Dangerous for US experts to appear sympathetic to Russia – ex-US Defense Department analyst

Both Russia and the US are calling for relations to be rescued, but hostile rhetoric is still growing louder on both sides. Can Moscow and Washington let bygones be bygones? We discussed this with Robert English, former policy analyst at the US Defense Department and international relations scholar.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Robert English, former policy analyst at the US Defense Department, welcome to the show. It’s really great to have you with us. 

Robert English: Happy to be here. 

SS: So, interesting times we’re living. I want to start with Henry Kissinger’s quote, he says that the “demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one”. Do you agree with him? 

RE: Yeah. 

SS: Is there a coherent policy line on Russia in Washington? 

RE: There are seven or eight coherent lines, but all together they produce incoherence. By that I mean, the Congress thinks it knows what it’s doing, there are some individuals, let’s say, the Department of Defense who have one orientation, and the State Department which is a revolving door who have another, and so on. No, a coherent administration’s line hasn’t emerged because they are fighting internally.    

SS: Trump started off as a pragmatic Russia campaigner, he wanted to make good with Russia, but that the establishment tied his hands. Does that mean that the American line towards Russia is predetermined, no matter who the president will be? 

RE: No, this is unique with Trump. “Tied his hands” in particular because they passed this legislation requiring sanctions. And that is certainly tied to Trump personally because of the suspicion that he colluded with Russia or the members of his campaign team opted no good with Russian representatives. And than, who knows… Is this anger because Hillary Clinton lost, and blaming it on somebody there is this sort of outsized anger at Russia. That’s why Trump is uniquely tied. Another president might not be. 

SS: So do you feel like making Russia an adversary is part of the internal political fight in America? Are they using “Russia Adversary” against Trump to weaken him? Is that part of the game? 

RE: For some that is. It’s not the only thing. One has to admit that Russia hasn’t helped in this. There have been Russian actions that made it easier for the people who dislike Russia, for the Russophobes in Washington to do what they’ve done. But yes, it’s against Trump, there’s suspicion of Russia, there’s a whole combination of old Cold warriors, Trump haters, Hillary supporters, Democrats who cannot necessarily accept the new presidency, people who are genuinely concerned about Russian actions, what happened in England. All this comes together to paralyse our Russia policy. 

SS: But also doesn’t it come down to strong president-weak president? I mean, I understand your check and balances, I understand you can’t do what the president wants to do, but whenever there’s a strong president, like, for instance, Reagan, he wanted to make peace with the Soviet Union and everyone followed suit. I feel like if Hillary Clinton were a president, if she one day decided that she wanted to make good with Russia and everyone else would agree with her more or less. And Trump, because he’s such an outsider, it seems like he’s met with much more resistance...       

RE: It’s partly that. But the first thing you said is the main thing. A president who comes in, whether it’s China, Russia, any foreign policy issue, with a hardline reputation, if they decide then to find accomodation, accord, treaty, he’d have much easier time having it passed the establishment, getting it passed Congress. Someone who comes in with a reputation of weak or soft, whether it’s China or Russia or whatever it might be, they are constantly met with suspicion and resistance. So Reagan was a tough guy - and he could make peace. Nixon, Kissinger were hard on Russia - then they could have detente. You are probably right, Hillary Clinton - who would suspect her of colluding with Russia or making bad deals? She’s as tough as they come on Putin. Trump came in, and his reputation is not just soft, but supersoft. So he's always going to have uphill battle.    

SS: Do you think he’s done fixing ties with Russia? Is it like a done battle for him?

RE: You know, sitting in Washington and anywhere in the United States we don’t say anything anymore, we never know never, we never know what’s coming next. There’s this feeling that this administration hasn’t settled down. Look what’s happening with the negotiations with North Korea: on, off, on, threats of war, “my best friend”. Trade war with China, trade with Europe: “We are going to have an accord”, “No, we’re going to impose massive tariffs”. Iran - we haven’t even got to maybe one of the most dangerous issues. So I can’t answer that. We don’t know we all hope that we’ll find some stability and this administration can focus on one issue or another. 

SS: At least unpredictability keeps you, guys, toned. I’ll give you that much. In the years after the Cold War, the funding cuts meant that fewer and fewer Russian experts were being trained in American schools. What does that mean for Russia knowledge in Washington? How does this influence policy? 

RE: It’s not a good time for Russia expertise we have. And it’s not just now. But it’s the last twenty years. There’s a strange combination of lost interest in Russia, so fewer people after the 90s were going in to study. “Oh, Boris Yeltsin has a democracy now, it’s kind of dull”, “it’s a crazy place”. But perestroyka, arms control, Gorbachev - that was exciting. A lot of people went into... 

