Russia is being roundly criticized in this country following its annexation of Crimea. At the same time our two countries seem to becoming more and more alike. This seems true both in the economic and in the political sphere. Russia is now capitalistic and more democratic than in the past, while over the past dozen years the United States has edged closer to becoming a paranoid, overreaching police state. Business magnates in both countries have amassed enormous fortunes, and the societies they live in have growing levels of inequality. Most of the Russian oligarchs won their fortunes through entrepreneurship or by plundering state resources when these were privatized. Our captains of industry earn princely salaries and have turned into a privileged class reaping millions of dollars because of their supposed business expertise. Despite occasional complaints, nothing is done to rein in the pay of CEOS who just get bigger and bigger multi-million dollar paychecks and bonuses regardless of performance. Both countries could be described as plutocracies.
Other points of comparison:
Thanks to Edward Snowden’s disclosures, Americans can now be confident we have a national security state second to none. The National Security Agency vacuums up information about anyone and everyone to keep for a time when that information might be relevant. Americans used to think the NSA was just spying on foreigners, but now we know that our calls and emails are monitored too. Is Russian state surveillance as thorough and encompassing at home and abroad? Maybe it’s just chauvinism on my part, but I suspect that though the Russians are good, we are better.
We won the Cold War, but didn’t lose our determination to remain No. 1. We spend a lot more money on defense than Russia does and indeed we spend more money than all the countries of the world combined.. Why do we do this? I’m not sure, but it may indicate the power of vested interests. It also reflects a credulous electorate willing to swallow politicians’ assertions that exorbitant sums are necessary for their defense.
The oligarchs comprise the political class in Russia and increasingly here too. Last week’s Supreme Court ruling lifting limits on the number of political candidates citizens can give money to means that we can expect yet more money to pour into our political system. We already have the best elections money can buy. Now the influence of Big Money will be that much stronger. Recently, prospective Republican presidential candidates trooped to Las Vegas to kiss the ring of oligarch Sheldon Adelson and to ask for his blessing (and his money) for their campaigns. We can expect a lot more of this, corrupting further not only our elections but our legislation too. With Congress already in in the pocket of special interests – Wall Street, defense contractors, the gun lobby, the pro-Israel lobby, etc– and likely to become more so, legislation in the public interest seems less and less likely.
As a fledgling democracy, Russia has a ways to go in guaranteeing human rights and civil liberties, though there has been progress. Perhaps the biggest human rights abuse in Russia is the widespread use of torture by police, a problem which is not unknown in our own jails, though less systematic. The U.S. record on human rights and torture has deteriorated badly during the past 13 years. The recent battle between the Senate Intelligence Committee and the CIA over the committee’s investigation of the spy agency’s interrogation methods after 2001 reveals a rogue agency that not only tortured foreign detainees – a fact already well-known -- but lied about the severity of the methods it used and misled members of Congress and the Justice Department about the value of its interrogations. Both the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee have filed criminal referrals against the other with the Justice Department. Our constitutional-law scholar president is remaining noncommittal on this issue. Despite $40 million spent compiling a 6,300 page report on CIA misdeeds -– one can only conclude that there are a lot of misdeeds to report -– little looks likely to change at the CIA, which is vigorously contesting the report.
In terms of foreign affairs, the Russians got the war we Americans were promised, the one where we are greeted as liberators by a grateful populace when we invade their country on a phony premise. Unlike the Iraqis, many of the people in Crimea do seem genuinely enthusiastic about their new leaders. Maybe our next war we’ll be as lucky. In the meantime, we will proclaim our commitment to the territorial integrity of sovereign states such as Ukraine while ending our war in Afghanistan, continuing our funding of Israel’s creeping annexation of the West Bank, and conducting drone attacks in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan and wherever else we choose. We will be resented but not sanctioned by other countries for our violations of international law, which we strongly believe other countries should respect.