Why the Russia Story is Significant

Since Donald Trump became president of the United States, you’ve probably noticed the media attention devoted to his possible (is it confirmed now? I’ve lost track!) collusion with Russia during the campaign, and Russia’s efforts to swing public opinion in his favor ahead of the election. Chances are you also know that Trump strongly dislikes it. In large part, this antipathy probably stems from a sense that the focus on Russian interference tarnishes his (electoral college) victory. But there are other implications, such as that Trump is in some sense a puppet of Putin. Critics of Trump have told the story in various ways, emphasizing different elements to make several distinct points. Trump himself has tried to bat away the story by calling it “fake news,” but as the Mueller investigation continues, it won’t go away.

While most left-wing critics of Trump have been among the most vocal in sounding the alarm on Russian influence, some on the left have criticized the media’s focus on this topic. An internal debate among writers for The Nation, a left-wing magazine, has taken place about their coverage of the Russia story. I’ve heard the case that focus on the Trump-Russia connection, and the broader story about Russia’s use of propaganda to influence global public opinion, is a distraction from Trump’s devastating policies. The American media undoubtedly prefers an exciting story about Russian influence to dry articles about policy, but the Russia story is much more than a distraction. Left commentators who entirely dismiss this multifaceted story are either missing or willfully ignorant of some of its most important aspects.

I’ll start with one of the most often mentioned points: Trump’s affinity for Vladimir Putin says a lot about the kind of leader he is. Praise for authoritarian leaders elsewhere means that Trump will continue to stretch the limits of what an American president can say and do. And of course if there are tangible ties between Trump and the Russian state, that’s deeply concerning. Less discussed are the effects of Russia’s propaganda.

Russia-supported propaganda bolsters the racist right. A Politico Magazine story about a dashboard monitoring Russia-backed Twitter accounts notes that “[f]or three consecutive days in August, the most retweeted Russia Today stories recorded by the dashboard involved scaremongering videos appearing to show refugees swarming into Spain, as well as a story alleging that the German government is suppressing news of refugee crimes.” The alt-right’s authoritarian ideology meshes well with Putin’s attack on the usefulness and efficacy of democracy. Russian state media has also offered support for racist movements throughout Europe, such as the French National Front.

Crucially, Russia’s misinformation supports its geopolitical agenda. Russian government news outlets and Russia-promoted content attempts to mold opinion on international issues, especially Syria and Ukraine, in line with its interests. According to the Politico Magazine piece,

One of the most prevalent themes pushed by RIOT [Russian Influence Operations on Twitter] is the promotion of conspiracy theories that muddy the waters regarding any wrongdoing by Russia or its allies, particularly the Syrian regime. This material is significantly promoted over social media, with occasional help from the attributed outlets. Examples over the past year include conspiracy theories seeking to discredit Bana al-Abed, a young girl in Syria who tweeted about the civil war with assistance from her mother, and reports of chemical attacks by the Syria regime

Some writers on the left have participated in this conspiracy commentary. It is unclear whether there is a connection between a group of left-wing pro-Assad bloggers and Russian state media, but there clearly is a symbiosis. Russian state media and commentators from other platforms are spreading lies in real time, with the practical effect of discouraging international action to protect civilians under attack by the Syrian and Russian governments. The consequence of a post-truth, “alternative facts” politics is that the global public is cross-pressured between reading calls for solidarity from survivors of war crimes and seeing propaganda outlets deny that the crimes ever happened.  Muhammad Idrees Ahmad writes about denialism and “moral atrophy” here.

In the U.S., the biggest counter to propaganda is political education and news literacy. If Russia wishes to discredit democracy, the U.S. needs to respond by deepening democracy and making it more participatory and inclusive. And the left needs to develop an internationalism that emphasizes solidarity with people, not states, to flip Sam Hamad’s summary of Jeremy Corbyn’s stance.

The Russia story, and Russian propaganda, should be taken seriously. While Trump-Russia ties are being investigated, we should recommit to seeking the truth and educate each other on how to ignore propaganda.

