“One of the most pathetic aspects of human history is that every civilization expresses itself most pretentiously, compounds its partial and universal values most convincingly, and claims immortality for its finite existence at the very moment when the decay which leads to death has already begun.”
— Reinhold Niebuhr
If the allegations about Russia holding a ‘sex tape’ on President-elect Trump were to be proved true, he would of course have to resign or be impeached. Quite apart from the moral issues involved, a man guilty of such appalling recklessness, stupidity and irresponsibility should not be employed as a janitor or window-cleaner by any government in the world.
But although these allegations have been around behind the scenes ever since Trump first emerged as a serious contender for the Republican nomination, not one shred of verifiable evidence for them has yet been produced. All we have is the word of a conveniently vanished former British intelligence officer (and if anyone thinks that is a reliable source, then there is a dodgy dossier that I would like to sell them) that he had the information from unnamed Russian intelligence sources, backed by suggestions by unnamed US intelligence sources that this information is credible.
In any other context, such a story would be dismissed out of hand as a plot by sections of Western intelligence determined to wreck any attempt at reconciliation with Russia. And indeed, the lack of any actual evidence for the story was why for the best part of a year the media refused to publish it, until BuzzFeed did so a few days ago.
By its very nature, this story cannot be proved or disproved except by the Russian intelligence services, who cannot do so; because if they have such a tape they cannot reveal it without destroying a US president with whom they hope to co-operate and doing appalling permanent damage to US-Russian relations, and when they say that they don’t have it they are automatically disbelieved by all those people in the West determined to think the worst of Trump and of Russia.
So this story will almost certainly never be ended one way or another – as was doubtless the expectation of its manufacturers if in fact it was manufactured. It will simply lurk around for years, weakening the Trump administration and blocking attempts at better relations with Russia, until the Trump administration comes to an end, when – like the Whitewater stories about the Clintons – it will retire again to its natural home on the wilder shores of the internet.
But the damage will have been done, and American democracy further poisoned, as it has been over the years by equally irresponsible and unproven conspiracy theories about Democratic presidents assiduously peddled by Republican extremists. Breitbart – to take only one example – should pay attention to this, and learn that all sides can play this miserable game.
The dangers for the US political system
The dangers of this for the US political system are especially vivid for me because of my work in Pakistan and other countries where the entire national intellect and public debate is addled and rotted by conspiracy theories which act as a substitute for serious thought about politics and essential but painful reforms. In this way, such conspiracy theories also serve the interests of the political and economic elites, which have the strongest interest in making sure that such reforms never take place. The result is to help hold in place a system of oligarchical rule in which different factions of the oligarchy periodically stir up the population with empty populist rhetoric while adamantly resisting any serious change.
This may be the awful prospect for the USA if present trends continue – a global superpower with the domestic politics of the Philippines or Argentina. As part of the struggle against such a future, all responsible members of the US political system should reach a sort of cultural and ethical agreement to shun unsubstantiated stories of this kind, unless they have been actually proved.
Another dangerous aspect of such political systems is that they are acutely vulnerable to manipulation from outside. This brings me to the other main allegations against Russia, that of helping to fund Trump’s campaign and more importantly hacking the emails of the Democratic Party. The latter accusation does seem to have real evidence behind it. Incidentally, it is worth pointing out however that this was not ‘misinformation’, as it has been called. No one has denied that the information about Hilary Clinton and her campaign was accurate, or that if a US journalist had revealed it, he or she would have been regarded as simply doing their job to give the electorate information that it did in fact have a right to know.
Above all, we need to remember that if the Russian government did in fact engage in these attempts to influence the US election, it was after all only imitating repeated and systematic US attempts to influence elections and undermine governments, not just in the former USSR, but in many other parts of the world. We need to remember this not just as a matter of fairness, and because we now know that we are vulnerable to retaliation in kind, but because this question goes to the heart of an old and fundamental issue in international relations: that of the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a range of different state forms in the international community. This issue is of crucial importance to the future of US relations with a range of states around the world, chief among them China.
Lessons from history
In his famous work on nationalism, the historian Elie Kedourie drew attention to the terrifying innovation of the French Revolution in asserting that only a republican or ‘national’ state enjoys real legitimacy, not just internally, but on the world stage (Kedourie, 2000). All other forms can legitimately be undermined and destroyed by republican states, and treaties between republican and non-republican states are not fully binding on the legitimate republican ones. This approach recalled the attitude of both sides in the Catholic-Protestant struggles between the Reformation and the Peace of Westphalia, that (in the catholic version), ‘agreements with heretics are not morally binding’. As Kedourie pointed out, this approach challenged a previous European state order (both in medieval times and the eighteenth century) in which the continent was composed of a wide range of different state forms, including constitutional monarchies, federal quasi-monarchies, absolute monarchies, confederal republics, and patrician republics, all of them according full legitimacy to each other.
