Jacob Heilbrunn

Was Mitt Romney Right That Russia Is America's Greatest Foe?

Michael Hirsh, one of Washington's ablest commentators on foreign affairs, has a provocative piece in the Atlantic arguing that Mitt Romney got a bum rap during the election campaign when he declared that Russia is America's No. 1 geopolitical foe, a clear and present danger to our national security. Romney's observation created an uproar. Russian President Vladimir Putin observed, "“I’m grateful to him (Romney) for formulating his stance so clearly because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems." At the same time, Romney was roundly mocked, including by yours truly, for indulging in cold war nostalgia rather than confronting contemporary realities. President Obama seized upon the remark to suggest that it demonstrated Romney was an utter doofus when it came to foreign affairs.

Fiddlesticks, says Hirsh. Romney, we are told, was on to an inconvenient truth about Russia, which has become increasingly truculent in its approach to America and the West. To the joy of former Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, who has already tweeted about Hirsh's piece, his candidate is now being vindicated. The truth about Russia is in plain sight even if Washington policymakers are loath to acknowledge it. Russia is returning, under President Vladimir Putin's leadership, to a virulently anti-American stance, one that draws on imperialist czarist traditions to insert a pudgy thumb in the eye of the West:

To a degree that U.S. policymakers have not really acknowledged publicly, Russia under Putin has become the chief countervailing force to U.S. power and influence around the world, even more so than China (which often follows Moscow's lead in the U.N. Security Council). Mulishness toward Washington is not just an attitude; it is today Russia's foreign policy. And this goes well beyond recent tit-for-tat, including Putin's suspension of U.S. adoptions and barring of nongovernmental organizations after Congress passed the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law named after a murdered Russian lawyer under which the U.S. government can penalize Russian human-rights abuses. Washington, in fact, has been getting Putin's real aims largely wrong since George W. Bush...

Hirsh points to Putin's attempts to sanitize Stalin's image by depicting him as an effective manager who almost singlehandedly won World War II, while soft-pedaling the fact that Uncle Joe carved up Poland together with Nazi Germany. He points to Russia's possession of thousands of nuclear weapons and desire to check America around the globe. He points to Russia's intransigence on the UN Security Council. And he points to Russia's refusal to accede to American efforts when it comes to trying to create a post-Assad Syria.

The only problem for Hirsh's bold thesis is that Russia appears to be backing down on its refusal to cooperate with Washington on Syria. While the international conference that Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has endorsed may not have tangible results—though it is too soon to know—it is a promising move, one that suggests that on the big issues perhaps more unites than divides Russia and America. Neither country has an interest in seeing Islamic terrrorists capture Syria or for it to succumb to its fissiparous tendencies and become carved up into various fiefdoms, with Islamic radicals establishing a beachhead in the country.

Russia and America may remain at loggerheads in the decade to come. Russia may well remain an adversary. But to suggest that this ramshackle nation, plagued by abundant natural resources and an inability to invest them properly, will exceed China in might and influence over the coming decades is unpersuasive. Romney's statement remains as bogus as it was the day he uttered it in September 2012.

Images: Left: Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0. Right: kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0.