Is The US Hypocritical To Criticize Russian Election Meddling?

Cross-posted at Social Europe.

Thomas Carothers has recently written an article in Foreign Affairs, the prestigious elite journal published by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations. The article asks: is the US hypocritical for criticizing Russian election meddling?

Given the place of publication, the unsurprising conclusion is that it is not. The problem is the US is a champion meddler. Consequently, the argument crumbles every time Carothers reaches for substance.

At the end of the day, the defense reduces to the claim that we (the US) are good and they are evil, so that our meddling is a net good and theirs bad: “the trends of US and Russian behavior are divergent, not convergent – with Russia on the negative side of the divide.”

That is a moral superiority defense which is doubly flawed. First, the US can still be a hypocrite. Second, framing great power international relations in terms of moral superiority quickly promotes crusader thinking, which is a grave menace to all.

Meddling Since The Cold War

The first line of defense is that the US meddles less now than in the Cold war. But exactly the same can be said of the Russians. Moreover, since the US is far wealthier than Russia, its democracy manipulations now dwarf those of Russia measured in financial terms.

On top of that, the recent history of US meddling is of an order of magnitude worse than that of Russia. In the Ukraine, which is a highly sensitive space on Russia’s border and historically part of the Motherland, the US helped promote a coup in 2014 three months before scheduled elections.

Moreover, this intervention in the Ukraine came on top of 20 years of the US pushing NATO into former Soviet bloc countries. That has put US forces closer and closer to Russia’s borders, and violated the end of Cold War understanding that former Soviet bloc countries would remain outside NATO.

Elsewhere, in 2016, following an illegal and unconstitutional coup in Honduras, the US supported the junta’s consolidation of power.

Going back to the previous decade, there was the internationally illegal invasion of Iraq and the promotion of a coup in Venezuela. And before that, in 1996 there was the mother of all interventions when the US intervened to influence Russia’s election in favor its preferred candidate, Boris Yeltsin. Carothers fesses up to that, but fessing up does not mean acquittal.

In short, not only has there been a lot of US meddling since the end of the Cold War, it exceeds Russian meddling.

The Democracy Promotion Charade

The second line of defense is that the US is different because of its democracy promotion efforts, which are not matched by Russia.

It is absolutely true Russia does not have such programs. But we must be careful to distinguish between rhetoric and reality. Forty years ago, the Soviet Union was dedicated to liberating the workers of the world, but no one except a Soviet apparatchik would have counseled taking this at face value. Similar skepticism is warranted regarding US democracy promotion.

The US is for democracy promotion when it suits its interests, and against it when it does not. Strategically important undemocratic allies are given a free ride, while unfriendly undemocratic countries are subjected to subversive meddling in the name of democracy. Seen in that light, US democracy promotion is the twin of democracy meddling. Both are tactics serving US interests.

The hollowness of the US commitment to democracy promotion is evidenced by how quickly it is dropped when real interests come in to play. That is forever etched in the record by the way the Tiananmen Square protests were conveniently forgotten when trade with China was at stake. Similarly, democracy concerns are always excluded from the room in dealings with Saudi Arabia.

That is exactly how a great power with important interests is expected to behave. But it speaks to being done with the democracy promotion charade, which the US elite pumps up to gain rhetorical advantage in international relations and disingenuously enlist the support of common citizens.

The US Is A Double Hypocrite

Any honest assessment of US democracy would compel the admission that the real threats to it lie within the US. These threats include fake corporate-produced news, the political power of money and corporations, gerrymandering of congressional districts, voter suppression, built-in representational biases from the electoral college and Senate, and obstruction of change from the first-past-the post electoral system which blocks emergence of new political parties.

Compared to those problems, Russia’s Facebook interventions are a small time side-show. Moreover, Russia’s actions are par for the course of international relations, as long practiced by both the US and itself.

It is relatively easy to further secure the US voting system, and there is much that can readily be done to make US democracy more competitive and informed. But a high quality democracy is not the real goal. Instead, the US elite’s obsession with Russia’s election meddling is a circus aimed at distracting the public from domestic problems, and at increasing national security paranoia to justify more military spending and more domestic surveillance.

Warning: Don’t Be Conned By The Democracy Meddling Narrative

How we got here, how to address authoritarian Russia’s encirclement fears, and how to restrain the US imperial impulse are huge questions. A good starting place is to strip away US hypocrisy regarding democracy meddling and democracy promotion.

