One of the more curious parts of the American presidential campaign is the furious side battle over how to deal with the Russians. Many Republicans have adopted the neo-conservative line that Putin is some combination of Stalin, Hitler and that third grade bully who put gum in their hair. They are incapable of seeing Putin as anything but an inhuman evil. This says more about the Republican-aligned publications and think tanks, which have come to be dominated by the neo-cons, than anything else.
Trump has taken a less provocative stance than most Republicans so that has all the professional loonies out howling in the streets. Part of this is simply due to the anti-Trump virus that has infected Official Conservatism™, but it also reveals something about the political class. While neo-cons have always had greater influence over the Republicans, they currently dominate the foreign policy establishment. It was under Obama, after all, that Victoria Nuland helped throw the Ukraine into turmoil.
The puzzle is why the neo-cons have an obsession with the Russians. The Cold War has been over for a long time and the Russians are not much of a threat to anyone. They have a lot of nukes, but what reason would they have to nuke anyone? The Russian ruling class is living like Saudi Royals, mostly from selling natural resources to the Europeans. They control roughly 40% of the natural gas supply to Europe and that accounts for 68% of Russian exports. That means the Russians are in no hurry to stop selling gas to the rest of Europe.
Part of it is good old fashioned professional inertia. People like Frederick Kagan, Donald Kagan and Robert Kagan (husband of Victoria Nuland) have organized their lives around opposition to the Russians. They’re not alone. The whole neo-conservative project, as a political movement, was mostly about opposition to the Soviets. Most of the men who lead the neo-conservative cause these days are old men who started out in life as Cold War hawks. When the Soviets collapsed, they did not find a new career. They simply found new reasons to demonize the Russians.
There’s also an undeniable tribal flavor to it. Almost all neocons are Jews and specifically Russian Jews. There has always been a strong anti-Russian strain within American Jewry that dates back to to when Russian Jews started migrating to America. It’s not entirely irrational, given the way Jews were treated by the Czars. But, there has always been a divide within American Jewry. One one side are German Jews who emigrated in the 19th century and largely blended into the ruling class. On the other side are the Russian Jews who were treated like poorer relations.
While all of this is interesting background, it is no reason to restart the Cold War and there are some dissenters who think the neo-cons are nuts. Some on the Right point to the fact the neo-cons were outlandishly wrong about the Muslims and should not be trusted with Russia policy. Then there are critics from the Left who also think the neo-cons are nuts, but they mostly think we’re better off doing business with the Russians. Stephen Cohen is the most prominent voice on the Left warning that a new Cold War with Russia is a terrible idea.
There’s another element that explains the neo-con obsession with Putin. Irving Kristol’s brand of conservatism was intended to be forward looking and anti-traditionalist. It’s not an accident that the neo-cons are forever chirping about happy warriors and optimistic conservatism. They see traditionalism as pessimistic and limiting. Whatever else you want to say about Putin, he is very much in the tradition of European conservatism, which is traditionalist and limiting. The state is to defend citizens from one another, not guide them to the glorious future where they can reach their full potential.
Then there’s globalism, which has become something of a religion for western ruling elites. Irving Kristol’s brand of politics has easily folded into the globalist fantasies of American policy makers, because it gives the naked money grab the veneer of humanitarianism. The trillion dollar boondoggle that was the Iraq War was tarted up as an effort to install democracy and liberalism in the Muslim world. It’s a lot easier to loot your country’s middle-class when you are convinced it is to make the world a better place.
Even if the neo-cons continue to dominate the debate, it takes two to tango and there’s plenty of reasons to think the Russians are not all that interested in a new Cold War. Russian per capita GDP is $13,000. The poorest state in America is at $35,000, while the poorest state in the EU is Bulgaria at $18,000. Russia is not Albania, but it is a very poor country relative to the West. It’s also a country with horrible demographics and wide spread drug and alcohol problems. They also have a Muslim problem that gets little attention. In other words, the Russians are in no condition for a Cold War.