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Is Russia hacking democracy?

As Putin’s relationship with the rest of the world grows ever more significant, what destabilising powers does his regime really have?

Whether the bombing of Aleppo, the hacking of Democratic Party’s email servers or the threat of incursion in the Baltic states, Vladimir Putin is readily framed as the West’s public enemy number one. But it is not useful to frame the Kremlin as the source of all our problems.

It is true that Donald Trump’s path to the White House was helped by the DNC hacks and WikiLeaks attack on the Hillary Clinton campaign. Not least because WikiLeaks suspiciously left Trump alone.

But it is also crying wolf to claim, as Ben Bradshaw MP did late last year, that Brexit was “probably” interfered with by Russia. It seems doubtful that Bradshaw could ever provide any conclusive evidence of this.

Rather, it plays into a latent Russophobia stemming from the Cold War as a strategy to divert from problems that are mostly domestic. We should focus on where Russia is misbehaving, not where it is not.

Since 2014, Russia’s state-sponsored media outlets, such as RT (formerly known as Russia Today) and Sputnik, have vastly expanded their global reach.

Explicitly, RT tries to put forward the “Russian perspective”, while implicitly seeking to erode trust in institutions, such as the BBC. Just like the Morning Star, RT reported that Aleppo had been “liberated”, with no criticism of Russia’s bombing campaign. During the US presidential race, RT also seemed to be uncovering emails from Clinton’s campaign. This comes at a time when western media outlets are increasingly finding it difficult to balance their budget, and thus resort to more click-worthy news or reduce their reach through consolidating bureaus into regional hubs.

It is also true that Russian state-sponsored hacking and trolling is taking on unprecedented momentum. From Aleppo to the internet, the Kremlin is causing chaos. But this is not universal or inevitable.

The Cold War provides a convenient way to understand the present: a Russia seeking to rebuild its evil empire and assert itself as a geopolitical player rivalling the US. But the present is more unpredictable than the past. Russia is guided by a different ideology from the Soviet Union. Russia is not seeking to promote an international form of communism but seeking to undermine democracy – a motive that is primarily about Putin’s survival. If democracy looks flawed in the West, how can it be a model for reform in Russia?

There are real reasons to be concerned about Putin’s desire to hack democracy. Since the coloured revolutions and Arab Spring, Putin has increasingly cracked down on domestic dissent as a way to maintain power. Even Putin’s incursion in Ukraine is, in part, a way to shore up Putin’s power in Russia by undermining the pro-European and anti-corruption Euromaidan protests that ended Viktor Yanukovych’s hold on power in Ukraine in February 2014.

A recent report by the Atlantic Council concluded that organisations and institutions in the UK are relatively resilient to Russian perversion. The UK does not have the same pro-Russian organisational network as France. Nor do we have electronic voting procedures, as several US states do, which might be exposed to hacking. In fact, the behaviour of several Conservative MPs and Ukippers has courted the most criticism. For example, former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale has faced ongoing scrutiny concerning his links to Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash.

However, we should not slide into blithely blaming Russia just to escape our own reality. Russia is responsible for sponsoring conflict, in Ukraine and Aleppo. The Kremlin is sponsoring hacking scandals that help undermine the legitimacy of candidates, such as Clinton, who are seen as less favourable to Russia.

But this is not inevitable. We have a choice about how and what we report, and about whether we equate using the wrong email server to sexual harassment. We have a choice about the funding of political parties and whether we accept foreign or clandestine funding or not. Finally, we have a choice about the value we give to democracy and political freedoms. In this regard, Russia is not something to emulate. Rather than blame Russia for Brexit, we need to get behind rule of law and freedom of speech. These values may not be perfect but compared to Russia they are incomparable and will be the best defence we have.

Dr Eleanor Knott is a Russia expert and LSE fellow at the Department of Methodology.

Emmanuel Macron. Credit: Getty
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Is Emmanuel Macron a neoconservative? French politics and the legacy of 1968

The neoconservatives defined themselves in opposition to the French student protests of 1968. 

Ten years ago, a young French philosopher by the name of Serge Audier penned a polemical book on the legacy of May 1968 in France. Titled, La pensée anti-68, Audier expressed his worry that in the candidacy of Nicolas Sarkozy, France was seeing the importation of an “American” discourse on the right. Sarkozy famously denounced Mai 68 as the source of contemporary France’s problems. The student revolts against bourgeois society introduced a “relativism”, he argued, that undermined national identity, the spirit of honest work, and the institutions of democracy.

Audier observed this rhetoric to be essentially identical to that of the American neoconservative thinkers who played a key role in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory and had served as a core element of the American right since then. At the time, neoconservatism was potentially on the wane in the US, due to the candidacy of Barack Obama. Yet Audier worried that as an “international tendency,” it had a long life ahead of it on the continent. Needless to say the book created a stir in France.

Audier was right that neoconservatism is an “international tendency,” and it has a history on both sides of the Atlantic. But as the 50th anniversary of Mai 68 approaches, this once-ascendant ideology now looks rather different.

