The “Great Opportunity Party”

Yesterday's GOP.

I could spare you the niceties of yesterday’s GOP convention and just say that the Republican agenda is very much aligned with the preservation of The American Dream. But besides missing out on some fine and rather compelling rhetoric, you’d also miss out on attempts to humanise flip-flop Mitt, if only by proxy.

Some of the finer points of the Republican plan to revitalise “what America has always offered in abundance – opportunity” (John Boeven, Senator for North Dakota) include “unshackling (…) assets” that will lead “to real energy independence” (John Sununu, Governer of New Hampshire). Here Hoeven and co. are referring to the “Obama red tape” that is allegedly blocking the extension of the Keystone Pipeline. However, as FactCheck notes, these claims are largely untrue and overstate the positive impact of the Keystone XL (the much touted rise in employment would be as negligible as the impact on fuel prices).

The point is, the whole evening was carefully orchestrated to signal that Republicans stand for the shift from “an entitlement society to an opportunity society” (Bob McDonall, Governer of Virginia), and that Mitt Romney – a hard-hitting business man that crawled his way up from the gritty Detroit suburbs - best embodies these values. Obama, on the other hand, was repeatedly caricatured as a dirty European Socialist who would rather drown in Obamacare debt than embrace “free enterprise” or recognise American Exceptionalism. (This may or may not be my biased abridged version of it.) But the theme of American Exceptionalism, I promise, was as prevalent country music intervals.

In addition to fitting Romney squarely into the “Great Opportunity Party” (coined by Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn) ethos, Steven King (National Committeeman) and Ann Romney (Potential First Lady) attempted to make the man that kept his dog on the roof his car a bit more personable.

King did so the only way he knew how - by talking about Paul Ryan. Paul Ryan, apparently, “even at the age of 27, (…) was a man with big ideas and the courage of his convictions”. This bodes nicely for Romney, mainly because it’s a well-known fact that integrity is osmotic. Paul Ryan is also a “genuinely good man from the Midwest” who “can be found at church on any given Sunday” before retiring to watch a Packers game and exchanging stories with neighbours about fishing (I’m not making this up).  It’s good that Paul Ryan likes sports, like the rest of us, because Mitt Romney probably has “some great friends who are football team owners”.

Ann Romney would later address her husband’s social awkwardness head-on by acknowledging that he was the funny, shy type that girls liked for his vulnerability. In all seriousness though, Ann did a good job of making Mitt seem less robotic. In particular, she stressed his willingness to help others, both in the private and public sphere. This proved a good opportunity to rebut Mitt's reputation as an opportunist:

“Mitt doesn’t like to talk about how he’s helped others because he sees it as a privilege, not a political talking point.”

Ann then strengthens the Mitt-as-the-embodiment-of-the-Land-of-Opportunity theme by concluding,

“This is the genius of America – dreams fulfilled help others launch new dreams.”

The land of opportunity Photograph: Ghetty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Cameron needs to decide what he thinks about Russia

David Cameron's words suggest one thing, his actions quite another.

David Cameron needs to decide whether he takes Russia seriously.

He certainly talks a good game, calling Vladimir Putin to account for crimes against Ukrainian sovereignty and for supporting the wrong side in Syria, claiming credit for bolstering the post-Crimea sanctions regime, and demanding that Moscow’s behaviour change. And the new Strategic Defence & Security Review, published last week, puts Russia front and centre among the threats Britain faces.

The problem is, his government’s foreign policy seems calculated to make no one happier than Putin himself.

At fault is not a failure of analysis. It has taken Whitehall 19 months since Moscow annexed Crimea to develop a new Russia policy, replacing the old aspirations of “strategic partnership based on common values”, but the conviction that Russia be treated as a significant threat to the U.K.’s security and prosperity is solid.

Five years ago, when the coalition government published the last Strategic Defence & Security Review, Russia was mentioned once, in the context of rising global powers with whom London could partner to help solve planetary problems, from nuclear proliferation to climate change. The new SDSR tells a very different story. Russia gets 28 mentions this time around, characterised as a “state threat” that “may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies.” Russia’s annexation of Crimea and instigation of a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine are mentioned in the same sentence with Assad’s chemical weapons attacks on Syrian civilians and the rise of the Islamic State as key examples of how the world is becoming a more dangerous place.

