The Cold War Isn’t Back. So Don’t Think Like It Is.
Being Bulgarian, I can tell you that international news media cover elections in small European countries the same way a literature professor reads a spy novel during a summer holiday: It’s a pleasant diversion, but one quickly forgets the characters, and it doesn’t really matter if the narrative gets scrambled. Normally, this is not a problem, but it can become one next year.
In 2017 there will be elections not only in Germany, France and the Netherlands but also most likely in Greece, Italy and, again, Bulgaria. This will be a moment of truth for Europe. Social media is being invaded by fake news and conspiracy theories, while mainstream outlets are obsessed with the Kremlin’s interference in the electoral politics of Western democracies. Moscow’s meddling has become a universal explanation for everything that happens on Europe’s periphery and, it seems, elsewhere, too. So it’s critical that people get the story right. But that will not be easy.
Take the November presidential elections here in Bulgaria: The international news media portrayed the victory of Rumen Radev, a United States-trained Air Force general who ran as an independent, as yet another triumph for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and further proof of his growing influence in Eastern Europe. That the Bulgarian election more or less coincided with Moldova’s, in which a Russia-backed candidate won, as well as the reports of a failed pro-Russian coup attempt in Montenegro, led many to the conclusion that Russia was regaining its traditional sphere of influence.
以保加利亚11月举行的总统选举为例：以独立候选人身份参选的鲁门·拉德夫(Rumen Radev)是一名接受过美国训练的空军上将，但国际新闻媒体却把他的胜选描绘成俄罗斯总统弗拉基米尔·V·普京(Vladimir V. Putin)的另一场胜利，并称此事进一步证明他在东欧的影响力越来越大。保加利亚的选举或多或少与摩尔多瓦的选举——俄罗斯支持的一名候选人获胜——同期举行，这个事实连同黑山一场亲俄罗斯政变失败的报道，促使很多人断定俄罗斯正在收复其传统势力范围。
Is that really the case?
Foreign policy was hardly the critical concern for the majority of Bulgarians who cast ballots. And truth be told, Moscow’s influence isn’t creeping into Bulgaria — it’s long been here. A vast majority of Bulgarians value their membership in NATO and, even more, the European Union. But for historical and cultural reasons, most prefer not to see Russia as an enemy. So, unsurprisingly, both General Radev and his center-right opponent advocated lifting sanctions on Russia and improving relations with Moscow.
I share this Bulgarian story because the debate over the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the United States’ presidential election has revived a Cold War framework for understanding the world. Political outcomes in small countries tend to be explained as a zero-sum game between Russia and the West. There are three major problems with this approach.
First, it confuses more than it clarifies. In the 1970s and ‘80s a number of third-world nationalists were caricatured by the West as Communists, despite the fact that they were focused on fighting for independence, not Soviet Communism. The United States and its allies wasted energy warring with them. But misrecognizing nationalists as Communists sometimes became a self-fulfilling prophecy: After being labeled Communist, many of the third-world revolutionary governments indeed became pro-Soviet. The moral is that we should not be surprised if the constant labeling of populist parties and leaders in Europe as “pro-Russian” turns them into the Kremlin’s friends.
Second, the return of the Cold War narrative is becoming a factor in Russia’s growing international influence. The West’s current obsession with Mr. Putin is at the heart of the Russian president’s newly discovered soft power. If Moscow, as so much of the news media suggest, can really rig the American elections, how could a small Bulgaria, or for that matter even France, trust that anybody but the Kremlin would decide who the next president would be? Russia’s power of attraction today is rooted not in its ideology but in its powerful image. If you believe Mr. Putin’s most zealous opponents, he is winning all the time.
Finally, in a globalized world, foreign interference in elections is unavoidable. Private citizens — and not only governments — hack email accounts, spread fake news and conspiracy theories, and try to destroy the reputation of foreign leaders. Lone hackers and tiny rogue political groups can easily crash the servers of electoral commissions around the world. We are entering a period in which disruption is becoming an international contest, and many seek money and glory by demonstrating their ability to sow chaos beyond their borders. The Cold War narrative ignores this new reality because it tends to see any subversive activity as the work of states. A result is a growing risk of overreaction and conflict. In the world of mutually assured disruption, more than ever before what matters is the capacity to distinguish between state-inspired and state-run subversion.
So if we do not want 2017 to become, like 1917, a Russian year in history, the news media would be wise to shy away from grand, continentwide story lines that explain everything and look instead for the details that at least explain something. In the end, even in the age of global media, politics remains local.