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Why Do Hawks Want to Antagonize Russia?

Paul Saunders makes a very sensible case for not antagonizing Russia:

Russia probably deserves much of the criticism from activists and others who don’t like its domestic practices or foreign policy. Activists can get away with ignoring the consequences of what they propose; thinking about overall U.S. national interests isn’t their job. But the purpose of U.S. foreign policy isn’t to give others what we think they deserve [bold mine-DL] — it is to “provide for the common defense,” as stated in the Constitution, something U.S. officials should keep foremost while crafting policy. Making a real enemy of Russia won’t help the United States.

The U.S. is fortunate that Russia is not intent on undermining our interests, which makes it a little odd that so many American hawks insist that this is so and sometimes seem eager to make it so. Consider Syria. Syria hawks see Russian opposition to Western and Arab intervention in the country as proof of Russian antagonism to America, but Russia is at most half-heartedly defending the status quo and continuing its formal policy of objecting to outside interference in other states’ internal affairs. It has committed itself to nothing except occasionally vetoing a resolution at the U.N., and if the U.S. were foolish enough to start bombing Syria it would loudly protest and almost certainly do nothing directly to interfere. Syria hawks pretend to see a determined adversary in Russia, but the reality is that Moscow doesn’t want to do very much for Assad for fear that it might rupture its relationships with Europe and the U.S. The question to ask is: why is there such a desire or need for Russia to be presented as our constant foe? Since it would be harmful to our national interest if Russia were actively hostile, why do so many hawks want to encourage and provoke that hostility?

One reason that hawks tend to encourage and provoke Russian hostility is that they have an overly broad definition of U.S. interests. If one believes, as McCain does, that “our values are our interests and our interests are our values,” there is virtually no limit to what “our interests” can include, and these will extend to the internal politics of Russia and most other states. Most hawks assume that the U.S. has vital interests at stake in virtually every part of the world, so no other major power can exercise influence in its own neighborhood without triggering some alarm. Once hawks have convinced themselves that it is extremely important to the U.S. who is in power in various ex-Soviet republics, for example, any political change that removes their preferred leaders from power will be treated as a Russian “victory” over us. Because many hawks wrongly define U.S. interests in the former Soviet Union in terms of the negation or reduction of Russian influence in the region, improved relations between Moscow and its neighbors are viewed as a threat. The truth is that this properly has little or nothing to do with us.

Hawks also usually exaggerate both foreign threats and the extent to which foreign governments are hostile to us. All of this a recipe for seeing slights, insults, and menaces in other states’ normal pursuit of their own national interests, and it also means that a government’s conduct inside its borders becomes a challenge that the U.S. is supposed to take up and win. Of course, this is not unique to debates over Russia policy, but has repeated itself again and again in debates on Iran, China, or whatever third-rate authoritarian regime that happens to catch our attention this week. The desire to believe the illusion of American omnipotence certainly plays a role as well, since it flatters hawks’ image of America to believe that there is always something that the U.S. can do to compel other governments to do what we want.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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