SS: What about now? I mean, Putin keeps people awake… 

RE: So, now we do have renewed interest, but we have problems in our academy, let’s say. We train political scientists, we train area experts very poorly. 20-30 years ago, when I was in graduate school we studied history first, we learned the language and the culture very deeply and only then we moved to politics. And we didn’t always stopped with politics, we learned some economic, we learned some strategic and military affairs. And our experts were sort of comprehensive. These days it’s much more narrowly focused and there’s much less interest in culture and history in the past. And that produces very narrow or one-sided experts. So even though you’re right, we have experts now, people want to work on Russia, they are interested whether they should go to intelligence or business and anything in between. 

SS: But I feel like even though there are fewer experts there are still experts. I mean, look at yourself, and there are a bunch of people of your generation who really do have a deep knowledge of Russia and what Russia stands for, what it represents and what it wants. But I feel like the State Department or the White House don’t really pay attention to the expert opinion. Do they even take that opinion into consideration when making policies towards Russia? 

RE: I have a great respect for the State Department. There’s a large cadre of mid-level officials who spent their careers in Russia, in Prague, maybe in Beijing. Back to Russia developing expertise, they tend to have very balanced and sensible views. But you know what happens every four years or maybe every eight years: we have an election, and it’s the Secretary, the Deputy Secretary, the Assistant Secretary, the Deputy Assistants, political appointees and ambassadors who come in. And I’ve got to say, every administration - and it’s not just Trump, but it was Obama before that, and Clinton before that - they put in more and more politically unqualified people because they are campaign contributors, because it’s politically advantageous. And therefore, competence at the top declines. 

SS: Well, the latest Trump’s advisor on Russia and Europe, Fiona Hill, she’s not like a Putin lover, and it’s not like her views on Russia are not super favourable, but she’s sensible and pragmatic, which is already a very good and rare thing for American establishment… 

RE: As an academic colleague I have a great respect for Fiona Hill, for her work, I had her as an invitee to our conference in Los Angeles. She knows the Caucasus as well as Russia, Central Asia. She knows oil and trade as well as economic issues, and she’s balanced, right. She’s not an ideologue. She doesn’t hate anyone. 

SS: Can she have a real impact on your policy? 

RE: I don’t know. I hope that she’s working quietly within the system and in tandem with people like the new ambassador here in Moscow, Jon Huntsman, who’s also known as a moderate and sensible person. Don’t forget, he has experience in business and international trade. He’s been in China and other foreign postings. My hope is that over time people like Huntsman and Hill will move this administration in a pragmatic direction. But then we watched the revolving door in the White House at the NSC… I don’t know. 

SS: When it comes to Russia and people in Russia, it does seem like the politicians, the public, they have a longer view on the relations with the United States. What I mean is that the Russian scenario says that “we tried to be friends with you, guys, in the 1990s and after 9/11, but then the Americans broke their promises and pushed NATO to Russia’s borders, and then Serbia, Iraq, etc.” Do the Americans see this decades-old continuity when assessing their relations with Russia? Because it does seem to me that the media in America has a much shorter attention span, and so does the public. We see the whole picture, they go by political cycles... 

RE: You’re so right. This is a bigger problem even than you know. The average journalists working on foreign affairs, working on Russia, I have to remind them as preparation of their interview of me what happened five years ago. It’s as if - not with every administration but with every turnover of the buro staff  - we, Americans, try to approach everything as if we start from scratch. It’s a very endearing and positive characteristics of America, a kind of “can-do”, “overcome the obstacles”, “don’t get stuck in the past”. But sometimes it goes too far, and some elements of the past cannot be ignored. If we want to approach a country, not just Russia, China has its historic grievances with its neighbours, with us, with Japan, Korea, Iran, the 1953 airliner shootdown... We can’t approach these countries as if it all started with each new administration. And yet we tend to do that. It’s an American weakness. It’s also a strength, but mostly a weakness.    

SS: But I also feel like Russia equals like the perfect enemy, like the Dr. Evil for America. It’s a very good narrative for Americans. Having Russia as an enemy is much more logical than this undefined “terrorism” thing. Maybe Russian-U.S. relations are a victim of a perfect narrative that Russia fits into as a perfect enemy? 

RE: There’s something very important to what you’re saying. I think, it works both ways, we have it reciprocal, U.S. and Russia. And America is a good enemy for Russia. Part of it, as you say, is almost psychological. If it wasn’t there you’d have to create. There’s almost a tendency to find the demon or the adversary, black and white. But there are also concrete things that each side has done to help fuel that enemy image. But you are right, we’re two biggest powers in the world. Still China is.. I don’t want to get into that... 

SS: Super-ethnocentric, but that doesn’t help both us. 

RE: And I don’t mean to say the Cold War is back the way it was in the 60s, 70s or up to the 80s. But we stand to stride the world and we have this relationship that eased a bit after the Cold War, but then we both fell back into the old tropes and patterns so easily. 

