The constant stream of revelations that members of President Donald Trump’s administration and his surrogates had direct contact with Russia during and after the 2016 presidential election provokes a series of questions: Does it matter? And is Russia really our enemy? The answer might surprise you.
To call Russia our enemy right now is not exactly accurate. It would be rather more fitting to call Russia our rival. This might seem like a minute distinction, and yet it is a telling one. A rival is a strategic competitor -- an equal who competes for superiority and who strives for the same goal. An enemy, on the other hand, is the hostile opposition -- an antagonist that seeks the destruction of its opponent.
It is basically incontestable that Moscow’s interests and strategic goals directly counter Western and democratic values, and more importantly, the liberal world order. Much of what Russia does or hopes to achieve directly clashes with the international system America helped set up to manage conflict and promote cooperation.
So why then is Russia merely a rival to the United States, rather than an unequivocal enemy to the order that America traditionally upholds? As it happens, this distinction stems from a change in the value America places on its own traditional ideals.
But before we get into America’s shifting values, let’s examine how Russia perceives its relationship with the United States.
From our disputes over the Kosovo War, to disagreements over American conduct in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the more recent blame that Moscow has placed on the West for the collapse of a pro-Russian government in Ukraine, Russia clearly sees American actions as a threat to its interests. An intellectual project that reframes Russia as America’s friend betrays any basic facts we know about international relations and recent behavior.
Russia’s abhorrent behavior in the Middle East includes supporting a Syrian regime that uses mass executions and chemical weapons on its own population. The roster of Russian journalists who have sought to expose the truth and have been killed for their efforts is horrifying. Of course, the United States is not beyond reproach when it comes to lives lost as a result of its foreign policy. But the abuses of the Russian state go far beyond the scope of recent American contraventions.
Crucially for Russia, confusion and disunity in U.S. politics provide an opportunity to push Moscow’s agenda onto the Western world. Sowing lack of faith in Western institutions allows Moscow to promote ideologies and processes that support its interests. These include support for authoritarian governments, ethno-nationalists, and for kleptocracies extracting resources for personal gain.
All of these run directly counter to U.S. values. They go against our traditional conception of the Four Freedoms (freedom from want, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom of speech) articulated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. You’d be hard-pressed to find another example of a country whose principle ethos runs so directly counter to the American project.
Why, then, can we no longer blatantly classify Russia as our enemy, given the litany of egregious examples of anti-democratic and anti-liberal behavior the country has imposed upon its own citizens and the rest of the world?
How the United States views Russia directly correlates to how much value we as Americans place on things like freedom, democracy, economic liberalism, and the protection of traditional NATO allies. Do Americans really care what happens in Syria? Are we ready to go to war to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine -- or Latvia, for that matter? Do we care about an open international system based on free trade and liberal politics? Honest answers to these questions might render us less different from Russia than we are comfortable to admit.
That the United States failed to stand up to brazen Russian aggression in Syria and Ukraine is abundantly obvious. Yet the failure to uphold American ideals is also painfully evident in the reality of the United States today, as undocumented migrants hide during raids in fear of being torn from their families and uprooted from their lives. America’s inability to articulate a liberal project that trumpets progress is its real failure both at home and abroad -- and it is one that renders us much more similar to Russia than we might be comfortable to admit.
America’s failure to support the liberal world order it created says more about changes to our state and the disintegration of traditional American foreign policy than it does the actions of rival regimes and societies. The populism that has taken hold of American politics is only able to do so when there is little to stand in its way, and when there is no alternative ideology that offers a progressive, fact-based path forward.
The shift toward an isolationist and selfish view of America’s role in this global system is the real tragedy of our time. Rather than seeking progress and stable, positive change internationally, the United States became fearful of any intervention that might make it appear responsible for the future of another state. Russia will continue to pose a threat to the liberal international order, but so too will an America that is unmoored from its ideals and interests abroad.
Rivalry and strategic competition will continue to shape future relations between the United States and Russia, but we won’t be real enemies again until America first rediscovers its own values.