The Washington Post editorial on the spy ring today is a little too neat and tidy for my tastes:
Why would the successor to the KGB invest so much money and effort “to infiltrate academic, policymaking and government-connected circles,” as The Post described the mission in its news story Wednesday, when people in those circles are only too happy to talk with anyone who comes calling?
To answer that question, you have to understand the steadily widening asymmetry between Russian and American societies. During the past decade, with former KGB officer Vladimir Putin in charge, Russia has become increasingly closed in many ways. Historical archives that after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 welcomed scholars from all nations have re-shut their doors. Television has fallen back under government control. International organizations have been pushed out of Russia, and independent nonprofit groups in Russia have been squeezed, harassed and threatened. Russia is essentially a one-party state, as it was 20 years ago.
The United States by contrast is wide open. Unlike American organizations in Russia, the Russian government is welcome to hire public relations firms here, put Russian programming on cable television and distribute its message as it sees fit. Its diplomats are welcome to attend think-tank seminars in Washington, and the give-and-take of American politics is an open book for them.
It’s a bit of a broadbrush to say that there is increasing asymmetry between the two nations … in terms of Russia’s rampant consumer appetite for name brand goods, popularity of international film, sport, and music, and similar habits of conducting wars on terror and inspiring distrust in our neighbors – there’s an argument going for social convergence, despite the deep political separation.
WaPo makes a good point about Russia’s misplaced view that the United States is a fortress which should be penetrated – that’s already too easy for anybody with an internet connection – but the self-congratulation that America’s uber-openness has solved all problems is quite misleading. For example, how many press conferences has Barack Obama given in his first year in office? Oh yes, the fourth fewest since the Hoover presidency, and quite a few less than George W. Bush did. Wouldn’t it be nice for Obama to occasionally host those call-in shows and televised dinners like Putin does, even if all the questions are staged?