Where globalization fits into the Russian interference story (and vice versa)

An interview with Ian Bond, Director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform in London

[This is part of a series of interviews with European security experts on the Russian influence campaign.]

A Taiwanese garment factory in Nicaragua (Credit: 總統府, Presidential Office of Taiwan/Flickr)

In the background of the ongoing investigation of the Russian influence campaign is the larger story on the Kremlin’s “soft strategies” to undermine confidence in Western political systems. The implication is that the rise of Trump’s alt-right movement in America, like other right-wing populist movements in the West, is not a legitimate reflection of discontent with established (centrist) party politics — that the electoral successes of Trump and Brexit, as well as near misses by Geert Wilders and Marine le Pen, owe their place in history to email hacks, troll armies, and other elements of an information war waged in each case by a foreign enemy seeking the downfall of the West.

But this view is not supported by security experts in Europe who have been following post-Soviet dealings with the West for more than two decades. In an earlier interview, Mark Galeotti explained how the rise of populist movements on the left and right are the result of a crisis in market-driven liberal democracies connected to accelerated globalization. While Russia has tried to exploit this crisis to further its geopolitical aims, their efforts, according to Galeotti, have had little effect on the overall situation. There are, moreover, certain dangers in a situation where the Russian influence story is allowed to take front and center in the ongoing discussion of the causes of America’s changing political landscape.

In this interview, I discuss the rise of populist nationalism and the Russian interference story with Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform in London. Bond has twenty-eight years experience in the UK’s Foreign Office and NATO Headquarters, and has worked on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, as well as advising on NATO and UK defense policy. From 2007 to 2012, he was political counselor and joint head of the foreign and security policy group at the British Embassy in Washington, DC.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The rise of populist nationalist movements in places like the UK, America, Holland and France has been linked to various efforts by the Kremlin to promote them, including its alleged attempts to influence the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election. But Mark Galeotti, Coordinator of the Centre of International Security, believes Russia’s role in this trend has been dramatically overplayed. What do you think?

I basically agree with Mark. The Kremlin has not created these discontents or these movements. The problems of inequality, the problems of alienation and loss of trust in the political process were there before Vladimir Putin came to power, and they have probably intensified in recent years, certainly since the 2008 economic crisis. The roots of those problems go back further.

But I wouldn’t blame globalization. This has a lot to do with the policy choices that Western governments have made. You can take an intensely globalized economy, particularly in any of the Scandinavian countries, and they seem on the whole to have managed these problems rather better than most of us. They haven’t avoided all the issues of populism and nationalism and so on, but they’ve managed to keep them in check by putting a higher priority on issues of social inequality than we have in the United States and the UK. As I say, the problems are preexisting.

What role, if any, do you think the Kremlin has played in these developments?

At the end of the day, Putin is a good KGB man. He said it himself, “there are no former Chekists.” He hasn’t forgotten anything he learned when he was a KGB officer, and one of them is how to exploit your opponent’s weakness.

Now you have a lot of people in the West who feel alienated from the political process, and rather than blaming government errors of policy, they are blaming foreigners or dark forces they don’t understand, or the EU, or whatever.

This is the weakness of Western society. The extent to which Russia has exploited the different populist movements is variable. I don’t question the idea that Putin and those around him have had a hand in it. It’s just that there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Is there an easy fix? I mean, are there specific policy failures that led to the electoral successes of Brexit and Trump, failures that we need to identify and address? Or are you thinking of broader, more systemic issues within the current model of Western liberal democracy?

I don’t think there’s any easy fix. But I would definitely start by looking at the resilience of our own societies. I’ve visited most of the states that voted for Trump at one time or another, and to the extent that I understand the upper Midwest, I would say it shares many of the same problems and trends as Northern England [which carried the Brexit vote].

In both cases, there is a significant number of people who, despite lacking a higher education, expected to land well paid, physically demanding industrial jobs. But those jobs by and large have been automated or sent overseas.

Politicians in the UK and America have failed to address this problem in a variety of ways.

First of all, they’ve failed to invest sufficiently in retraining. They’ve failed to invest enough on infrastructure in these localities in a way that would make them attractive destinations for other kinds of investment. And they’ve failed to be honest about why things are the way they are.

That’s what has made these areas ripe for exploitation by populists who can come along and say, “The reason you’re suffering is that you’ve being cheated by…” and whether they tell you it’s immigrants from Central Europe in the case of the UK, or Mexicans in the case of the US, nationalist populist politicians have been able to profit on a basic weakness in the West that begins with the economy.

