Democrats Will Regret Becoming the Anti-Russia Party

Riling up the public against Moscow is good for Democrats in the short term—and bad for America.

Buttons of possible 2020 presidential contenders, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), New York State Gov. Chris Cuomo and former Vice President Joseph Biden, are seen during CPAC 2018 February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Buttons of possible 2020 presidential contenders, including U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), New York State Gov. Chris Cuomo and former Vice President Joseph Biden, are seen during CPAC 2018 February 22, 2018 in National Harbor, Maryland. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Perceptions of foreign threats are socially constructed. Within American domestic politics, that means threats are largely constructed by the two major political parties. At any given time, one party holds the executive branch’s vast national security powers and drives conversations around how foreign threats are framed. Meanwhile, the other party is incentivized to contest how the ruling administration depicts—and responds to—foreign threats, thus raising questions about the executive branch’s overall judgment and competency in keeping the United States safe.

These traditional roles have been heightened because of U.S. President Donald Trump’s posture toward Russia. His policies are inexplicable when compared to recent American history, his own government’s explicit strategy, or any objective assessment of current U.S.-Russian relations. Trump downplays allegations of Russian-sponsored interference in the 2016 election cycle, dismisses the U.S. intelligence community’s consensus judgment that Russia was involved, remains uninterested in Russia’s multiyear indiscriminate bombing in Syria and intervention in Ukraine, and seems unwilling to critique President Vladimir Putin—a great power competitor according to most other U.S. government employees.

This unusual behavior has created an opening for the Democratic Party to raise Americans’ threat perceptions of Russia. It’s an opening that many Democratic officeholders have been happy to take. The impulse is understandable given that recent polling shows that 47 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning Americans believe Russia poses the “greatest immediate threat” to the United States, versus just 10 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican. Democrats may come to regret, however, their increasingly vehement focus on Russia.

When a political party increases its animus toward a foreign country—believing that this will enhance its own popularity—it introduces second-order effects that can manifest themselves years later. It creates a voting bloc of Americans who become socialized to hate a foreign government and, by extension, its citizens. It reduces the motivations and complexities of that government to a simplified caricature of anti-Americanism or just plain evil. More broadly, it engenders hostility between the United States and foreign countries, which makes cooperation over shared problems more difficult and rapprochement unimaginable.

Moreover, political parties attempting to out-tough each other has enabled some abysmal recent foreign-policy outcomes. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which declared it “the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq,” was passed overwhelmingly in the House, passed by unanimous consent in the Senate, and signed by President Bill Clinton in just 32 days. That legislation was preceded, and followed, by both parties wildly exaggerating the threat that Saddam posed to the United States and its regional interests. Likewise, Trump’s confounding withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—which Iran was adhering to—was politically cost-free to the president because Democrats and Republicans had demonized Iran to the point of simplistic malevolence for decades.

The singular foreign-policy focus on Russia also comes with opportunity costs, most notably with regards to China. On my own back-of-the-envelope state competitor scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most potentially threatening and consequential, Russia is a 3, China a 9. In conversations I’ve had with foreign government officials and diplomats since Trump won the election, the most commonly expressed concern has been about the lack of coordinated or sustained response to China’s accelerating efforts to shape and influence outcomes in regions where the United States claims to have vital national interests.

America’s bitter domestic partisanship and dysfunction aids Beijing. Last month, a former Chinese official and diplomat told me, “Every country thinks America has gone crazy. We benefit by doing nothing, other than appearing sane.” Democrats endorse an engaged foreign policy that secures America’s interests and upholds universalist values, such as free markets, democracy, and human rights. If the Democratic Party still believes in this global vision, it should seriously grasp how China could upend it and introduce its own contrasting vision.

There is also a delicate domestic matter that comes with discussions of Russia’s alleged electoral interference. Democrats correctly focus the blame on Moscow but refrain from examining why U.S. society so prone and open to such foreign-directed interference. Reviewing media reporting and U.S. government claims about what happened in 2015 and 2016, what Russia achieved was less devious and stealthy than obvious and sloppy. Tens of millions of Americans of varying ideological leanings were wholly receptive to the information operations campaign perpetrated by Russian-connected agents. No politician will say that what Russia accomplished was relatively easy. It is as if the Germans had cleared the beaches of Normandy of any barbed wire, tank traps, and machine gun pillboxes before D-Day. But Democrats (and Republicans) would rather point the finger at Russian actions than Americans’ embrace of those actions.

Finally, to repeat, Trump’s depiction of Russia is singularly his own and does not represent current U.S. policy. If intelligence officials suddenly begin to describe Russian foreign policy in benign terms or defame allies in Western and Central Europe, worry. If the harsh Russia portions of the National Security Strategy or National Defense Strategy vanish from the White House or Pentagon websites, worry. Or, if U.S. foreign policy and defense priorities as they relate to Russia or regions where the United States and Russia compete suddenly and inexplicably change, worry. Until then, Democrats should appreciate how one individual’s foreign-policy instincts—albeit the most powerful individual on earth—have been largely ignored by those who actually develop and implement U.S. foreign policy.

Foreign threat inflation emerges from many motivations—financial, professional, reputational, patriotic, and certainly political. The Democratic Party may inflate the threat posed by Russia and Vladimir Putin for short-term political gain, but it does so at the longer-term peril of the United States. At a moment when “placing party over country” is a common slur in Washington, Democrats should refrain from doing just that as it relates to Russia.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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