Debate: Is Putin a Threat to Democracy?
Atlantic Magazine contributing editor Jeffrey Tayler and former White House Clinton counselor Bill Curry debate the proposition that demonizing Putin is justified
PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore.
In the investigation that’s taking place of Donald Trump and his cabinet ministers and former cabinet ministers and former advisors and their relationship with Russia, there’s an underlying basic assumption. This is a word that’s used over and over again, which is Russia is America’s adversary. In an op-ed, John McCain recently says that Russia is a threat to European democracy, to American democracy, and Putin is being described in many ways as an authoritarian, a fascist, and so on.
The underlying issue of the Russian alleged hacking interference in American elections, there is this underlying assumption that Russia is in fact this almost existential enemy. Some argue it is an existential enemy because it’s the only country with a nuclear weapons force that could actually cause serious damage to the United States. All of that brings back all the notions and feelings and imagery of the Cold War.
On the left, there’s also a debate about all of this. There are people the left that think that the Russia interference, true or untrue, is a distraction from much bigger issues about the Trump administration. There’s others that believe that while maybe it’s being used as a distraction, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a real issue, that Putin actually represents such a threat, certainly domestically and otherwise. We’ve been covering this issue on The Real News, and we thought what we really needed to do next was a debate with two people who probably agree on all sorts of things when it comes to a critique of US foreign policy but don’t agree on the issue of how to assess Russia and the US-Russia relationship.
There’s a news story that is breaking, sort of breaking. BBC reports the following, “NATO defense ministers are reviewing progress in what’s known as the alliance’s ‘enhanced forward presence,’ it’s deployment of troops eastwards to reassure worried allies and deter any Russian move west. NATO has dispatched four battalion-sized battle groups, one deployed in Poland, one in each of the three Baltic republics: Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The US has also begun to bring back heavy armored units to Western Europe.” It’s also been reported by AP that President Trump will meet President Putin at the G20 next week. So this feels very much like the old days of the Cold War.
Now joining us to talk and perhaps debate all of this, first of all, joining us from Farmington, Connecticut is Bill Curry. Bill’s a columnist for salon.com and The Daily Beast, and he was White House Counselor to President Bill Clinton. And joining us from Moscow is Jeffrey Tayler. Jeffrey is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the author of seven books. He has lived in Moscow since 1993 and recently outlined his proposal for a new detente between the US and Russia called “The Deal Trump Should Strike with Putin.” Thanks very much for joining us.
BILL CURRY: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: Bill, why don’t you start this off and make the basic argument that you think this Russia, Putin, it should be taken seriously.
BILL CURRY: I’ll take a stab at it, Paul. One of the problems with making this argument is that it’s so easily confused with other arguments that aren’t as good. One of them is the argument made today in USA Today by Senator McCain that this is a national security, in the conventional sense, threat to the United States that is a kind of continuation of the historic roles the two countries played vis-à-vis one another. It’s a different kind of threat, and it’s not …
Just make a couple points. One, it’s not Russia. To me, it’s Putin. It’s not about the use of military force against Europe. It is about corruption, however. Cyberwarfare is one of the many ways in which it’s gotten easier for people to go to war. In the United States, the Congress doesn’t do anything. We don’t have to pay the taxes. Now we send drones. It’s just made it all too easy to slip into wars that are never good for anyone. Cyberwarfare sort of falls into that category.
The second piece of it is what he’s using the cyberwarfare for, and that is the corruption of what is already a precarious institution, and that is our democracy both here and really throughout the world. So Putin’s hostility to democracy, his almost scornful contempt for it, the way he governs at home, the alliances he makes, and his subversive activities in other democracies are what make him a threat today. It is this behavior itself which comprises the threat.
I believe it is a real threat. I believe the fact that the United States, to its eternal detriment, has been doing similar things in other countries all over the world certainly since the last 19th century, it doesn’t make this less of a problem now. I wish there were some Democrat in Congress who would stand up and say this is the time for us to evaluate what we do. If Americans only knew that we brought down a democratically-elected prime minister in Iran in 1953 causing the enmity that has lasted three generations, that what we did to precipitate the conflict in Vietnam that bled us dry, the lies we told to get into Iraq and how much harm we did ourselves and the world.
This pattern of American involvement both overt military and covert that determined the destinies of other countries needs to be brought to an end. But that doesn’t mean that Putin doesn’t need to be called for what he is, which is at the very least a proto-fascist, and that his continued contempt for and corruption of democracy across the world doesn’t pose a threat.
PAUL JAY: Okay. Jeffrey.
