Images of a bare-chested Putin riding horses, working out or wrestling have found their perfect target audience in the Western world. No other leader seems inspire so many memes. Putin is macho—a strongman—and he’s pulling strings in Washington. He is the imperialist specter haunting Europe who wants to eat up the Baltics and live in the White House. As a Russian native, it’s reading Western not Russian news that makes me think Putin is invincible.
While these images can be entertaining for some, the concern is that there is no substance behind them. Can we derive anything about Putin’s politics from his bare-chested displays? No, we cant. What does Putin’s judo tell us about the Kremlin’s foreign policy strategy? Nothing. Sure, memes may be intended to provide comedic relief not reveal political insight, but they are also representative of the wider media discourse. Western media coverage shows that it’s easier to portray Putin as either dictator or caricature, and Russia as either authoritarian or “crazy,” than to consider them rational and meaningful actors on the world stage.
As Dmitri Trenin argues, even during the Cold War, there were unspoken golden rules of civility and begrudging respect between opponents. Today, disrespect governs both sides of the U.S.-Russia relationship. It is easier to mock something you know nothing about—easier to lampoon an object through memes when it does not have a human face. When deep, fundamental knowledge of the “opponent” is much needed, the lack of U.S. expertise on Russia is glaringly evident.
Lulled by self-satisfaction on “winning” the Cold War, domestic U.S. investment in Russian language, history and culture has plummeted. Highly questionable Russia “experts” are cropping up like mushrooms after a spring rain. Following the Crimean annexation in 2014, only one in six Americans could point to Ukraine on a map. This did not stop people from turning to social media or expressing their views on the situation. As Tom Nichols writes in his new book “The Death of Expertise,” respondents favored intervention in direct proportion to their ignorance: “The people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were the most enthusiastic about using military force there.”
Our conversations on foreign policy have become entangled with phrases like “post-truth,” “alternative facts” and “fake news.” We debate in narratives rather than going back to the basics: what is in that state’s self-interest? Russia’s “meddling” in the U.S. election has almost become truth by sheer repetition. But there has been no actual evidence of meddling, no articulation of who in Russia meddled, and no indication of how, for what purpose or to what end. One of the few serious explorations of the issue to date—the U.S. Director of National Intelligence report— comes up stunningly short on evidence and analysis.
The Western mainstream media’s vehement reception of Oliver Stone’s interview with President Putin, even before its release, only shows how willfully blind we have become. Studying a subject’s logic, motivations and perception of the world is vital. So why are we so afraid to listen to Putin’s voice? Is it because his words may not be as irrational, offensive or empty as we hoped they’d be?
Knowledge and eventual expertise require deep and meaningful intellectual engagement with a subject. Rather than partaking in such engagement, Americans are insulating “their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong,” Nichols argues.
We should not be afraid to listen to and consider the other side, especially when that side is difficult, dangerous or Other. And even if you don’t agree with what you find, an informed and thoughtful opinion is one we can all respect. Acknowledgment does not equate to agreement. Changing your view does not mean lacking a stance.
In our age of instant Twitter updates and thoughtless memes, a considered opinion and depth of knowledge are more rare—and more valuable—than ever before.