“Whatever happened is not your fault. It’s the fault of the other,” they say. “And by the way, it’s corrupt political elites who have made it that way. If you vote for me, I’ll solve the problem for you.”

In the 2016 election, there were many proposals for addressing labor frictions and other kinds of social inequality caused by globalization. But there is significant resistance in America — now by both major parties — to anything that sounds like social welfare. By and large, we tend to favor market-based solutions.

The market won’t take care of issues like education and infrastructure unless there are incentives to do so. In some cases, you just have to accept that the market is part of the problem.

The government can either take on those issues and invest in infrastructure — and I’d argue that that’s actually a very sensible thing to do, particularly at a time of historically low interest rates — , or it can set up systems of incentives that will encourage the private sector to do the job —but that is not very efficient, and you can end up paying a lot more for the money, as it were.

Do you think that shifting the blame to Russia — or, more aptly, shifting the conversation to Russia — puts America at risk of repeating the kinds of policy mistakes that led to the rise of populist nationalism?

Yes, absolutely. The Trump narrative is that it’s all the fault of the Mexicans and the Chinese. The Democrats have now got sucked into a narrative in which it’s all the fault of the Russians. The first step should be to accept that quite a lot of this is our fault.

Getting back to the Russian question, it does seem to me that Putin and the Putin administration have done a very good job of exploiting these kinds of weaknesses in the West — I’m not giving the Russians a pass by any means.

But if you took Russia out of the equation, the problems that gave rise to Trump would still be there, and we would still need to address them in one way or another.

What did you think about the declassified US Intelligence report of January 6?

The report itself struck me as a typical declassified product. All the interesting stuff which really helps you to understand what’s going on was missing. But it’s the best that could be done under the circumstances. Still, it did not strike me as particularly helpful.

Do you agree with the allegations in that report against RT America?

One has to look at RT not only as a broadcasting phenomenon but as a social media phenomenon. There’s no question that RT has a line in the UK, which in the run-up to the Brexit vote ran anti-EU stories and gave a platform to British politicians who were in favor of leaving the EU. I don’t think anyone who favored staying in the EU ever got a platform on RT.

Generally, across Europe, RT has focused on stories which are about how bad migrants are, how Angela Merkel has destroyed Europe by letting immigrants into Germany, and so on.

Now, does RT get a mass audience? Well, as a broadcast medium, no, it certainly doesn’t. It does seem to get a lot of hits on YouTube and so on. But it’s hard for me to know how many of those are authentic and how many were generated through bots of one sort or another.

Putin obviously is not an ideological figure in the way that his predecessors in the Cold War were. And I don’t think RT is ideological in the way that Pravda or Izvesti, or even Radio Moscow were during the Cold War era. They’ve become much more interested in general disruption.

In America, they seem to side with outsiders on the left. In any case, Annex A in the intelligence report suggests that RT gave a mouthpiece to Occupy Wall Street in 2012 as part of a strategy to “undermine faith in the US Government and fuel political protest.” Looking at America through the lens of the Russia interference story, doesn’t it seem like every possible criticism of government has devolved into the stuff of conspiracy theory?

Yes, but there’s a big difference between saying, on the one hand, that a lot of congressmen take large donations from the financial services sector and then vote against tighter regulation of that sector (which I would suggest is a matter of public record), and on the other, saying that the Obama administration faked the Sandy Hook Massacre in order to justify overturning the Second Amendment and take guns away from God-fearing Americans.

You may exaggerate the influence that this or that group has, but if you can see that money is being funneled to your political leaders, the chances are it’s not being done for altruistic reasons.

I was reading one of your recent papers on Russia, and it seems to boil down to the idea that competition for markets in Central Europe and the former Soviet states presents a real threat to Russia’s economic sovereignty, especially since the West tends to out-compete Russia in the globalized free-trade scenario. I imagine this is one of the main reasons Russia has resorted in recent years to “information war” against the West. Is that a fair assessment?

The only part of that I would challenge is the word “out-competes.” I don’t think Russia is trying to compete with globalization. I think they’re trying to disrupt it.

To some extent at least Medvedev got the point that if Russia was going to grow economically, it was going to have to shift away from a model based largely on natural resources. Now Putin has reverted back to that model.

He did this because to go the other direction involves a certain loss of control. The innovative high-tech based economy requires that you take certain risks in which you may win or lose. That’s not really the way Putin’s mind works. He’s simply not keen on letting the market solve problems.

