In this essay we consider why Foreign Affairs has just published an article on U.S. policy towards Russia that trashes the positions of all their featured contributors these past several years
Clearing space for a new foreign policy: the Establishment begins to stir
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
On March 10, the online edition of Foreign Affairs magazine published an article by Robert English, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California, that all readers should look up to stay abreast of the fast evolving realignments within the U.S. foreign policy establishment and to see better where we may be headed, even as many of his supporters are giving up too early on Donald Trump’s commitment and ability to change direction away from promotion of regime change and permanent warfare as the world’s sole policeman to a policy of détente and years of peace ahead.
The fact is that no about-face on US foreign and defense policy is possible without substantial support from the US political class. We are not a dictatorship; we do not have an authoritarian system where the boss in the White House calls all the shots. The fight over foreign policy direction goes on in the public arena, and there have to be two sides in the ring with their dukes up. If Trump were to impose a new, radically different position without the ground being prepared in Congress, in the foreign policy community and through them in the broad public, he would be instantly thwarted and well on his way to impeachment.
For much of the past 17 years there has been only one side in the ring. The monolithic control of information to the public that shapes foreign policy has been in the hands of the Neocons and Liberal Interventionist bipartisan coalition. This has been all the more true ever since the slide into open confrontation with Russia over Crimea and the Donbass in the spring and summer of 2014. The rage of “Russians did it” hysteria grew from that moment, and those who would express dissenting opinions have been banned not only from the mass media but from the professional journals as well.
The article entitled “Russia, Trump, and a new Détente” in Foreign Affairs is dynamite. It demolishes the entire façade of memory loss, tendentiousness and outright lies that have constituted the Washington Narrative on Russia as promoted by the bipartisan center. It is published in this country’s most prestigious journal on international relations. And the article was rushed into the online edition ahead of eventual placement in the print edition precisely at a time when the “Russians Did It” hysteria has reached its peak, with cheerleading by Progressives and Clinton supporters intent on bringing down Trump.
In what follows, I will briefly summarize the main theses of the article by Robert English, examine the author’s political baggage and likely intentions, consider why Foreign Affairs chose to publish an article that trashes the positions of all their featured contributors these last several years, and consider the timing of publication when the article’s appearance will likely bring down on the editors’ heads charges of being ‘stooges of Putin.’
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What are the main points in “Russia, Trump, and a New Détente”?
It must be stressed that there are absolutely no new discoveries of fact or new insights that make Robert English’s essay so valuable. What he has done is to bring together the main points of the counter-current and set them out with extraordinary writing skills, efficiency and persuasiveness of argumentation. But still more important, he has been uncompromising.
The facts laid out by English could just as easily have been set out by one of several experienced and informed professors or practitioners of international relations. Tom Graham, president of Kissinger Associates, who was recently tipped to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, could have been one such theoretical candidate as author.
However, no one till now has had the courage to follow the facts where they lead, to put aside any attempt at finding a ‘golden mean’ whereby blame for the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations is said to be shared by both sides. Robert English is the man who has been perfectly honest about what he sees.
The overriding thesis is summed up at the very start of his essay:
“For 25 years, Republicans and Democrats have acted in ways that look much the same to Moscow. Washington has pursued policies that have ignored Russian interests (and sometimes international law as well) in order to encircle Moscow with military alliances and trade blocs conducive to U.S. interests. It is no wonder that Russia pushes back. The wonder is that the U.S. policy elite doesn’t get this, even as foreign-affairs neophyte Trump apparently does.”
English goes back to the very beginning of relations after the fall of the Soviet Union and explains why and how U.S. policy towards Russia was wrong and wrong again. He debunks the notion that Yeltsin brought in the democratic age which Vladimir Putin has undone since he came to power. He tells us how the U.S. meddled in Russian domestic politics in the 1990s to falsify election results and ensure Yeltsin’s continuation in office despite his unpopularity for bringing on an economic Depression that average Russians remember bitterly to this day. That was the time when democracy was equated with “shitocracy” by the vast majority of the population.
English explains how the period of Russian economic and political collapse in the 1990s was exploited by the Clinton administration. He also tells us how and why currently fashionable U.S. critics of Putin are dead wrong in their assessments and fail to see his achievements in restructuring the economy, tax collection, governance, improvements in public health and more which account for his spectacular popularity ratings today.
English details all the errors and stupidities of the Obama administration in its handling of Russia and its President. He faults Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for all of their provocative and insensitive words and deeds.
What we see in U.S. policy as described by English is the application of double standards, a prosecutorial stance towards Russia and outrageous lies about the country and its leadership foisted on the American public.
Then English takes on directly all of the paranoia over Russia’s alleged subversion, its challenge to Western democratic processes. He calls attention instead to how U.S. foreign policy and the EU’s own policies in the new Member States and candidate Member States have created all the conditions for a populist revolt by buying off local elites and subjecting the broad populace in these countries to pauperization.
English concludes his essay with a call to give détente with Putin and Russia a chance.
Who is Robert English?
His Wikipedia entry and biographical data provided on his University of Southern California web pages make it clear that he has first quality academic credentials: Master of Public Administration and PhD. in politics from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He also has a solid collection of scholarly publications to his credit as author or co-editor with major names in the field of Russian-Soviet intellectual history. It is possibly relevant to the present moment that he spent six years doing studies for U.S. intelligence and defense: 1982 – 1986 at the Department of Defense and 1986-88 at the U.S. Committee for National Security. And he has administrative experience as the Director of the USC School of International Relations.