How that threat will be countered, however, is not a question Whitehall can answer: it is a question for Westminster, and it gets to the heart of where this government sees its place in the world, and in Europe in particular. What Whitehall cannot say – but what the politicians must recognise – is this: the best bulwark against the Kremlin is a strengthened European Union, with more integrated markets and the force to push a concerted foreign policy in the Eastern Neighbourhood. And that recognition requires Cameron to decide whether Putin poses a greater challenge than Nigel Farage.

The SDSR is right to note that the danger of a military confrontation with Russia is remote. Just in case, the Government has committed to bolstering aerial defences, contributing to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities and maintaining the sanctions regime until a full settlement is reached that restores Ukrainian sovereignty. These are all reasonable measures, which will go some distance to ensuring that Moscow understands the risks of further escalation in the near term. But they do nothing to address the longer term problem.

From a hard-security perspective, Russia is a nuisance. The real danger is in the threat Moscow poses to what the SDSR calls the “rules-based order” – that system of institutions, agreements and understandings that underpin stability and prosperity on the European continent. That order is about more than respecting national borders, important as that is. It is also about accepting that markets are impartially regulated, that monopolies are disallowed and political and economic power reside in institutions, rather than in individuals. It is, in other words, about accepting rules that are almost the polar opposite of the system that Russia has built over the past 25 years, an order based on rents, clientelism and protected competitive positions.

Russia, after all, went to war over a trade treaty. It invaded Ukraine and annexed part of its territory to prevent the full implementation of a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement that was designed to make Ukraine function more like Europe and less like Russia. From Moscow’s point of view, the European project is a very real geopolitical threat, one that promises to reduce the territory in which Russia can compete and, eventually, to increase the pressure on Russia itself to change. In somewhat less pernicious ways Moscow is seeking similarly to derail Moldova’s and Georgia’s European integration, while working hard to keep Belarus and Armenia from straying.

This is not a problem of vision or diplomacy, a failure to convince Putin of the value of the European way of doing things. For Putin and those on whose behalf he governs, the European way of doing things carries negative value. And unless the basic structure of politics and economics in Russia shifts, that calculation won’t change when Putin himself leaves the Kremlin. For the foreseeable future, Russia’s rulers will be willing to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the widening of Europe, at the cost of instability and dysfunction in the region.

European willingness is another question. A chorus of euro=sceptics both left and right have demanded that Europe stop provoking the Russian bear, leaving the Eastern Neighbourhood countries to fend for themselves – sacrificing Kiev’s sovereignty to Moscow in order to bolster their own sovereignty from Brussels. Cracks, too, are emerging in the centre of the political spectrum: as French President Francois Hollande pledged to work with Moscow to fight ISIS in Syria, Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared that such an alliance would necessitate the lifting of sanctions on Russia, thus trading stability in Syria for instability in Ukraine.

As a member of the EU, London has a role to play. Together with Berlin, London could exert pressure on Paris and keep the margins of the political spectrum marginal. London could through its weight behind a common energy market, forcing Gazprom to play by EU competition rules. London could bolster anti-corruption systems and ensure that ill-gotten gains have no safe haven in Europe. London could insist on the legitimacy of the European project from one end of the continent to the other.

Instead, London is threatening Brexit, relinquishing any leverage over its European allies, and seeking EU reforms that would eviscerate the common energy market, common financial regulation, the common foreign and security policy and other key tools in the relationship with Russia.

In their February 2015 report on EU-Russian relations, the House of Lords raised the question of “whether Europe can be secure and prosperous if Russia continues to be governed as it is today.” To be sure, Europe can’t change Russia’s government and shouldn’t try. But by insisting on its own rules – both in how it governs its internal markets and in how it pursues its foreign policy – Europe can change the incentives Russia’s government faces.

The question, then, to Cameron is this: Whose rules would Westminster rather see prevail in the Eastern Neighbourhood, Europe’s or Russia’s?

Samuel A. Greene is Director of the King’s Russia Institute, King’s College London.