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Inside the Blob's dangerous anti-Russia echo chamber

The groupthink is leading to the marginalization of ideas and people who call for a new approach to Moscow. And it's getting ugly.

Analysis | Europe

Ten years after the Obama administration’s somewhat successful “reset” with Russia ended, the debate over Russia policy in Washington is warped by reflexive hawkishness and intolerance for dissenting views. 

The anti-Russia hysteria of the Trump years has created an atmosphere where Russia hawks feel free to denounce even the mildest proposals for constructive engagement with Moscow, and to launch smear campaigns against eminently qualified scholars to intimidate them and to impose narrow boundaries on the discussion of U.S. policy towards Russia. This poisons the debate, and it makes it harder to craft the smartest policies that serve U.S. and allied interests. 

The Biden administration is the first in the post-Cold War to take office without even paying lip service to the idea of trying to improve U.S.-Russian relations. Except for the Biden administration’s extension of New START earlier this year, U.S.-Russian relations are as bad as they have ever been in the last thirty years, and in the wake of the latest round of misguided U.S. sanctions the relationship is all but guaranteed to deteriorate further. 

The U.S. desperately needs a more balanced and reasonable Russia policy debate, but the foreign policy establishment’s worst tendencies of groupthink and exclusion are making that difficult if not impossible. There are few policies more in need of fresh thinking and different perspectives than Russia policy, but Russia hawks in the “Blob” are determined to stop that.

The latest example is a  smear campaign launched against Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and a respected expert on Russia and Russia policy. By all measures, it worked. The Biden administration was considering Rojansky to be Russia director on the National Security Council, which is a coordinating and organizing role that aids in the policymaking process. Because Rojansky has supported constructive engagement with Russia in the past and argued in favor of the “reset,” Russia hawks set out to brand him as “soft” on Russia and some have gone so far as to imply that he works for the Kremlin. 

Since no one can dispute Rojansky’s qualifications for the position, Russia hawks opted instead to impugn his integrity and even openly question his loyalty. Unfortunately, the attacks had their intended effect and scared the Biden administration into abandoning Rojansky’s appointment. The success of the smear campaign signals to younger professionals that they should toe the standard hawkish line if they want to avoid similar attacks.

This has also brought new attention to a problem that goes beyond Russia policy and concerns all U.S. foreign policy debates. Whenever someone argues for diplomatic engagement with a rival or pariah regime, the default response in D.C. is to imply that being pro-diplomacy implies some sympathy for or collusion with the other government. This is always false, but it doesn’t stop the accusers from flinging hateful charges. 

There is so little value placed on diplomacy in practice that its proponents are presumed to be “weak” on the government in question. Biden claims that he wants de-escalation with Russia and that the “way forward is through thoughtful dialogue and diplomatic process,” but his administration has quickly caved to hawkish pressure and rejected an outstanding expert. To avoid being called “weak” on Russia, the Biden administration has shown real weakness. 

There was another extraordinary example of this aggressive groupthink earlier this spring at the Atlantic Council. The Atlantic Council published a sensible report on Russia policy written by Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows, and then a few days later almost two dozen of their colleagues at the same think tank issued a short, sharp denunciation of their work. The letter signed by the think tankers was inaccurate and misrepresented the arguments in the report, but the real significance was in publicly rejecting a report from their own institution that made very modest recommendations about adjusting Russia policy in the future. 

Judging from the hawks’ reaction to the report, you would have thought that the authors were calling for another partition of Poland, but there was nothing in it that merited such an attack. Ashford and Burrows argued for recognizing the limits of U.S. influence on Russia’s domestic politics and focusing on common interests, and they urged the Biden administration to recognize that additional sanctions would be futile in light of the total failure of existing sanctions. Ashford and Burrows did not say that human rights should be ignored or cast aside, but they suggested that they not become the central focus of U.S. policy going forward. For these anodyne and reasonable observations, they were essentially branded Kremlin stooges.

Furthermore, their colleagues ridiculed them publicly and then gave anonymous quotes in a later article to smear them again. The episode was unusual in many respects, but in its enforcement of a brittle orthodoxy it was unfortunately all too typical of foreign policy debates in Washington. On Russia policy, the orthodoxy has become so stifling that merely suggesting that more Russia sanctions won’t achieve anything provokes angry condemnation. 

It is no accident that the “soft” advocates of engagement typically understand the other country and government far better than hardliners do, because hardliners are content to assume the worst about an adversary without ever checking to see if it is true. Hardliners start from the assumption that diplomacy is useless, and they don’t want to admit that engagement and compromise frequently yield more benefits for the U.S. than hectoring and sanctions. Instead of thinking in crude terms of whether they are “hard” or “soft,” we should want our analysts and policymakers to be smart and pragmatic rather than mindless and ideological. Since the end of the Cold War, the latter traits have characterized our Russia policy much more often than the former. The few limited successes in Russia policy have come from finding ways to address outstanding disputes constructively, but in the absence of such communication U.S.-Russian relations will remain in deep freeze.

One of the chief reasons why U.S. foreign policy has been so unsuccessful over the last thirty years is that dissenting views that question the wisdom and necessity of current policies are —  like Rojansky, Ashford and Burrows — routinely ridiculed, marginalized, or excluded entirely. Because of this, there is no accountability for failed policies, nor is there any learning from failures. The U.S. has spent the better part of the last three decades ignoring Russian concerns and grievances and plowing blindly ahead with whatever Russia hawks want to do. The U.S., Russia, and Russia’s neighbors are all worse off because of it. If the two countries are going to repair their relationship and reduce tensions, U.S. policy towards Russia will have to change significantly to become more flexible and moderate than it has been. Until that happens, we should expect ties to continue fraying to the detriment of European security and U.S. interests.

(Shutterstock/Goncharov_Artem)
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