JEFFREY TAYLER: I think we have to look first of all at the world that Putin came into when he took over in 2000. The post-Cold War architecture of the world was built by the United States. During the ’90s, Russia was a vassal state basically of the United States, an ally of the United States, if an unruly one and extremely corrupt and violent one. During the Yeltsin years, there were murders of journalists and politicians as well. When Putin took over as president, he made overtures to the West. He talked about joining NATO. He talked about building a common security alliance from Vladivostok to Paris or whatever the phrasing was at the time, that is would include the West, that Russia would be included in the security structure. An after 9/11, he was the first leader to offer his unconditional support to the Bush presidency. He came on television a few hours after the attack.
He was spurned in these and became especially displeased with the way the United States was treating Russia when Russia refused to play along with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I think we have to go back to that and see how we have expanded NATO in violation of a promise that’s given orally to the Gorbachev administration by the George W. H. Bush administration as Germany was reuniting. The hostility that that has created has permeated Russian-American relations since the expansion began in the mid-’90s. George Kennan, the senior diplomat and architect of the containment policy, warned very clearly that if we expand NATO up to Russia’s borders, which we’ve done, we’ll kill democracy in Russia, we’ll set off a new Cold War that will probably end in a hot war. Well, his words seem to be being born out by events.
The questions to me that I would put to Bill is what is the end game here? What is the goal? Henry Kissinger once said, “The test of a policy is not how it begins but how it ends.” What is the goal to be pursued by this relentless assault against Russia and the refusal to cooperate on issues in which Russia and the United States have common interests, most obviously terrorism but also, in the case of the last year or two, especially in North Korea? We really do have more in common than we’re led to believe, and this constant barrage that’s aimed personally at Putin is not taken as being, in Russia at least, as criticism just of Putin. Because Russians are so overwhelmingly supportive of Putin, Russians take it personally. And this started with Obama in particular but with Hillary Clinton likening Putin to Hitler.
PAUL JAY: Right. Okay, let’s put that question to Bill, then. Go ahead.
BILL CURRY: Let me first just reference one thing that Jeff just said, and that is I agree with almost everything he just said. I do think that the question of the Eastern European countries bordering the old Soviet Union, now Russia is trickier than either side lets on. I do believe that what the United States ought to exemplify, what every developed democracy ought to exemplify is a commitment to self-determination. I’m for referenda on autonomy in Scotland. I’m for it if Staten Island wants to leave New York. I have no doubt that if you have a referendum in the Crimea, they’d go with Russia. I think the same is true of eastern Ukraine. I don’t think it’s true of western Ukraine, and I don’t think it’s true of any of those other countries, and those countries all made decisions about their well-being based upon centuries of experience with Russia. I don’t think they were being just paranoid.
The second thing that I want to say is we often talk about this as if the United States were supposed to be leading this policy. In some ways, it did when it shouldn’t have, and I regret that, and the country should regret it. But this will be Europe’s decision about how it views both the importance of those countries to its security and its willingness to invest in theirs. Just getting us to borrow a much belied phrase from some anonymous staffer of Barack Obama, it’s actually a place where we should be leading from behind because it’s not our backyard, it’s theirs.
Regarding the question of where this policy goes, I think it can go in the right direction. Any policy could move in the right direction if it makes the right distinctions. The distinction here is about, number one, the global subversion of democracy. This is a tool that an economically disempowered Russia and a militarily cautious Russia has chosen to utilize. Not even really to utilize but really to brandish. It’s not really clear how much of an effort Putin’s made to covering any of this up, and I think-
PAUL JAY: Bill. Bill, what are some examples of what you’re talking about?
BILL CURRY: The United States election, the election of Donald Trump without Comey. Hillary Clinton, I did everything I could to stop her from being nominated. I then did everything I could to get her elected because I think that when you see fascism, you should kill it in its crib. I put Trump in a category close to Putin on many counts. I do believe that those interventions in this election made the difference.
It’s hard having spent my life [inaudible 00:12:31] electoral politics, I’m always hard-pressed to believe anyone could interpret it otherwise. Not that she shouldn’t have done 100 things differently to secure the election to a degree that it couldn’t be stolen from her. I believe the president of France and the complaints that he’s made, they all seem plausible to me. Sometimes people will say that, borrowing from Shakespeare, that they protest too much. Putin doesn’t even protest that much when these accusations are leveled at him. There’s not all that much of attempt even to deny it.
So I think in this case, while our intelligence agencies have often given us bum steers, the 17 who agree it happened here, and the intelligence services of France that say it happened there are correct. At this point, Putin seems to show no appetite for reining this effort in. I do believe that it ought to be sanctioned. I do believe … I want to go back to what I said before that democracy is in such a precarious condition. Francis Fukuyama had it all wrong. This is nowhere near the end of history. These arrangements are not even near to being solid and reliable going forward.
PAUL JAY: Okay, Bill. Bill, let’s get Jeffrey in. Putin as a threat to global democracy is the basic charge I’m hearing. Jeffrey.
