All eyes will be on Switzerland next week, where Russian President Vladimir Putin and his US counterpart, Joe Biden, are set to meet for their first head-to-head since the American leader took office, and amid escalating tensions.
Despite all the speculation, it isn’t entirely clear what Washington wants from the encounter and the White House has been sending mixed messages about its purpose. On the one hand, Biden has said the point is to facilitate a return to stable and predictable relations.
However, on the other, he has used the lead-up to the encounter to ramp up the rhetoric and suggest he plans to lecture and talk down to Putin, who Biden undiplomatically branded a “killer” earlier this year. That confused messaging is a sign of the trap the US has set up for itself.
Ideology at play
Propaganda, and developing a narrative, relies primarily on setting the terms of reference by which the public interprets events in the world. The population ultimately relies on a framework to filter through the complexities of global events, and governments invest significant resources to create the frame most convenient to them and control the narrative.
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Ideally, it consists of simple binaries that represent the world through a Manichean lens – nefarious rivals and trustworthy allies. Historically, the US and Russia have been juxtaposed as Western versus Eastern, civilized versus barbaric, modern versus backward, freedom versus slavery, European versus Asiatic, or even good versus evil. During the Cold War, ideological dividing lines fell naturally by casting the debate as capitalism versus communism, democracy versus totalitarianism, and Christianity versus atheism.
After the Cold War though, relations have again been re-ideologised as liberalism versus authoritarianism. As long as all world events are filtered through this prism – the US will, at worst, be seen to do the wrong thing for the right reason and Russia the right thing for the wrong reason.
The rhetorical trap
Presenting competing interests solely as good versus bad values is extremely powerful in terms of mobilising the public and securing resources for the fight against an opponent.
During World War I, US President Woodrow Wilson was able to convince a reluctant population to join the war against Germany, by depicting the war as the decisive struggle between good and evil—the “war to end all wars”. The rhetorical trap became evident when it was time to end the war. Compromise and a durable settlement was then tantamount to appeasement of evil, and the only acceptable outcome was complete victory and imposing humiliating conditions that ultimately led to the second conflict.
The US has set a similar rhetorical trap for itself in regards to Russia. How can Washington reach a compromise to reduce tensions when all conflicts are portrayed as a struggle between good and evil? Taking an uncompromising stance towards the country has become a condition for political legitimacy, and every concession the Kremlin is offered can be attacked as a betrayal of democracy and human rights.
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Only American leaders with sufficient anti-Russian credentials have the political capital to negotiate a compromise with Moscow. Ronald Reagan, a fierce adversary of the Soviet “evil empire”, could enjoy the political space needed to reach necessary agreements with its leaders. In contrast, Donald Trump expressed affinity towards Russia and could therefore easily be castigated as a secret Russian agent, which made it impossible to achieve the apparently treasonous objective of “getting along with Russia”.
Biden’s hawkish rhetoric against Russia may similarly reflect the need to assert his anti-Russian credentials required to negotiate with Moscow. In his time in office, Barack Obama also revealed in a hot mic moment with President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have “more flexibility” after his re-election (in 2012), which implies that cooperating with Russia is not a recipe for election victory. (RT)
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