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.