My latest for Race42016.com…
Writing at the National Interest, Robert O’Brien joins a chorus of conservative commentators happily reminding the world that Mitt Romney was right to tag Vladimir Putin’s Russia as America’s top geopolitical foe, even going so far as to compare Romney to Winston Churchill. This has elicited eye-rolling from Daniel Larison, who in 2012 dismissed Romney’s criticisms of Putin’s Russia as “bizarre” and “outdated”:
Romney assumed that Russia was an inveterate foe of the U.S. on everything because Russia sometimes opposed U.S. policies. This took an unremarkable observation–Russia strongly disagrees with the U.S. on a few high-profile issues–and turned it into an absurd, discrediting exaggeration. He seemed to think that any kind of diplomatic engagement or accommodation with Russia on any issue was equivalent to appeasement. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t ever explain how the U.S. had “appeased” Russia (or any other government)–he was just reciting from an ideological script that he picked up from other people in his party.
In light of this year’s events, it is perplexing that anyone could any longer reduce the moral and diplomatic chasm between the United States and Russia to “disagreement on a few high-profile issues” — as if the clash between the two nations is nothing more than a petty ideological shouting match.
One may question the wisdom of Romney’s particular policy prescriptions — and it is no great surprise that the leader of a national political party would “recite from an ideological script” — but the question at hand is not about Romney per se, but about President Obama’s blindness toward Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions. In the campaign against Romney, Obama mocked him for being stuck in a “Cold War mentality.” But the so-called “Cold War mentality” is little more than a recognition of the stubbornly persistent primacy of power politics in foreign policy.
As Robert Kagan has cogently written, liberal internationalists have long dreamed of a Kantian world of ‘perpetual peace’ in which reason, diplomacy, and economic incentives will finally replace the need for projections of power — but this is a seductive illusion. The self-congratulating American narrative is that, as a threat to the prevailing liberal order, authoritarianism was vanquished at the end of the Cold War. To acknowledge that Russia is once again a geopolitical threat would be to admit that the ‘End of History’ has not arrived after all — and a war-weary public, tired of the burdens of global leadership, is loath to confront yet another imperialist autocrat who provides moral and material support to the world’s bloodiest dictators, seizes foreign territory, criminalizes dissent, and makes a fool of our president on the world stage. But this year’s events have decisively proven that Vladimir Putin intends to reassert Russia as a great power — and that his vision for the world is unquestionably hostile to American interests — and to the moral vision of classical liberalism.
At the bottom of Larison’s ambivalence toward Vladimir Putin is a sort of benign neglect; a lazy moral relativism that, while well-intended, cannot reliably distinguish between good and evil, seeing in Obama and Putin just two sides of the same belligerent coin. But the distance between the United States and Russia is not simply a “disagreement” over “a few issues” — it is a fundamental conflict of visions about the world order. In 2012, Larison approvingly quoted Heather Hurlbert, who argues that the ‘Cold War mentality’ is a sort of psychological need to rely on the “comfortable certainties” of the 1980s. But it is those who would ignore or dismiss Vladimir Putin who are retreating into the mirage of certainty; the implicit assumption that the existing geopolitical order will persist for all time if we would only leave well enough alone. But America’s enemies will never accept the unipolar order — it must be constantly, vigorously defended. If we choose to shirk from our responsibility to uphold the world order, others will step in and remake it in their own image. Vladimir Putin is taking the long view in his pursuit of power. America must do the same.