SS: When Mitt Romney was running for President he tried to play the Russia foreign policy card in his presidential campaign and he was ridiculed by Obama, saying “oh, my God, that is so 80s bringing Russia back a foreign policy card”. And then in 2012, the relations between U.S. and Russia started deteriorating slowly and in his next State of the Union speech he was talking about Russia. The second thing we know is that the Pentagon says that Russia is the biggest threat for America. Maybe Romney was ahead of his time, and why? Why did this card play out so well now, but it didn’t then for him? 

RE: So what you’re really asking is what’s gone wrong in our relations since 2008 or so. Was that when Romney said that? Well, the answer is that relations have deteriorated. Both sides bared blame for that. And suddenly Romney seems precious, seems foresighted. Although, I think, he said something like “the greatest geopolitical threat”, even in the Pentagon, I don’t care what they put in that report, I talk to the Defense Department people, Navy people all the time – they are looking at China. Sometimes those documents or those pronouncements have budget a purpose in mind, they want to get a new weapon system, they’re sort of tacking to the political wind to appeal to some Senators or some districts, but on the whole our military establishment know that China is the biggest threat. But it’s also convenient to say “Russia’s doing this in the Arctic”, “Russia’s doing this in the Mediterranean” because it helps get appropriations. 

SS: It’s a perfect narrative, I’m telling you. Because you’re not going to upset China and America’s economic ties with China, you can always blame it on Russia. And people love it, they roll with it, they go with it. It’s like the old Cold War paradigm. 

RE: Let me tell you this. This is interesting because you’ve pointed out that I used to work in the Department of Defense. I’m a university professor now, but my research especially recently on the Arctic keeps me in contact with people who are in or around the defense establishment. What I ask them is about what happened with the Arctic, why are some people sounding the alarm... My interpretation of Russia’s new bases and capabilities is a very sensible thing. Russia should be doing this. The trade, the environmental issues, navigation, safety search and rescue – why is this drumbeat of threat? And they say to me: “We know it’s not true; we actually think that Russia is doing sensible thing in the Arctic; we’ve managed to co-operate for almost 20 years since the creation of the Arctic Council.” In fact it’s more than 20 years. But we know that our secretaries at the top like to go to Congress and say “wooo” and get the money for new weapons and ships. 

SS: Ok, there are the Pentagon people who actually know and see behind the narrative that’s popular. But then there’s this narrative, and American people are assessing what they see or hear on the TV. When you do things or when others do things you usually imagine yourself doing it, like you imagine that this is what you do, that’s why the others do it. For instance, I’m sure that for Americans Russia’s Crimea or Russia’s Syria is the same thing as America’s going into Libya or Iraq, or Afghanistan for that matter. But really it’s so much different because Russia in Crimea is like the U.S. in Florida, and Russia in Syria is actually handling immediate threats of homegrown terrorism, extremism right next to its border. It’s not war over the ocean for us. Every war for Americans is war over the ocean that has nothing to do with proximity of your borders. Do you think that Americans see this when they are assessing Russia’s actions (how different are American actions from Russian actions)? 

RE: No, whether it goes all the way back to the Second World War and the feeling of vulnerability, repeated invasions from Germany, the West and a need to create a buffer zone of allied countries all the way to the present... And what happens in Chechnya, in Syria and Afghanistan, how close are those terrorist threats are to Russia - Americans have never appreciated the geographic vulnerability that Russia’s geography condemns it to. They have a general idea - we are a great power, we mess around in the world; Russia is a great power, they mess around; we usually do good things, but we’re not so sure about them. There’s a sensible equilibrium. But definitely it doesn’t sufficiently take into account the vulnerability of being in Central Eurasia. 

SS: You said there’s a minority among U.S. politicians who believe that Putin isn’t after upsetting the world order, that he only defends Russia’s interests. Can there be a non-hawkish view on Russia in today’s United States, or that would be immediately labelled as KGB-sponsored propaganda? 

RE: It may not be quite that extreme. But look, I have colleagues, I consider myself a sensible person with a lot of experience, I was with ambassador Matlock, our former ambassador, I consider him in that league. 

SS: They are blacklisting him now in America. 

RE: Exactly. It’s dangerous to be too sympathetic to Russia. Even when you have a good argument and can back it with facts. The atmosphere right now is so Russophobic that people are trimming their sails. I wouldn’t say it’s some McCarthyist atmosphere, but it’s a very toxic one. I do think however, and Matlock made this point, and he’s seen it all, and he saw Reagan and Gorbachev come and make peace, that it will take on both sides dynamic leadership to break that. An ordinary person, a Fiona Hill right at the NSC, a Robert English at my university, somebody else maybe in the White House probably would be pilloried as being “too soft” or being “an apologist”. But someone really strong and respected in the White House, I don’t know if that’s … Probably not Bernie Sanders, I don’t know if that’s Joe Biden, he’s very anti-Russian, I don’t know who the candidate on the horizon is, but I can imagine American president saying: “Enough, we have bigger problems, and we have common problems”. 

