Opinion

Keep Russian dressing out of your beef with Putin

Dostoyevsky, Swan Lake, and vodka are innocent!

In February 2003, as protests against the looming war in Iraq were reaching a peak, a North Carolina businessman decided to put politics on the menu. Provoked by France's opposition to a U.N. ultimatum, Neal Rowland, owner of Cubbie's restaurant in Beaufort, placed stickers that read "Freedom" over the word "French" wherever it appeared. The next month, Congress got into the act: At the behest of Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), the House of Representatives cafeteria began to offer Freedom fries and Freedom toast in place of the more usual descriptions.  

The Freedom fries craze entered public memory as an embarrassing symptom of the war fever that gripped America after 9/11. That conflict has become retrospectively unpopular — but we remain susceptible to the same madness. 

No one's yet proposed to ban Russian dressing in response to the invasion of Ukraine. Around the country, though, Russian flags have been removed from public display, Russian artists have had engagements canceled, Russian-branded vodka has been removed from shelves (whether or not it's actually produced in Russia), and Russian-themed businesses vandalized.

The situations aren't perfectly analogous. In 2003, France hadn't invaded anyone. To the contrary, its leaders were trying to prevent a war — with good reason, as it turned out. And this time, Americans are far from the only ones losing their minds. A theater in Wales canceled a performance of Swan Lake. An Italian university postponed a class on Dostoyevsky (although the decision was rescinded under heavy criticism). The International Cat Federation has even banned Russian felines from competition. 

Yet the urge to eliminate all manifestations of an international rival draws on a current of moralism that runs deep in American culture. During World War I, foods like sauerkraut and frankfurters or wieners were rebranded as "Liberty cabbage" and hotdogs. Towns with Germanic names were rechristened. Pets were swept up in the frenzy then, too: German shepherds and dachshunds came to be known as Alsatians and "liberty hounds," respectively.  

Most of these efforts were trivial, although contemporary efforts to suppress the study of the German language were not. Still, they reflect a dangerous temptation to conflate peoples and cultures with governments. That temptation took extreme form recently in a since-deleted tweet by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. "There are no more 'innocent' 'neutral' Russians anymore," McFaul said. "Everyone has to make a choice — support or oppose this war." McFaul later claimed that he was echoing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s call to civil disobedience, but his remark was more reminiscent of George W. Bush's insistence that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists."  

Still, we can admire the courage of Russians protesting the war without denouncing those unwilling or unable to face the immense personal risks as collaborators. We can also reject the suspicious, imperialistic streak in Russian politics without dismissing the culture that produced it as pathological. As the diplomat and foreign policy scholar George Kennan tirelessly argued during the Cold War, Russian strategy has been shaped by a very different set of experiences than those Americans today take for granted — including repeated invasions from the West across the very territory that's now under dispute. That's why Kennan, like many other experts on Russian affairs, opposed the expansion of NATO to include not only members of the defunct Warsaw Pact, but also former parts of the Soviet Union itself. 

Whether or not it was a wise decision at the time, NATO expansion is a done deal. Precisely because Russians have to live with a more constrained sphere of influence than they'd prefer, it's essential to reassure them that we don't seek the national destruction that Putin has used to justify aggressive actions in what Russians consider the "near abroad." In addition to avoiding the rhetoric of collective guilt, that means ensuring that economic sanctions don't end up immiserating ordinary people.  

Contrary to expectations, making life harder for the population can bind them to the rulers who blame outside interference. Just think of Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Un, or, for a time, Saddam Hussein. And even when sanctions succeed in destabilizing the regimes they target, new dictators may come to power under conditions of economic collapse and social disorder. During World War I, many Americans believed overthrowing the Kaisers and Tsars would ensure a better and more peaceful government in the future. They were wrong.

So far, the Biden Administration has done a good job avoiding hysteria. In his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, the president correctly emphasized that US troops will not be deployed to Ukraine or engage Russian forces. The ostensibly draconian sanctions also include a big loophole for energy, Russia's only major export. Of course, that has more to do with protecting American consumers from inflation than concern about conditions in Russia.

But official policy isn't the only factor in play. The combination of moralistic punditry, institutional virtue signaling, and social media performance can take on a life of its own. In a conflict that may never have a decisive end, that risks boxing the US into inflexible, counterproductive positions. More like the Cold War than World War II, we need to think about the long haul — including the consequences of our Russian policy for relations with other states. That's all the more reason to preserve distinctions between Russia's people, culture, and state rather than collapsing them into an undifferentiated enemy.

Even though it's a vile concoction for which Americans likely hold historical responsibility, don't throw out the Russian dressing just yet. After all, the French are back on our side again, too.

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