Neoconservatism was a term coined in the 1970s to refer to a group of liberal intellectuals who turned to the right in response to the student movements of the late 1960s. These thinkers – including Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, and Nathan Glazer – believed that the students revolts at Berkeley, Columbia and Cornell signaled that the left had gone too far (the role of organised labour in the uprisings on both sides of the Atlantic were not a part of their story). America's Mai 68 set these “vital centre” post-war liberals against the radicals they believed to be increasingly in control of the discourse on the American left. In the face of students’ rejection of the “establishment,” the neoconservatives sought to reinforce the legitimacy of liberal democracy, the authority of political and technocratic elites, and the validity of bourgeois culture. They were liberals convinced that only conservatism could save liberalism.

 

By the time Reagan ran for president in 1980, many of these neoconservatives had begun to support the Republican Party. They believed the Democrats had been misled by the ideas of the New Left, both in its rejection of bourgeois norms and, most importantly, in matters of geopolitics. While Democrats looked to George McGovern, a foreign policy dove, the neoconservatives embraced Reagan’s hardline stance against the Soviet Union. A number of these neoconservatives, such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and Robert Kagan, were members of Reagan’s administration, serving in strategic and diplomatic positions.

Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, neoconservatives continued to play a central role on the American right. They denounced the individualistic decadence of American liberalism of the 1990s, marked by what they described as a culture of “political correctness.” This, they argued, was an egalitarianism pushed to the extreme. Such a culture atomised society into increasingly miniscule categories of personal “identity.”  This 1990s liberalism was, of course, inspired by the neoconservatives’ old enemies, the ‘68 radicals, now reincarnated as university professors.

At the moment of America’s geopolitical victory against the Soviets, the neoconservatives called for unity around projects for “national greatness.” Under the mandate of George W Bush, numerous neoconservatives, veteran “hawks” of Cold War geopolitics, saw in the invasion of Iraq the perfect opportunity to advance such a project.

This neoconservatism – that of Reagan and Bush, the Cold War and the “War on Terror” – appears to many in Europe as a specially American phenomenon. Yet we find intellectual equivalents of neoconservatism across the continent, and above all in France. In particular, the journal Commentaire has long served as a space for exchange between American neoconservatives and French liberal-conservative opponents of the legacy of Mai 68. The journal was founded by a number of prominent students of Raymond Aron, a respected liberal philosopher who became increasingly conservative after the publication of his critique of Mai 68, entitled La révolution introuvable. In the pages of Commentaire, one finds not only a project of interpreting the classic texts of liberalism through a conservative angle, but also an ongoing critique of the 1960s and its influence on societies on both sides of the Atlantic. Its title is a direct translation of Commentary, the neoconservative magazine run by Norman Podhoretz. Along with other US neoconservatives, Podhoretz served on Commentaire’s editorial board, and much of these American neoconservatives’ understanding of what was dangerous about the 1960s were informed by their French colleagues’ critiques of Mai 68.

Aside from a brief flair with Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in the 1970s, these French neoconservatives never found the political home that their American counterparts did in the Republican Party. Today, however, the inheritors of this intellectual orientation find themselves more and more isolated from the major currents of political thought in both countries.

In the United States it was not the hopeful progressivism of Barack Obama that ended neoconservatism’s dominance, but the right-wing nationalism of Donald Trump. By driving the Republican Party far to the right, away from its liberal base, he galvanized a small group of “Never Trump” Republican holdouts that are mainly neoconservatives, such as William Kristol, David Brooks, and David Frum. These thinkers are both highly visible and nonetheless increasingly marginal within the conservative movement. To them, Trump's childlike behaviour and openness to Russia are no less reprehensible than anti-bourgeois revolts of ‘68 and the “détente” policy of the 1970s. Neoconservatism today is often little more than anti-Trumpism, and as a result many of today’s prominent neoconservatives are barely distinguishable from moderate “Resistance” Democrats.

The post-Gaullist right of Nicolas Sarkozy never became the figurehead of a liberal-conservative revival in France. Today, the former president and his political heir Laurent Wauquiez represent a far less liberal right than ten years ago. French neoconservatism remains a purely theoretical construct. As for Commentaire, although it continues to publish the neoconservative school in this illiberal moment, one of the journal’s key figures, the philosopher Pierre Manent, maintain links with members of the French New Right such as Alain de Benoist. 

Is Emmanuel Macron a neoconservative? The young president is certainly attached to a certain idea of liberalism, and even if he wants to move beyond “right and left,” his program is clearly that of the moderate right. But Macron disavows any conservative character of his policy. He does not claim to seek to restore order or reinforce cultural identity, but rather to enact “reforms” and “liberate” France’s economic energies. Macron does not denounce Mai 68, and has even suggested a desire to celebrate it.

We have not yet seen the full impact on our societies of the seismic shock of Mai 68 on both sides of the Atlantic. But as for the once powerful neoconservative enemies of this revolt and its legacy, it is difficult to imagine their place in our radically transformed political world.

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is a lecturer in the religion department at Yale University. Jacob Hamburger is the editor of Tocqueville 21​.