Book Review: The Dark Double: U.S. Media, Russia, and the Politics of Values

Kevin Doremus | @k_doremus

Academics and policymakers from the realist, liberal, and constructivist schools of thought debate the motivations of Russian foreign policy.  Andrei Tsygankov in his latest book The Dark Double: US Media, Russia, and the Politics of Values makes the argument that the tension between the U.S. and Russia is the result of historical, cultural, and political differences.  The book analyzes how U.S. media presents Russia as a “dark double” and a villain in the international system.  According to Tsygankov, the U.S.-Russian relationship is an example of how negative perceptions of the other can lead to competitiveness.  He expresses concern that cooperation between the two powers is unlikely until both recognize and respect their differences.

About the Author and The Dark Double

Andrei Tsygankov is a Russian born professor at the San Francisco State University where he is a teacher of international, comparative, and Russian politics.  He has been a guest on PBS NewsHour and has written articles for Russia Direct, Radio Free Europe, The Washington Times, The London School of Economics, and The Nation.  He is the author of six books, but to an English audience he is known for Russia’s Foreign Policy: Change and Continuity in National Identity and is the editor for the Routledge Handbook of Russian Foreign Policy.  Tsygankov uses a constructivist methodological approach to present how history and Russian values influence Russian foreign policymaking.

While this book is short compared to his previous works, it has a strong structure that builds a concise argument within one hundred pages. The first chapter explains values as “culturally and historically established beliefs about the appropriate organization of human institutions and foreign policy.”  National values “form international perceptions and assess interests.”

He defines the U.S. and Russian national values and how the states media present each. The second chapter discusses the U.S.’ conviction that it has a civilizing mission to save the world and Russia is a threat to that mission.  Chapter three describes how U.S. media corporations apply U.S. national values in their coverage of Russia.  The fourth chapter explains the way Russian media regard the U.S. and the polarizing environment Russia has assisted in creating.  Chapter five focuses explicitly on the Trump-Russian collusion narrative.

Constructed National Values

A set of principles that holds people together establishes a nation. These principles “establish a nation’s fundamental beliefs, emotions, and orientations regarding the outside world”. A nation’s interests are socially-constructed goals that are defined by groups of people; thus its behavior is influenced by collectively held traditions. Values play a pivotal role in shaping perceptions of institutions and foreign actors.

As stated by constructivist theorists, Tsygankov describes how the formation of values come from the process of interaction with others to create historically, culturally, and politically distinct realities.  The national values in both Russia and the US originate from Christianity.  However, the US’ values embody the legacies of the Holy Roman Empire which brought forth individualism and political checks and balances.  Russia embraces the values of communalism and “the idea of a strong, socially protective state…” that came from the Byzantine Empire and Eastern Christianity.  These distinct values laid the foundation for competitiveness because both versions of Christianity consider their ideas universal.  To some observers, it would appear that people live in different realities.

Actions by an actor can be exclusionary or inclusionary based on fear or love.  In the case of the relationship between the US and Russia, they are exclusionary.  Historical memories of oppression, humiliation, geopolitical competition can influence actors to be noncooperative and competitive.

In the case of the US, a resurgent Russia conveys fears of the Cold War.  People in the US do not want to relive that competitive environment with Russia. Nevertheless, the fear of the decline of liberalism and the rise of illiberalism challenges the US’ national identity. The historical memory of the Cold War and post-Cold War left an imprint that Russia will always be a geopolitical foe. Media personalities present the case that any cooperation between illiberal actors is a betrayal of US national values. President Trump campaigned on restoring a positive relationship with Russia but was unable to counteract the internal beliefs and negative historical experiences the US has had with Russia.

Media Perceptions

Media plays a pivotal role in shaping people’s views.  Journalists often claim that they are objective reporters, but it is important to note that journalists like everyone else have an unconscious bias.  This bias originates from cultural restraints and social values that develop over time.  The national values of their community influence the news media’s perception of foreign actors.  Also, foreign affairs reports are reliant on government insiders as sources. Reporters not only are influenced by social constraints but also information that is controlled by government officials.

Tsygankov demonstrates in chapter three how the US national values influence media coverage.  From the 1990s to the present, he characterizes the media into four distinct narratives: transition, chaos, Neo-Soviet Autocracy, and foreign enemy.  During the transition narrative (1991-95), there was hope that the former Soviet space would embrace liberal values.  The evolution of describing Russia as a chaotic state to a Neo-Soviet Autocracy materialized when the media and academics realized that liberal values were not sticking on Russian institutions.  Tsygankov shows a graph from 2000-14 illustrating an overwhelming negative coverage about Russia from mainstream outlets.  Today, the media presents Russia as a geopolitical foe backing illiberal governments.  Out of 137 articles have a consistent narrative about Russia’s threat to liberal democracy.

Trump-Russia Collusion Narrative

The narrative created over the years primed people to be concerned that Russia might interfere in US internal affairs.  Then-candidate Trump on the campaign trail advocated that the US and Russia could find common interests in the Middle East.  The idea of cooperation created outrage that Trump would be collaborating with illiberal actors.  Fears that Russia may have influenced the 2016 election triggered when Trump discussed Russia hacking his political opponents. The liberal world perceived Russian interference as an attack on liberal democracy by an illiberal power.  To progressives and neoconservatives, the US is the leader of the world who “defines the rules and boundaries of proper behavior in international politics, while others simply follow the rules.”  Both Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia’s actions challenge the foreign policy ideas that progressives and neoconservatives hold dear.

Mainstream outlets saw Trump’s 2016 foreign policy rhetoric as a threat to the national values.  Fear of the decline of liberal values and the US in the world created a paranoia.  The accusations of Trump colluding with Russia is a nationalistic response to protect the US’ national identity.  According to Tsygankov, the so-called “culture war” reflects a “national unease over America’s identity and future direction.”  As George Freidman argues, the US lower classes no longer believe in the national values that are the foundation of the western world.  Alternative national values are a threat to the elites who are supportive of liberal internationalism.  It creates a black and white environment, and either one is with liberal democracy and hegemony or with multipolarity and fascism.  Thus, the vigorous belief in liberal national values results in questioning those values next to impossible.

Conclusion

The US media, commentators, and certain government officials reinforced prejudices that have lasted a long time.  In a broad overview both Russian and US media present only one side of the story.  The US media paints Russia as a geopolitical threat to its national values and Trump as un-American. Tsygankov then asks if it is possible for each side to overcome historical and cultural legacies.

It will be difficult because “Societies that are armed with exclusive and nationalist visions and are prepared to scapegoat others tend to push governments toward confrontation and away from negotiations and search for compromise.”  Thus as cultural war rages on in the US, it is unlikely for the recognition of the other to take place.  Once there is respect and tolerance in a diverse and changing world, tensions between the various actors can ease.


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