, Washington is slipping, if not plunging, into a new cold war with Moscow. Relations, already deeply chilled by fundamental disputes over missile defense, the Middle East and Russia’s internal politics, have now been further poisoned by two conflicts reminiscent of tit-for-tat policy-making during the previous Cold War.
In December, Congress, in a fit of sanctimonious lawmaking and indifference to larger consequences, passed the Magnitsky Act. In effect a blacklist without due process, it will punish Russian officials (and perhaps their family members) alleged to be guilty of “gross violations of human rights” in their own country. However odious such individuals may be, Russia’s political class was bound to resent yet another haughty American intrusion into its political and legal affairs. A no less capricious Russian Parliament quickly responded by banning American adoption of Russian orphans, long a highly sensitive issue, which will go into full effect in 2014. Little opposition was voiced in either legislature.
There was, however, a significant difference. Under President Vladimir Putin’s “authoritarian regime,” the Russian media were filled with heated controversy over the adoption ban, including denunciations of Putin for signing it. In the “democratic” US mainstream media, on the other hand, there has been only applause for the Magnitsky Act and President Obama’s decision to sign it. Nor is this the first time leading American newspapers and television and radio outlets have been cheerleaders for a new cold war.
Although the US political-media establishment routinely blames Putin, the movement toward cold war, instead of partnership, with post-Soviet Russia began almost a decade before he came to the Kremlin—in the 1990s, in Washington, under the Clinton administration. Indeed, President Clinton initiated the three basic components of what has remained Washington’s Russia policy ever since, from George W. Bush to Obama: expanding NATO (now including missile defense installations) to Russia’s borders; “selective cooperation,” which has meant concessions by Moscow without meaningful US reciprocity; and interference, in the name of “democracy promotion,” in Russia’s domestic politics. For twenty years, this Cold War approach has had overwhelming bipartisan support among the US political elite and mainstream media.
Consider the most recent episode, Obama’s 2009 purported “reset” of relations with Moscow, or what was called “détente” in another Cold War era. Obama wanted three concessions from the Kremlin: assistance in supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan, harsher sanctions against Iran and Russia’s abstention on the UN Security Council vote for a no-fly zone over Libya. The White House got all three. In return, Moscow wanted a formal end of NATO’s expansion to the former Soviet republics, a compromise on European missile defense and a cessation of direct American involvement in Russian political life. Instead, it got an escalation of all three offending US policies, again with virtually unanimous bipartisan and media approval.
Things weren’t always like this. From the 1960s to the 1990s, fierce debates raged between Americans proposing colder war and those advocating détente. Both sides had substantial support in the administrations and Congresses of those years, and both appeared regularly on leading op-ed pages and on national television and radio. The democratic process was working, itself a rebuff to a Soviet system that prohibited such public debates.