Mr Koch and the Russians

Only light blogging this week with Easter coming on, but it would be remiss not to draw your attention to a dispute that’s broken out this month at the Atlantic Council over attitudes towards Russia and the influence of billionaire Charles Koch.

Koch (it mostly used to be in the plural, but his brother David died in 2019) has been a hate figure for progressives for a long time now, due to his championing of a variety of controversial causes – climate change denial being probably the biggest – and his funding of organisations that promoted them, including the influential libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute.

The Atlantic Council is not a libertarian institution; it’s a very mainstream policy research centre that disseminates rather traditional views about American foreign policy. But it nonetheless received a grant of $4.5 million from Koch last year for the establishment of the “New American Engagement Initiative,” clearly with the intention that it would provide some support for Koch’s views of the subject.

The nature of those views is a matter of some debate. Koch’s supporters will use words like “pacific”, “restrained” or perhaps “anti-imperialist”; his opponents will often resort to “isolationist”, perhaps qualified by “irresponsible”. Put briefly, Koch believes in radically downsizing the US military and pulling back from its involvement in security issues around the world.

My view is that that’s mostly a good idea, although it raises hackles among the American foreign policy establishment. But I don’t think it should be pursued in a doctrinaire fashion, and one’s distrust of the said establishment should not be allowed to lead to rejecting all of its arguments out of hand. The world is a complex place, and it’s difficult enough for any country to find its role: most especially when that country is the greatest superpower ever seen.

With all that as background, we can have a look at Russia. Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows published an article under the auspices of the New American Engagement Initiative arguing against what they call a “human rights-centric policy” towards Russia. Instead they call for a “realistic” approach, that would recognise that “there is little prospect of transformation or of ending human rights abuses” and manage the relationship with more carrot and less stick.

That provoked outrage from many of the Council’s other experts, who issued a public statement disavowing Ashford and Burrows’s views. And because Ashford was previously at the Cato Institute, the possible influence of Koch’s money was an obvious issue. Daniel Lippman at Politico summarises the controversy: he quotes former Estonian president Toomas Ilves describing Ashford and Burrows as “Koch-funded, sinecured isolationist shills.”

Another scholar said that their article “closes the eyes on a bipartisan tradition of integrating our values and human interests from Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama. It’s Cato Institute meets Donald Trump.”

And this, of course, cuts to the heart of the matter. In recent years, Russia policy has become a partisan issue in a way that it hadn’t been since the Cold War. Trump’s pro-Russian position upset many decades worth of Republican orthodoxy, and was one of the few things on which he encountered serious resistance from his party colleagues in Congress. (Republican voters took it more in their stride, showing that their views were tribal rather than policy-based.)

So Koch’s isolationism, previously well outside of the political mainstream, has – at least as far as Russia is concerned – acquired some traction within the Republican Party. What might previously have been a rather dry dispute between rival teams of experts now has political overtones. And no self-respecting think-tank wants to be tagged as “Trumpist”.

You can read the Ashford and Burrows article for yourself and see what you think. Much of what they say, in my view, is perfectly sensible, but underlying it is a deep scepticism about democracy and human rights, and a lack of faith in the possibility of change. It’s not that they share Vladimir Putin’s vision, but rather that they see no need for any vision at all.

We’ve been here before, of course. Up to the very eve of the revolutions of 1989, legions of “realist” foreign policy experts told us that the Soviet empire was an immutable fact that had to be just lived with, and that anyone who maintained the contrary was a hopeless muddle-headed idealist. (Their Australian cousins told us the same about Suharto’s Indonesia.)

The political narrative may have changed since then, but Ashford and Burrows remain firmly anchored in that realist tradition. Their statement that “democratization in Russia would not necessarily be good for US foreign policy interests” encapsulates it perfectly: the interests of individual Russians who might like to control their own destiny count for nothing.

Whether this is quite what Koch had in mind is hard to tell. The line between principled anti-imperialism and callous indifference to foreigners can be a fine one. But if the Trumpists keep control of the Republican Party, then it’s a fair bet that the latter will be their preferred position.


5 thoughts on “Mr Koch and the Russians

  1. Interesting analysis, but devoid of usable insight. For example, Trump was not pro-Russian – you fail to distinguish the play acting from the reality. The US should scale back the diversity of its ambitions in the world, but at the same time it needs to build its military. Russia is a country with an economy the size of Australia’s. It is not a threat. China, on the other hand, is a threat more potent than Nazi Germany, and the US needs to scale for it. A Trumpist policy was all about that.


    1. Thanks Graham – I go part way with you on that, in that I agree that China is a much bigger threat to world peace & security than Russia. And certainly no quarrel that the US should “scale back the diversity of its ambitions in the world.” You can make a case for a quasi-Trumpist policy that would go soft on Russia in order to avoid driving it into the arms of China. But that sort of ruthless pragmatism tends to end badly, as it often did during the Cold War. I don’t think the Russian threat is negligible; Putin is still active in trying to subvert democracy in Europe and make trouble in the Middle East (altho of course he’s not alone in that). And in any case that wasn’t actually Trump’s policy: he was just as hostile to human rights in China as he was in Russia. I also don’t think Trump is capable of play-acting: his attraction to Putin seemed to me quite genuine. What you see is what you get.


  2. It would be a good thing if Russia became more democratic than it is now and if the Russian government violated the human rights of Russian people less than it does now. It would be a good thing if America became more democratic than it is now and if the American government violated the human rights of American people less than it does now (America now is more democratic than Russia now, but it would still be possible for America in the future to become more democratic than it is now). It would be a good thing if Australia became more democratic than it is now and if the Australian government violated the human rights of Australian people less than it does now.

    There is little chance that American government policy will influence Russia in the direction of greater democracy and greater respect for human rights. Those would be good goals if they could be achieved, but in present circumstances there is little or nothing the American government can do towards the achievement of those goals. For people in America who believe in democracy and human rights, they are likely to be able to achieve more towards those goals within their own country than they are in Russia. However, the American government can, and should, avoid facilitating or encouraging or endorsing or collaborating with human rights abuses and attacks on democracy in Russia.

    When I hear people talk about using foreign policy to promote national interests, I wonder whether the ‘national interests’ they are talking about boil down, in practice, to helping rich people get even richer. Maybe not. But when Emma Ashford and Mathew Burrows suggest that Russia should be admitted to the G8, which American national interests do they think that will promote, and how do they think it will promote them? They don’t say.


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