JEFFREY TAYLER: It’s pretty amazing to hear this repeated, not just by Bill but by so many others. When the instances that most commonly are cited, France for instance, Bill mentioned earlier, that chief of cybersecurity of France came out and denied that there was any evidence of Russian hacking after Macron had made the statement around the time of his campaign.
As far as the hacking scandal in the United Sates goes, I await an independent commission because I just don’t get the … There are so many allegations based on anonymous sources. We have 17 agencies we’re being told concurred in this when, in fact, it’s really only three, that the other agencies signed off on, and those were guarded assessments and not conclusions. The point is that Russia is comparatively weak and would not be able to sway the voters in Europe or sway the voters in the United States. And the Macedonian fellows who orchestrated these fake news sites, I just have a hard time believing that they significantly impacted the race.
But again, we come back to the question of where does this go? If Russia is made to feel an outsider to the international system, you can expect Russia to resist. Bill mentioned that Putin hasn’t overtly denied it. The Kremlin denied it from the start, and the Russians take a different attitude. Their power structures don’t communicate effusively with the public in the same way that they do in the West. Putin just … In a sense, he’s not dignifying some of the allegations with a lot of attention, but they have come out repeatedly and said it was not true. Putin recently told that to Megyn Kelly. So you can expect him to be somewhat disdainful, if they didn’t do it, of the questions put to him because he knows Russia didn’t do it.
I say that we should have an independent commission to determine that, and the question still begs to be asked, then, where do we do from here? In the situation we’re in with Baltic states being in NATO, they have been now for more than a decade, we are approaching the military exercises in September on the Russian side. The tensions are very high. There’s a risk of war again. There are repeated intercepts both of Russian planes intercepting United States and the other way around. Just last week, a Russian military newspaper reported that they had intercepted 17 times NATO planes flying near the borders. These things can go wrong. They don’t need to continue. The two sides need to get together and decide what the [crosstalk 00:16:39]-
PAUL JAY: Jeffrey. Jeffrey, before we get to that question you’re raising, and we will next, but deal first of all with sort of the core of Bill’s accusation against Putin, which is all wrapped up in this term, that he says he’s some kind of a fascist. He uses the word, and that puts Putin in a different kind of character in terms of how people should think about this whole issue of Russian interference in elections and such.
JEFFREY TAYLER: When I hear the word fascist, I don’t just think of the official definition of the term. I think of Hitler and Mussolini and the mass extermination of the Jews in the Second World War. Obviously, Putin is nowhere near anything like that, nor is he anything like Stalin. I think we just have to get back to dealing with heads of state as heads of state and stop the name calling and understand the common interests should outweigh the personal feelings that we might have towards the Russians or in the case of Russians toward the United States. That’s what Nixon and Kissinger did. That’s what Reagan and James Baker did at the end of the Cold War. There was no love lost for Reagan with the Soviet Union, yet he managed to strike a deal with Gorbachev and end the Cold War peacefully. That’s what needs to happen again.
PAUL JAY: Bill, you continue to use that word-
BILL CURRY: First of all, I agree with that, but go ahead, Paul. I’m sorry.
PAUL JAY: I was saying you continue to use that word, which is, I guess it’s meant to be, but it is an inflammatory word. What do you make of what Jeffrey’s saying-
BILL CURRY: [crosstalk 00:18:19].
PAUL JAY: That this is not an appropriate kind of language to use about Putin?
BILL CURRY: Let me just say first of all, I think the single individual, the world leader I hear use it the most is Putin. He uses it for reasons of his own, but let me tell you why I use it. I use it with reference to Trump as well, by the way. I realize that it’s important that everyone understand that the word fascist doesn’t mean Nazi. In a way, it’s too bad that Hitler robbed us of the word fascist by so commingling it with such horrible evil.
But what fascist does mean is a hypernationalist, and it means the use of violence to suppress your opponent. It means the shutting down of all politic dissent at the marketplace of ideas. It means identifying vulnerable minorities and scapegoating them as unpatriotic conspirators. It means usually the merger of corporate and state interests. It means hypermilitarism.
Putin checks every single box. I’ve had this discussion about Trump. People say, “How can you call him a fascist, and yet The New York Times calls him a populist?” That’s not nearly as close as fascist, nor is liberal or conservative or Republican. All political labels are best used with conscience in precision. The point in every debate is to get to the one that comes closest to illuminating rather than clouding the issue.
I do believe, you can pick a better word if you think you have one, and I’m open to it, but a corruptive authoritarianism is a disease just as corruption itself is a disease endemic on this planet right now. We’re in a global pandemic of corruption, which is at the center of the political debate in countries all over the world right now, not in ours, in that Putin is one of the people who is really an avatar of the problem and a promoter of it at the same time. That’s what I want to isolate and to look at. I take Putin not quite in the way that Jeffrey does. When he says he’s not in the eastern Ukraine, he’s lying. All the evidence we have says that he’s lying about his interference in these elections.