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“A Crisis of Solidarity”

United States president Donald Trump made his first appearance at the United Nations this week, delivering an address to the General Assembly on September 19th. It went about as well as most analysts expected. Trump’s first significant foray into policy was about North Korea, and he took the opportunity to make the abhorrent threat “to totally destroy” the country if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies.” If taken literally, that would of course be a war crime.

The second Trump target was Iran, and the world was treated to the bizarre spectacle of the U.S. president trashing a diplomatic agreement—the Iran nuclear deal—that was brokered in large part by the United States itself and remains in effect. But that inconsistency is not what was most problematic. Aside from the danger in and of itself of America abandoning the Iran deal, Trump’s rhetoric has implications for North Korea. In an article for The New York Times, David E. Sanger writes:

Presumably, the United States would have to make some concessions to North Korea in return for limits on its nuclear program. But why negotiate with the United States if this president or the next one can just throw out any agreement?

Taken on its own, Trump is correct in criticizing Iran for using its resources to “shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship” and “fuel Yemen’s civil war.” But with regard to Yemen, Trump reaches the depths of cynical hypocrisy by ignoring the devastating bloodshed and suffering caused by Saudi Arabia in that country. Slate’s Fred Kaplan emphasizes this discrepancy:

[Trump] said nothing about the similarly dreadful records of Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In fact, he praised Saudi Arabia—where, he noted, he was “greatly honored” to speak earlier this year—for its agreement to stop “radical Islamic terrorism,” ignoring the Saudis’ longtime support for certain terrorist movements and the country’s cruel bombing of civilians in Yemen, with our own shameful abetting.

The following is Trump’s brief discussion of Syria and the crimes of the Assad regime:

We seek the de-escalation of the Syrian conflict, and a political solution that honors the will of the Syrian people. The actions of the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad, including the use of chemical weapons against his own citizens — even innocent children — shock the conscience of every decent person. No society can be safe if banned chemical weapons are allowed to spread. That is why the United States carried out a missile strike on the airbase that launched the attack.

Trump clearly condemned Assad and touted the U.S. missile strike this spring, but he indicated no plan going forward, such as the creation of a no-fly zone or further strikes on Syrian government air bases. In fact, he justified the spring missile strike as an attempt to stop the spread of chemical weapons. But by focusing on stopping the use of chemical weapons, Trump gives Assad leeway to kill by other means, such as devastating barrel bombs.

Missing from the speech entirely was condemnation of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and any mention of climate change.

The address was not without overarching themes, but they were not particularly consistent with Trump’s actual policy positions. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor looks at Trump’s selective support for the principle of sovereignty. Tharoor also unpacks Trump’s supposed “principled realism:”

The irony is that Trump’s international agenda is neither principled nor pragmatic, and has always been guided by ideology first. Both Trump and [adviser Stephen] Miller care chiefly about the narrow domestic base that catapulted Trump to power. So, in the most august chamber of international diplomacy, Trump stuck to his ultranationalist guns, extolling the “nation-state” as “the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” while saying little about democracy, human rights and the rule of law elsewhere.

Trump’s defense of a strong nation-state at the world’s intergovernmental organization is telling. I think The Guardian’s editoral on Trump’s speech nails it:

An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest.

Comparing Trump’s speech with the address by UN secretary-general António Guterres is a study in contrast. Guterres’ remarks addressed seven key issues, including nuclear proliferation, climate change, and violations of humanitarian law. Perhaps most striking were his comments on immigration and refugees:

we will not end the tragedies on the Mediterranean, the Andaman Sea and elsewhere without creating more opportunities for regular migration. This will benefit migrants and countries alike.

I myself am a migrant, as are many of you in this room. But no one expected me to risk my life on a leaky boat or to cross a desert in the back of a truck to find employment outside my country of birth.

Safe migration cannot be limited to the global elite.

That last line won a lot of applause. Summarizing his position on immigration and migration, Guterres asserted, “we do not only face a refugee crisis; we also face a crisis of solidarity.”