SS: He tried it when he came. But look what happened. 

RE: The current president is not the best messenger of a coherent policy. Yes, on Russia he had a good core idea. I wrote that there’s nothing wrong and why was pilloried for saying “let’s try get along with Russia, it’s in the best interest of both countries and the world”. Who can disagree with that? But out of his mouth... 

SS: Do you think that if he somehow in a weird way manages to make peace with North Korea then he would be like this … 

RE: A major foreign policy breakthrough..  

SS: And then they would cut him a slot on Russia? 

RE: Especially if it goes against all the things the experts predicted and he still pulls it off, could do that, that could buy him some credibility and he could say: “All you, guys, told me that I didn’t know what I was doing and look what I did - I accomplished something that Obama couldn’t and Bush couldn’t”. I’m not sure that’s going to happen, but were it happen it would definitely change his stature as a foreign policy leader, as an original, break-them-all kind of thinker. I wish that could happen. I’m not holding my breath. 

SS: Wouldn’t that be incredible?     

RE: That would be incredible. 

SS: Since the mid-2000s, Putin has been very clear that the current post-Cold War order is not reflective of reality any more, that the liberal Western-led end of history didn’t happen, that Russia wants a seat at the table and an equal say when it comes to deciding the matters of the world, especially when it comes to Putin’s backyard, the post-Soviet area. Why don’t the Americans take these points seriously? 

RE: No disrespect but you’re asking the same question again - what’s gone wrong? Because the premise of your question is - isn’t that reasonable, why can’t this work as a policy, as a basis for a combination between the two countries? The answer is: Russia and Putin have been so demonised, not without having helped some of that along themselves, and our political establishment so quickly slid back into a Cold-War, Russophobic mode. 

SS: I’m sorry, but to be fair, everything that Russia has done from the 2000s regarding the West has been a defensive action, rather than offensive. Everything that the West doesn’t like right now in terms of Russia, whether it’s Crimea or whether it’s Ukraine, it’s a defensive action, it’s a reaction rather than anything else.  

RE: I’m sympathetic towards what you’re saying about Russia defending its legitimate national national interests, and if the shoe were on the other foot Americans would understand how sensitive Crimea is, both strategically and historically. I guess, what I’m saying is that the leadership on the two sides have almost stopped caring - I mean the previous leadership, the Obama-Clinton, and President Putin himself. They seem to give up on each other. And so when certain moves are made they almost seem to be done to give maximum offense and continue fueling that. I wasn’t there, but I can imagine Russia defending its national interests in a way that doesn’t help the hawks in the United States. But Putin has this image of such a hard guy, and Iwouldn’t blame him for not caring about the American public opinion anymore because it seems that no matter what he does, there’s an unfair response. Nonetheless, what I’m saying is that it’s gotten very personal. And you’re right, I was appalled when not only Obama but the Secretary of State Clinton, we had our national leaders who descended to comparing President Putin to Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler. Even in the worst days of the Cold War there were certain lines we didn’t crossed. And personalising our frictions… 

SS: There was culture of discourse definitely there.   

RE: And there was respect and this recognition that that would take us down the spiral unnecessarily. So when I say that I see training of our experts and foreign policy culture in the U.S. has gone a huge step back from the old days of the wise men, of the Kissingers and so forth, this is what I mean. This was inconceivable before. And it happens on both sides. It’s not just the Americans demonising. Although I’m an American, I was very critical of our side in that. But it’s unnecessarily exacerbated. Personalising our differences makes it so much harder later to come to the table and rebuild something. It’s got so personally nasty. 

SS: Let’s hope, there’s still some hope there because people like you come here and then they go back and say what they’ve really seen and what’s happening in Russia. I still believe that it helps, little by little, but that’s how the world changes. 

RE: Could it be that we need a common enemy again? I don’t mean another Nazi Germany, but it could me some climatic disaster, it could be something in the Pacific… 

SS: I think we should just start to respect each other’s worldviews and realise that things are done differently in different parts of the world... 

RE: Of course, we should. 

SS: ...and it’s not just one America and - how many billion people living in the world? - or just one Russia. People see things differently. 

RE: We need to be a lot more mature and sensible, no doubt. 

SS: Thank you so much for this wonderful talk, for this interview. Have a really nice rest of the stay. Hope, we’ll meet again soon. We were talking to Robert English, scholar of international relations and former policy analyst at the U.S. Defense Department, discussing what are the prospects of U.S.-Russia ties going back to normal.