Professor English is not without his political ambitions. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, he tried to position himself as foreign policy advisor to Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders. In pursuit of this effort he had the backing of Progressives at The Nation which in February 2016 published an article of his entitled "Bernie Sanders, the Foreign Policy Realist of 2016." His objective was to demonstrate how wrong the general public was to see in Sanders a visionary utopian incapable of defending America’s strategic interests. Amidst the broad accolades to Bernie in this article, we find that he is praised for being as firm on Russia as Hillary! In the end, several tenacious Neocons attached themselves to the inner circle of Sanders’ advisors and Robert English left the campaign.
One might conclude that Robert English is just one more opportunistic academic who will do whatever it takes to land a top job in Washington. Yesterday it was with Sanders. Today it is with Donald Trump.
Maybe there is nothing new in such “flexibility” but there is also nothing necessarily offensive in it. From the times of Machiavelli if not earlier, intellectuals have tended to be guns for hire. The first open question is how skilled they are in managing their sponsors as well as in managing their readers in the public. The second open question is do they seek power to serve a higher principle or is it all purely self-serving careerism.
On the first question, we will know only if he makes it aboard the Trump bandwagon. For the second question, sources who have long been close to English assure me that the points in the latest FA article match his true personality and beliefs.
In Robert English we have someone with not only great scholarly depth but also very considerable writing talent and powers of argumentation. If working for the right people in power, he has great potential to do good.
Why Foreign Affairs? Why now?
It is one thing to have a courageous author. It is quite another to find a courageous publisher, and all the more relevant when that publisher is not an alternative news outlet but the quintessence of the mainstream Establishment.
Let us not mince words. It is absolutely stunning that Foreign Affairs chose to publish English even though it utterly destroys everything their featured authors have been saying without interruption or challenge over many years, with one notable exception.
The exception was an article by University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer entitled “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault” published by FA in September 2014. That essay shot holes in official Washington’s recounting of the events leading up to the Russian annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbass. It was a shock to many of the leading thinkers in the FA pool, who issued a rebuttal in the next issue. The episode was remarkable because a poll of FA’s ‘brain trust’ on Russia, which in general was at the time quite skewed towards Putin-bashers, turned up the unexpected result that about a third agreed or agreed strongly with Mearsheimer’s arguments. However, the tempest in a teapot was over one event in U.S. Russian relations. There were no broad conclusions to be drawn about U.S. foreign policy. And, in any case, Mearsheimer was invited to publish his essay as a leading exponent of the Realist School in the United States, not as a Russia specialist, which he is not.
I believe that Foreign Affairs turned to Robert English because their situation as enemies of Trump had become untenable.
Foreign Affairs is the insiders' insider. Their 250,000 subscriber base, which includes readers from across the globe, is theirs only because they are perceived as having lines to power. They have been doing dirty work for the State Department since the times of the Cold War. I came across these traces in the spring issue of 2007 when they did heavy lifting for State by publishing the cooked up article signed Tymoshenko on why we must contain Russia. That was a direct response to Putin's Munich speech and set us on the path to the Cold War II we know today. See http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2009/11/09/the-strange-case-of-yulia-tymoshenko-s-2007-article-in-forei.html
But Foreign Affairs did not hedge their bets on the 2016 US elections. They threw their last bricks directly at Trump in their September issue, comparing him to a tin pot populist dictator in South America. It should come as no surprise that they now find themselves cut off. For the first time in many years the opening issue of the new year following US presidential elections does not feature an interview with the Secretary of State or other cabinet members. This is untenable for a publication of their stature.
Who in the editorial board could have sponsored this essay? One has to look past the openly superficial editor-in-chief of Foreign Affairs Gideon Rose, who has gone with the flow since he took over this position in 2010. In fact, there are no apparent champions of free thinking on the board. Nor is it clear that the Council on Foreign Relations, the parent organization of the journal, under the leadership of Richard Haass, has the strength of will to do so. Recent round tables in the New Year devoted to Russian relations under the umbrella of the CFR have been as monolithic in their anti-Russian bias by choice of speakers as in the past.
The interpretation I propose is that Foreign Affairs has gotten a helping hand in an effort to transform itself from part of the problem to possibly part of the solution by realigning our defense and foreign policy with the objectives set out by Donald Trump. Given the history of the publication as a handmaiden of the State Department, the push to publish English and to publish him now may well have come from outside FA, from outside the Council of Foreign Relations, namely from among the “power ministries” of Defense, State and the intelligence services.
Unlike the print edition, the online edition of Foreign Affairs has no technical constraints and the editors have chosen to publish at the very time when the anti-Russian hysteria seems to be peaking. On the one hand, the radical Neocons have lost all self-control and the system is devouring its own, as we saw a couple of days ago in Senator McCain’s attack on fellow Senator, fellow Republican Rand Paul for doing Putin’s work when he refused to toe the line on Montenegro entering NATO. On the other hand, some anti-Putin, anti-Trump cheerleaders in Progressive circles and among Hillary sympathizers have already begun to urge the base of the movement to cool down the rhetoric in the realization that Congressional investigations into collusion between the Trump camp and the Kremlin are likely to turn up nothing at all. This has been described in detail by the latest article of Glenn Greenwald in The Intercept.
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The truth prevails
In this essay we have looked into the possible motivations of all the actors in the dramatic publication a week ago in our most prestigious and widely read professional journal on international relations of an essay that overturns the whole argument underpinning our confrontation with Russia and the New Cold War. These motivations and calculations, real or imagined via cui bono reasoning, must be considered if we are to have our feet planted firmly on the ground. But the net result is the optimistic thought that Jan Hus first shared with us: truth prevails. May this truth now in the public domain guide the deliberations of our policy makers on a course of détente.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
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Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015.