But let me just say that I tried here not to jump ahead of it. The stage we’re at here is probable cause, not conviction. I agree. I want the commission. I want Congressional and independent commissions. I’m hoping that the FBI and the Justice Department will do their jobs. I’m hoping that we can root this out. But in the meantime, the problem with all public corruption cases is that it takes so long to settle them. George Bush can say he can’t say a thing about Scooter Libby because there’s a trial going on, but the investigation will go on for years.
PAUL JAY: Okay, let-
BILL CURRY: We have to make decisions right now about where we stand. The evidence to me that Jeff seems to me to slight a little bit, the evidence to me seems overwhelming.
PAUL JAY: Okay, let’s just set aside the election thing for a minute because I want to focus on this issue. Jeffrey, would Bill’s definition of what a modern fascist is, and that Putin checks all the boxes, and he says Trump does, too, but we’re talking about Putin right now, do you disagree with that?
JEFFREY TAYLER: Listen, Putin is the embodiment of a Russian tradition that extends back centuries, an authoritarian ruler who controls both, in a certain way, business and the government. This has been a tradition in Russia. It was obviously the case in the Soviet Union where the state controlled the economy, and it was to a great extent in czarist Russia where senior figures in the business community were basically allowed to be so by the czar. They were granted … Anyway, the point is that Russians will never be as Americans are. There’s no liberal Western democratic-style politician waiting in the wings, waiting to take over from Putin if he were to die or be overthrown. In fact, you would get the opposite. So this problem is not going to go away when Putin goes away. He’s a mortal, so that could happen.
We have to understand that this means Russia has a unique system amongst the major European powers, to put it that way, but it’s also an Asian power. We just have to deal with the Russians as they are, agree to disagree on certain things, and move away from psychoanalysts or any other kind of analyst that becomes intrusive into the discourse to the point where we can’t have a normal discourse between two countries that have massive nuclear arsenals and that can destroy the world. We have to put aside the definitions and start talking about what we can do to ratchet down this conflict before we wake up one morning and discover that there’s been a collision and that the nuclear missiles are being launched.
That is a reasonable fear to have these days. It has been reasonable especially since the last three years with the Ukraine crisis breaking out. But earlier this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock 50 seconds closer to midnight. We are in as dangerous a situation as we were in in the early 1950s at the height of the Cold War when we had no dialogue with Russia, with the Soviet Union. We’re basically in the same situation today, although the sides communicate in ways they didn’t back then. We’ve got to stop this.
PAUL JAY: Okay-
BILL CURRY: Could I jump in-
PAUL JAY: Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, we’re going to give you the last word. But this is obviously just the beginning of a much broader debate.
BILL CURRY: Yeah, I agree with so much that Jeffrey has said. I wish we could sort of pierce through some of the polarities of this. One thing I would just like to point out is that I, by the way, think that among the many instances of our self-destructive intercessions in economies and democracies of other countries is Russia. The United States went into Russia in the 1990s during that transition and told everybody to deregulate everything immediately, privatize everything immediately, and go for complete austerity. They didn’t realize what a free market really was. We sent ideologues over there to do things that we’ve actually never done or only came to do some of later.
I don’t quite read the history in the same way that Jeffrey does. I think there was a moment when democracy was very popular in Russia and Vietnam. There are lots of places in the world where we squandered the reputation of democracy through our ideologues abroad programs of both Democratic and Republican administrations. So I think the United States, almost as much as Russia, created Putin by its ham-handed intercessions in Russia, and I don’t think that Russia is a hostage to the history that Jeffrey describes. I don’t think any country is.
And I do agree as the former political director of the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s, I do worry very much about what he said. I actually think that Donald Trump is more likely to stumble into a nuclear war than Vladimir Putin is to cause one on purpose. I don’t want to see these issues transmuted into the old national security doctrines that have done so little to make us safe. I think that we need to do what we can to support democracy through the force of law, not export it by the force of arms or in any other way.
Lastly, I just want to say I agree very much that getting all these other issues back on the table in a different environment is exactly what both countries need to do right now, and I pray they will do. But it doesn’t mean that this issue of the corruption of democracy ought to be ignored.
PAUL JAY: Okay. We’re going to end this for now, but I hope both of you come back, and we can continue this. Clearly, we’re just kind of scratching the surface here. We’re also going to post an interview I did with Jeffrey a few weeks ago, which more or less, the title of his article was also the title of our piece, which is “The deal Trump should strike with Putin,” and as I mentioned, Trump is going to be meeting with Putin at the G20. We’ll carry this on because I think we do want to turn the corner into what a more constructive engagement might look like. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us.
JEFFREY TAYLER: My pleasure.
BILL CURRY: Thank you.
JEFFREY TAYLER: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.