If the West, or at least parts of the West, have put too much trust in the market to solve problems that the market won’t solve, with Putin it’s the opposite.

I’m thinking now about the 2013 bidding war between Westinghouse Electric (WEC) and Russian Rosatom to refurbish the Temelín power plant in Czech Republic. Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time, lobbied the Czech Prime Minister to secure the deal for Westinghouse. But Clinton really saw it as a matter of energy security for the EU. So it seems to me that economic and geopolitical interests are closely intertwined, at least with respect to energy.

The basic notion that there’s a political competition as well as a strict energy sales competition is absolutely right. Nobody wants to be put in the position that Ukrainians were in with the various gas cut-offs, where essentially you have a more or less monopoly supplier, and if you fall out with them then they can inflict serious damage on you.

It’s quite interesting looking at the difference between Europe and China in this respect. There are a significant number of European countries who have allowed themselves to become tied to Russia as a monopoly supplier of at least one of their main fuel sources.

What’s interesting about the Chinese is that they are highly diversified across all fuels. Whether it’s oil, gas or coal, there’s no single country that dominates their supplies of any of those fuels, nor is it the case that there’s one country that features larger than any of the others across the fuels. They’ve put themselves — quite consciously, I assume — in a position that if they fell out with any supplier of any single fuel, it wouldn’t make a significant difference.

You said at the beginning of this interview that you wouldn’t blame globalization for the crisis of legitimacy in the West. But my sense is that, more and more often, everybody else will. Is there any evidence that globalization can continue without further contributing to the conditions that give rise to populist nationalism?

Your view on globalization is going to depend very much on where you sit. If you are someone in China who is now living in a nice city apartment, when your parents and grandparents were starving in rural China, you’d probably think that globalization is doing pretty well by you. Your working conditions in an electronics factory might be pretty tough, but you might still feel that you are moving into a global middle class.

If you’re somebody in a Rust Belt town in Ohio or the British equivalent — a former mining town in the North of England — , you probably have a very different view. I think that makes it quite difficult to find a single story that’s going to fit all those groups.

There are hundreds of millions of people who might reasonably say they’ve been lifted out of poverty by globalization. But that doesn’t mean telling the tens of millions in Western countries who have been adversely affected by globalization, “Tough luck. You just have to get on with it.”

It’s an incredibly difficult problem, and I think most Western politicians have not even really attempted to tackle it.

We often talk here about the crisis of legitimacy in the EU. In a sense, that’s all bound up with this. How do you get people to see the connection between the votes they cast in an election and the people who sit on the European Council and European Commission? It’s very difficult.

I keep going back to education. It was striking, during the lead-up to the Brexit vote, to find that one of the biggest problems was not how few people understand how the EU works, but how few people understand how British government works.

And because they don’t really understand how British government works, they attribute to Brussels powers that are actually exercised right here in London. In other words, people’s sense of disempowerment comes in part from the fact that they don’t know what powers they have.

But aren’t there also reasons we might say ordinary people really have lost control, not just in terms of jobs, etc., but in terms of making sense of the big events that have shaped our social and political lives in the West? The 2003 Resolution to invade Iraq, for instance, was and still is very difficult to make sense of. And this has contributed at least in part to a situation in which competing theories — I guess some would say conspiracy theories — begin to find an audience.

Sometimes it is pretty inexplicable. During the lead-up to the Iraq War, Tony Blair had that messianic glint in his eye. I think he genuinely believed it was the right thing to do. It turned out to be a catastrophic mistake on many levels.

Having spent twenty-eight years in the Foreign Office, I’ve become a great subscriber to the cock-up theory of history. Faced with an inexplicable event that’s had terrible consequences, and presented with a choice between the cock-up and the conspiracy, nine times out of ten it’s the cock-up that is the correct explanation.

Twenty-eight years of diplomacy has taught me that most of the time stuff goes wrong, that’s the explanation. It’s a cock-up. A snafu. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t somebody waiting in the wings to make it worse.

There’s no reason to say, in old Stalinist terms, that 2016’s electoral upsets were results of Russian sabotage. It could simply be the case that when the machine breaks down, there’s always someone in the warehouse whose job is to make sure that the right spare part is not properly dispatched.


Peter Gaffney is a freelance writer with bylines in Salon, Alternet and Counterpunch. He has taught courses on the theory and history of visual culture and the public sphere at University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College and The Curtis Institute of Music. He tweets @PeterDGaffney.