The New York Times recently ran one of the most compelling and informative documentaries I’ve seen since Adam Curtis’ mind-blowing Century of the Self series. “Operation Infektion,” as it’s called, is a tragically, egregiously underpublicized and difficult to access trio of 15-minute videos — either lost to the ineptitude of the Times web staff or simply buried in the torrent of other daily news and treasonous revelations.
The films chronicle the Russian effort to spread conspiracy theories in the United States since the 1980s, beginning with the planted story in an Indian newspaper about the AIDS virus being concocted in a U.S. military lab, right through the story about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of the basement of a pizzeria — which turned out to have no basement. The movies show how 85 percent or more of Russian intelligence activity and budgeting went to promoting fake news stories in the United States. Intelligence agents’ yearly review focused primarily on how many ideas they came up with for conspiracies and how many they were able to get picked up by dupes, called “useful idiots,” such as Alex Jones and Sean Hannity. The possibility that a U.S. president would retweet such planted stories, or even repeat them in his speeches, was beyond their wildest hopes.
For anyone confused about or, worse, still doubting the Russian exploitation of Donald Trump’s campaign to sow division in the United States or of the campaign’s infiltration by Russian operatives, from Marina Butina to Paul Manafort, the videos are must-see TV. But they’re less important for their indictment of Trump and the agents he hired than for how they expose the way we all continue to buy into this manufactured animosity. So, no, the liberal elite did not infuse the landscape with today’s more belligerent forms of identity politics. Neither did the far right invent the most contagious conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton or George Soros. They are the result of four decades and hundreds of millions of dollars of targeted disinformation by Russia. Even more damaging than the stories themselves is how they make us feel about the “other side,” who we believe has stooped to this level of shameful lying and rhetoric. (And, as the metrics indicate, those of us who are outraged by a sick tweet are just as likely to spread it as those who agree!)
More important, though, is that this half-century Russian effort — and its embrace by the current administration — reveals more than a shared love for fake news. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump also share the opinion that the United States’ influence over the world, and its attendant responsibilities, have become too great. Just as the Soviet Union fell in the 1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush, Pax Americana should be dismantled under Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, or so goes the theory.
From the Russian perspective, it’s just tit for tat. The former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed in no small part due to economic and political pressure from United States throughout the Cold War. When the Soviet Union fell, George H.W. Bush was actually careful not to gloat. He likely understood that a vengeful Russia would be a dangerous Russia. For just as we helped break up the Soviet Union into Moldova, Estonia, Ukraine, Armenia, Georgia, and so on, Russia had its eye on undermining the European Union, breaking up NATO, and leaving its member states isolated and beyond the influence and protection of the United States.
Although Gorbachev was a moderate, the KGB under Putin continued its massive campaign to launch conspiracy theories in the West. As Putin rose to power, his efforts became better funded. It may have looked ridiculous at the time: The best that Russia could do to challenge the United States’ global power was to spread conspiracy theories on late-night radio? But Russia was playing a long game: Identify the existing disagreements and hot-button issues in the U.S. population and amplify them. Russia targeted like-minded communities — from gun owners and Christian fundamentalists to black activists and anti-war organizers — with extreme versions of their own beliefs and sensationalist lies about their opponents.
With the advent of social media, it became even easier to speak to one community, enrage its base, and turn opponents into inhuman enemies. Many protests and counterprotests over the past year were actually convened not by domestic activists but by Russian bots. And all this effort had nothing to do with the issues at stake but were simply to get Americans to a place where we no longer know what to believe. In the words of one of the former KGB agents running the effort, the idea was “to change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite an abundance of information, no one is able to come to a sensible conclusions in the interests of defending themselves, their families, their communities and their country.”
All this effort was intended to divide the U.S. empire — the United States, Europe, and its various allies — back into separate, self-interested nations. In the resulting landscape of individual countries, Russia would be relatively bigger and more powerful.
It worked even better than Russia planned. Not only is one of their most trustworthy conspiracy theorists in the White House, but also the United States is seriously considering isolationism as a national policy. Thanks at least in part to these campaigns, we have a president and a significant portion of the population who believe the United States is better off as a separate country, unencumbered by obligations to the alliances we established after World War II. It’s not simply that we are too busy fighting one another to defend ourselves from the rest of the world; we are now actively pursuing stronger boundaries and withdrawal from global pacts from the Paris climate agreement to the TPP and WTO.
Rather than trace this isolationism back to the propaganda and fake news that spawned it, we must now engage with nationalism in its own right. This is the way many Americans (and, by the same process, Brexiters) now feel, and it almost doesn’t matter why or how they came to feel this way.
A smaller, less influential United States is attractive in a lot of ways. It may not work so well for growth-based capitalism, which has always depended on expansion into new markets, but that could force positive changes in extractive corporatism. It also relieves the United States of the short-term expenses of protecting other people in other places. There’s a certain shame in standing by while people in China, Russia, Myanmar, or the Middle East are oppressed. But humanitarian crises are not the responsibility of a nation going it alone. “America first” doesn’t mean we can’t help other folks, just that we remove the plank from our own eye so we can see clearly enough to remove the speck from our brother’s.
It would be nice to think that Putin is simply encouraging us to accept our place in a new brotherhood of equal nations. But the problem with the United States’ retreat from the global stage is that Putin is advancing. Sure, he wants us to be a divided, paranoid, and self-obsessed nation — but only so he can pursue his own expansion into Ukraine, Syria, Iran, and beyond. While the United States dismantles its global apparatus, Russia will restore its own.
If the United States truly wants to adopt a less interventionist foreign policy, it should do so — but not for the wrong reasons. There’s a difference between empire and alliances. NATO and the United Nations are not extensions of the U.S. empire, but rather compromises made in the interest of a peaceful global order. If anything, maintaining a nation’s economic and military security without such alliances is harder and more expensive.
Worse, if the United States really does retreat into nationalism, exit its trade blocs, and dismantle its strategic alliances, the rest of the world will be left to negotiate arrangements with Russia and China instead—countries that prefer domination over alliance. This is where our constant state of distraction and infighting may prove debilitating. We are so ready to see our domestic adversaries as Russia would paint them that we are losing sight of who is turning us against one another, how they want us to respond, and what they mean to do after that.