Doing so does not imply moral equivalence, but it has two huge benefits. First, it can help avoid getting locked into conflict on grounds of false principle. Second, it can help surface the real concerns and conflicts of interest that must be managed.

All of this is especially important for Europe, where the damaging backwash of US actions are now so often felt.

New Issue! Plus: Regional economic disparities and Hillary Clinton’s Unfortunate Remarks

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Our March/April issue is at the printers (and in e-subscribers’ inboxes). (Not a subscriber yet? You can subscribe now here!)

We just posted an article from the new issue–Jerry Friedman’s “Economy in Numbers” column, Growing Together, Flying Apart: Regional Disparities in American Politics and Economics.  Coincidentally, it provides excellent commentary on the remarks Hillary Clinton made recently, to great controversy, characterizing the parts of the country she won in the 2016 presidential election compared to those won by Trump:

“If you look at the map of the United States, there’s all that red in the middle where Trump won,” Clinton said. “I win the coast, I win, you know, Illinois and Minnesota, places like that.”

“I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product,” she continued. “So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, ‘Make America Great Again,’ was looking backwards.”

Jerry’s article talks about the regional economic disparities that have left Trump-voting regions (and rural parts of Clinton-voting regions) behind, and the political consequences of those disparities.

Here is the editorial note for the issue:

This Is Your Economy on Finance

The Dow Jones Industrial Average reached an all-time high of 26,616 points on January 26 of this year. That was after rising almost 8,000 points since Donald Trump’s inauguration. The Dow then fell over 2,700 points in early February, which met the technical definition of a market correction—a drop of at least 10% from a recent high. Since then, the Dow and other indices have gone up and down, but mostly up, since the correction.

What does this mean for the rest of us, and what does it tell us about the economy? Much of the business press would like us to think the rising stock market is good news for the economy; that was President Trump’s message in his first State of the Union a couple of weeks before the correction. But the business press tipped its hand when it explained the correction as markets’ reaction to lower unemployment and a minor uptick in wages. Why would investors consider wage increases bad news? According to John Miller, it’s all about class conflict—and about the disconnect between stock market investors (and stock values) and workers on “Main Street.” Even slightly higher wages lead investors to fear higher labor costs and inflation. But workers’ share of output remains low, and corporate profits continue to be at record highs—numbers which “reveal the unwillingness of the financial powers to share with workers the gains of economic growth.”

In the second part of her three-part series on deindustrialization in Keene, N.H., Marie Duggan gets into more detail about the adverse effects of a financialized economy, and its tendency toward financial bubbles, on workers. The story of how a local company, Miniature Precision Bearings, was acquired by a much larger company, Timken, shows how asset bubbles and financialization have contributed to deindustrialization and job loss. When management spends its accumuated capital manipuating stock price, the math means there will be less capital available for investment in the equipmient and people to produce quality product. The financial bubble of the 1990s seemed so great at the time with the rising value of pensions, but it turns out that the market wasn’t raising funds for industry, but rather was persuading industry to abandon product quality and investment in the company, workers, and community. The backstory of the decline of rural America may be the giant sucking sound of the stock market removing funds from the industrial base into stock price manipulation, given the 1990s bubble. This is all the more ominious, given that the rise of the stock market under Trump gives every appearance of being a bubble itself.

Gerald Friedman’s Economy in Numbers column in this issue tells a related story of regional economic disparities and their political consequences. As Friedman points out, federal policies favoring Wall Street have been better for urban areas on the coasts, but have contributed to deindustrialization and lagging income growth in other regions (and, as we see from Duggan’s article, non-urban parts of coastal regions are also falling behind). Both political parties’ embrace of neoliberalism has eroded the safety net and has neglected industrial policy.

This issue’s cover story suggests an alternative understanding of finance and monetary policy that could point to a way out of neoliberal economic policies that have led to these regional disparities and to widening inequality. Modern monetary theory (MMT) addresses the connection between lending (and debt) and money, and undermines the standard views of taxes and deficits that justify austerity policies. MMT points to a way to stimulate the economy by providing the finance and credit people need to buy products, and that businesses need to be able to sell their products, and in that way moving economic policies beyond austerity and deficit fear-mongering. The MMT approach could finance government policies—including infrastructure spending, direct job-creation, national health care, and industrial policy—that would lead to full employment and greater equality.

Also in this issue: Arthur McEwan tallies up the economic costs of Puerto Rico’s ongoing crisis, Noah Berlasky lays bare the neoliberal foundations of the self-help literature, and more!