Why are we so panicked about Russia? Not long after Mitt Romney was dismissed as a Cold War nostalgist for calling Russia the top geostrategic foe of the United States, elite paranoia about the Kremlin is back.
Some of it is just the Vladimir Putin scare-stories that Americans are telling themselves. Much of the respectable American news media has fallen for embarrassing rumors of Russian interference and hacking in recent weeks. A story spread that Russia had hacked C-Span, replacing it with Kremlin-funded Russia Today. It was false. A week earlier thousands of outlets repeated the claim that Russian hackers had penetrated the American electrical grid. The hacked computer wasn't even tied to the electrical grid. Last year an email marketing system was confused with some imagined digital leash that Putin had around the neck of Donald Trump's campaign.
Some of the unease is inspired by the real dread of watching the Russian military thwart American ambitions. A protest movement in Kiev that was cheered and funded by the West inspired a Russian reaction. The Russian Army crossed the border into Crimea, as Ukrainian nationalists watched a portion of their country lopped off in horror.
We saw how easily Russia escalated its involvement in Syria, effectively saving the Assad regime from years of U.S.-backed rebellion. Russia even parodied the American playbook, claiming to intervene to stop ISIS, while in fact taking firm sides in the main theater of the Syrian civil war.
And some of the Russia panic is the fear that the post-Cold War unipolar moment is ending, that we've somehow passed "Peak America." But that may just be a more prosaic way of saying that the actual ideological and psychological costs of NATO expansion over the last 17 years are finally coming home, likely to be followed by real financial costs.
NATO expansion in 1999, 2004, and beyond meant issuing nearly a dozen new permanent war guarantees throughout the part of Europe that was the charnel house of the 20th century.
Western policymakers buck themselves up by saying Russia's military mostly went into scrapyards at the end of the Cold War. The Russian economy is primitive. It's a "gas station" that generates as much wealth for its 140 million citizens as the Italian economy generates for 60 million. That's all true. But what might be a remote threat becomes more urgent if you are overexposed to it.
The problem is, America's NATO war guarantee is wrapped up in a larger ideological status quo across the West. Trade liberalization, political liberalization, increased migration, sexual and cultural liberation from Christian traditionalism, the further political integration of the E.U., and the expansion of the Western alliance to the borders of Russia are all wrapped together in the minds of policymakers. And so, every reversal for any part of that project is seen by the guardians of the policy consensus as a demoralizing reversal for the Western alliance and, consequently, a gain for revisionist Putinism.
Knowing this, all political discontent in the West becomes of interest to Putin. And so he extends loans to parties like France's Front Nationale that question the post-Cold War consensus. The Kremlin-funded news network highlights all dissident political movements in the United States.
And consequently, the West frets about every party that comes to power that is wobbly on any one of the planks of the status quo. Hence the small panic about Poland's Law and Justice. As if questions about the size of a majority needed on Poland's constitutional court were of grave importance to the whole project of liberal governance.
Beyond that, the position of U.S. military assets and potential war materiel is still largely the way it was at the end of the Cold War, much of it in Germany and Italy. And the promise of mutual protection amounts to little more than the extension of a promise to fire nuclear missiles at Russia in the event of a challenge to NATO. That makes it trivially easy for Russia to put America's premise to the test. Would Americans really want to respond to a conventional military threat in the Baltic countries that separate Russia from its exclave in Kaliningrad with an ICBM?
The NATO alliance is the basis of America's post-war global strategy. But it's undergone significant revision since the end of the Cold War. These expansions were carried on with little debate because there was no cost.
But the price is starting to come in. Americans have to worry about what, say, a collapse of the government in Belarus could mean if Russia and Poland both respond to it militarily. Preserving this larger, baggier NATO may require huge new financial and military investments. And it may require decoupling some of the total package of ideological values from each other so that the project doesn't flounder on Poland's Catholicism or France's desire to protect its remaining industry.
Is that really so crazy?