Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario in which an imaginary country—we’ll call it Country X—that the United States is ostensibly at peace with after decades of tension also happens to have the nuclear capability to destroy the world as we know it. Engaging in respectful dialogue and making compromises on both sides could result in a global coalition with the power to defeat ISIS. Yet rather than choosing this option, the United States considers imposing harsh sanctions on Country X to weaken its already struggling economy, and then proposes stationing troops on Country X’s borders. All this despite the fact that if Country X’s economy or government collapses, the world security order would be thrown into even greater chaos. Now substitute “Russia” for “Country X.”
“In the US, there is almost no real, serious public debate about this gravest of international crises,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, in a video conversation hosted by Reinvent. “The mainstream media inside the Beltway, those publications which have some authority with the political elite, has essentially engaged in group think: a kind of religious adherence to the narrative that Russia, that Putin, is solely to blame. Our think tanks, with few exceptions, are not doing a lot of thinking, and certainly not rethinking…and our political class has failed to offer even a debate, one worthy of a democracy.”
Clinging so tightly to a narrative that characterizes the other country as perpetually unreasonable makes it difficult for Russia and the United States to engage one another in productive, meaningful ways. According to Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies, history and politics at NYU and Princeton University, “A new narrative would be: No, Russia and Putin are not solely—and arguably not mainly—responsible for where we find ourselves today. Even if we agree, which Washington and its media do not, that the United States and Russia are each 50 percent responsible, that’s the beginning of a dialogue. That’s the beginning of negotiations. So long as Russia is blamed for everything—from Ukraine, to the refugees in Europe, to Syria—there’s nothing to discuss.”
While there are certainly valid reasons to object to particular actions taken by Putin, one of the many potential dangers of letting this dominant narrative go unchallenged is that we could end up right where we started: in a Cold War. Here are six new ways to think about this largely unchallenged narrative.
Many Russians see the United States and NATO as the aggressor, rather than the other way around.
The Pentagon recently proposed quadrupling military spending in Europe and stationing US-NATO troops on Russia’s eastern border. Imagine the political and public outcry that would ensue in the United States if the situation was reversed: It’s difficult to imagine the United States tolerating Russia’s stationing troops on our northern or southern borders. And the post–Cold War expansion of NATO, in which 12 new members were added, doesn’t help appease Russian concerns about encroachment.