The Soviet Union and Communist China were the direct heirs of the French Revolution in this regard. The ruling Communist parties of these states held as a matter of doctrine that only socialist states were legitimate, and that all others were legitimate targets of subversion and eventually destruction by revolution backed by Moscow or Beijing. Of course, in practice the USSR proceeded much more cautiously than this, and (just as the USA has always co-operated with authoritarian and even totalitarian allies) so Moscow sought alliances with ‘bourgeois’ states like India.
Nonetheless, the Communist principle remained, and the USSR did in fact seek to put it into effect wherever it could do so with reasonable safety. In Western Europe, throughout most of the Cold War Moscow backed Communist parties which sought (though with diminishing real commitment) to overthrow the existing political and economic systems of their countries. Fairly enough, the USA and the West reciprocated in kind, denying the legitimacy of Communist states, supporting individuals and movements aiming at their overthrow, and using Western intelligence services to this end.
With the arrival in power of Deng Xiao-ping in China and Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia, support for global revolution was ended and the full legitimacy of ‘bourgeois’ states recognised, and for 25 years after the end of the Cold War and the end of the USSR, there was no attempt whatsoever by either Russia or China to undermine Western states or influence domestic politics. There were of course attempts to influence US and Western international policies, and especially policies towards Russia and China, but this was by the wholly legitimate and universally practiced means of encouraging business lobbies and sympathetic commentators.
In the meantime, however, interference in the domestic politics of other states to spread democracy and undermine or destroy rivals had become a fixed part of US international strategy; with deep roots in American ideological nationalism, embedded in a range of official and semi-officials institutions, and apparently justified by the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the (as it now appears, perhaps temporary) democratisation of Eastern Europe. With regard to Russian domestic politics, US and Western officials have openly encouraged opposition movements and appeared at opposition rallies; the West has provided institutional bases for Western opposition groups in exile and even in the case of some of the Chechens for members of armed separatist rebellions; and the CIA has published alleged details of President Putin’s corrupt personal fortune clearly intended to discredit him and his regime and strengthen their opponents.
In the process, the US and European policy elites forgot – or chose to ignore – a number of things. Firstly, that it is never wise to adopt openly hostile approaches to other governments unless this is either really necessary from the point of view of your own interests and those of the world, or you are convinced that they cannot retaliate in kind. Secondly, it was not recognised that US involvement in domestic politics only worked where there was a consensus, at last at the elite level, that the national interests of the country concerned involved siding with the USA (as was true of the East Europeans in their desire to get away from Russia).
Wherever a national consensus – including among opponents of the regime – sees national interests as different from those of the USA, US attempts to influence domestic politics are likely to be suspected and resented as attempts to serve not democracy but the interests and power of the USA. This in turn only serves the regimes concerned, which can portray their domestic opponents as traitorous agents of the USA (a line now being taken by opponents of Trump in the USA). It can indeed be said without exaggeration that the only result of US involvement in domestic politics in Russia, China, and Iran has been to strengthen the regimes of the countries concerned.
Finally – even after the catastrophes of Iraq and Libya – there is almost no awareness among US policymakers of the fact that US attempts to change the regimes of other countries are likely to be seen not only by the elites of those countries but also by their populations as leading to – and intended to lead to – the destruction of the state itself, leading to disaster for its society and population. When the Communist regime in the USSR collapsed (though only in part under Western pressure), it took the Soviet state with it. The Russian state came close to following suit in the years that followed, Russia was reduced to impotence on the world stage, and large parts of the Russian and other populations suffered economic and social disaster. Remembering their own past experiences with state collapse, warlordism, famine, and foreign invasion, Chinese people looked at this awful spectacle and huddled closer to the Chinese state – one that they may dislike in many ways, but which they certainly trust more than anything the USA has to offer – especially given the apparent decay of democracy throughout the West.
In other words, US denial of legitimacy to other states, bringing with it the threat of domestic interference and subversion, is seen by those states and much of their populations as implicitly at least an existential threat, and such existential threats by definition make co-operative and peaceful relations much more difficult, if not impossible. This is a point made very cogently by Hugh White in his book The China Choice, in which he argues that a US recognition of the full legitimacy of the Chinese state is an essential part of establishing the US-Chinese relationship on a basis that will end the growing threat of catastrophic war (White, 2013).
Existential threats also of course virtually compel retaliation. This aspect has also been almost completely ignored by Western policy elites, whose entire approach (whether over domestic subversion, unilateral military action, regime change, or international sanctions) has been based on the belief that what is sauce for the goose will never under any circumstances be sauce for the gander. With the apparent involvement of Russia in the US electoral process over the past year, we can adapt the Prophet Isaiah to declare ait enim anser: The goose has spoken.
First published as “Is America Becoming a Third World Country?“ in The National Interest, 13 January 2017.