The Russophobia Card

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The U.S. presidential candidates are increasingly playing the Russophobia card in their campaigns. In addressing Russia, Senators John McCain and Hillary Clinton have resorted to insulting President Vladimir Putin as a KGB spy who has no soul. Russophobia is truly back into fashion, as Senator Joseph Biden admitted last week in a comment published in The Wall Street Journal.

U.S. politicians can hardly claim that they know a lot about Russia. Unable to even pronounce names of Russia's leading politicians, many in the U.S. establishment are nevertheless convinced of Russia's inherent propensity to violate its own citizens' rights and bully other nations.

The attacks on Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev are widely supported in mainstream U.S. media. This demagoguery also extends to scholarly publications, such as "The New Cold War" by Edward Lucas, who claims that "Russia's vengeful, xenophobic and ruthless rulers have turned the sick man of Europe into a menacing bully." Just published, the book is getting a lot of publicity and is treated as a serious treatise by influential organizations, such as the Council on Foreign Relations.

Despite the anti-Russia rhetoric, many U.S. politicians feel that Russia doesn't matter in the global arena. Instead, they are preoccupied with other international issues, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. But Russia should matter, particularly in a world of new security threats and growing energy competition. The attitude of ignorance and self-righteousness toward Russia tells us volumes about the U.S. unpreparedness for the central challenges of the 21st century.

Russophobia's revival is indicative of the fear shared by some U.S. and European politicians that their grand plans to control the world's most precious resources and geostrategic sites may not succeed if Russia's economic and political recovery continues.

One Russophobic group, exemplified by McCain, includes military hawks or advocates of U.S. hegemony who fought the Cold War not to contain the Soviet enemy but to destroy it by all means available. The second group is made up of "liberal hawks" who have gotten comfortable with the weakened and submissive Russia of the 1990s. They have an agenda of promoting U.S.-style democracy and market economy. The fact that the Soviet threat no longer exists has only strengthened their sense of superiority.

Finally there are lobbyists representing East European nationalists who have worked in concert with ruling elites of East and Central European nations to oppose Russia's state consolidation of power as well as promote NATO expansion, deployment of elements of a U.S. missile-defense system in Poland and Czech Republic, and energy pipelines circumventing Russia. These groups have diverse but compatible objectives of isolating Russia from European and U.S. institutions. Because of a lack of commitment to a strong relationship with Russia in the White House, a largely uninformed public and the absence of a Russian lobby within the United States, the influence that these groups exert on policymaking has been notable.

Russophobia is not in U.S. national interests and is not supported by the American public. Various polls demonstrate that Americans do not agree with the assessment that Russia is a threat to the United States' values and interests. A recent BBC World Service poll revealed, for example, that 45 percent of Americans have a mainly positive attitude regarding Russia's influence in the world, compared with 36 percent who have a mainly negative attitude.

Yet Russophobia-driven groups have generally succeeded in feeding the media an image of Russia as an increasingly dangerous regime. Thousands of reports in the mainstream U.S. media implicate the Kremlin and Putin personally in murdering opposition journalists and defected spies. Only a handful of reports in less prominent outlets question such interpretations.

Although it matters greatly which candidate will enter the White House in November, the more important issue is whether there will be a fundamental psychological adjustment in Washington away from Russophobia.

To be sure, the healing of the U.S. Russophobic mindframe is going to require a lot of time. Winston Churchill once commented that U.S. politicians "always do the right thing in the end. They just like to exhaust all the alternatives first." If this indeed is the case, we will not see a framework for meaningful cooperation with Russia any time soon.

Andrei Tsygankov is associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University.