That crisis of solidarity is the failure of nations to provide safe haven to people fleeing violence, as well as the rhetoric of politicians who blame immigrants for society’s ills. A good example of that rhetoric was a section of Trump’s address where he pits migrants against struggling native-born citizens:

For the receiving countries, the substantial costs of uncontrolled migration are borne overwhelmingly by low-income citizens whose concerns are often ignored by both media and government.

Trump’s zero-sum approach to both global politics and migration is challenged by global solidarity, a concept that represents the best impulses of the UN. Although I don’t wish to present Guterres’ speech as perfect, his “crisis of solidarity” concept is a useful lens to view many global crises. It can shed light on climate change as well as global inaction in the face of violence and humanitarian disasters.

It’s important to consider how this crisis of solidarity can be solved. How can international bonds be strengthened, not only between countries but also between peoples, many of whom are in conflict with their own governments and local power structures? Rather than a retreat to nationalism and strong nation-states, how can we move toward global cooperation and achieve not only peace but also justice? These are the complex open questions that will remain after the General Assembly concludes and all the heads of state head home.

Climate Change and Revolutionary Love

8 or 9 years ago, before I had much of a political consciousness, I somehow became aware that the Earth was getting warmer. Due to humans burning fossil fuels and the level of CO2 ratcheting up in the atmosphere, we had created an environmental crisis that risked spiraling out of control. Despite not having the political or historical context to understand how something like climate change could become a reality, I realized that this was a crucial problem. I suddenly experienced an urgency that is easy to lose later in life. On some level, I knew that the climate crisis would define my life and the lives of my generation (along with others). Since, the magnitude of the crisis has only grown.

All politics is moral, or at least ethical, but it takes problems of great scale for that to register. Rev. Jacqui Lewis of the Middle Collegiate Church in New York City recently began a petition through the faith-driven platform Groundswell urging President Donald Trump, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, and House speaker Paul Ryan to act on climate change. The petition is titled, “In the case of historic hurricanes, love demands a reckoning with their true cause: climate change,” and Lewis takes the emergency response after 9/11 as an example of how we should respond in times of crisis:

If there’s anything September 11th, 2001 taught us, it’s that we should not give in to fear or succumb to terror. Instead in cases of emergency, we turn to our greatest strength: love. As this 9/11 anniversary is marked by the emergencies that are these hurricanes, we are called collectively to a greater love than many of us have ever known.

Around the world, there are climate and community activists reaching deep into their hearts and drawing on the powerful source of revolutionary love. Climate leaders now include the heads of major faiths, such as Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama. And yet entrenched economic interests have slowed urgent climate action to a crawl. Political figures, such as Trump, McConnell, and Ryan still minimize this crisis or deny that humans have caused climate change at all. Extreme weather puts the lie to this denial‑–hurricanes Harvey and Irma are only the latest domestic examples of disasters likely exacerbated by climate change. Globally, from flooding to drought, the cost of climate change is measured in human lives and the devastation of natural ecosystems. That’s happening right now. In addition, because of the nature of climate tipping points, action or inaction on climate change in the present will determine whether there will still be a hospitable planet to live on in the future.

Whether we will collectively meet this challenge depends on the efforts of those reaching into the activist toolbox and holding economic and political leaders to account. Rev. Lewis’ petition continues with a call to action:

We need leadership. You and I need to lead! We need a revolution, a love revolution. In cases of emergency, we know how to pull together. We rescue each other from burning buildings and from rising waters. We pull down moldy plaster and rebuild. We board up windows together, or fly each other out of danger. We open our doors and our hearts.

We stand up, we march, we sit in, we die in. We change the law. We change the tide. We make it better. We take care of each other. We have each other’s backs. Why? Because we are one human family, inextricably connected to each other. We need each other to live! We remember the emergency of 9/11. We helped each other on that terrible day. In this time of emergency, we must begin a love revolution, one that takes seriously climate change.

You can read the full petition text and sign on here.