Americans are increasingly less intimidated by Russia since they now consider China the most intimidating power in the world. At least, public opinion polls show this tendency. Why are U.S. citizens’ sentiments shifting so noticeably? How are the U.S. authorities influencing current events? And how can Russia use the situation to its advantage?
In the news media, there is a concept known as the echo chamber. It refers to situations in which beliefs are constantly amplified or reinforced by communication and repetition inside a closed system. At some point, it seems as if the whole world shares your views, as do other members of your echo chamber.
This is exactly the same impression that readers of the Western media have of Russian affairs. Most of the articles are explicitly anxiety-producing, positioning Moscow as the main enemy of not only the U.S. but of all Western civilization. To illustrate this, we can mention that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization declared Russia a major threat, which gave the U.S. a reason to amass its troops in Eastern Europe. At the same time, Ukraine and, to some extent, the Baltic states are actively exploiting anti-Russian fears.
However, U.S. society’s perception of Russia is somewhat different from that portrayed by Western media propaganda. This point is clearly demonstrated in three Ronald Reagan Institute National Defense Surveys, which were conducted in 2018, early 2021 and November 2021.
The Biggest Threats to the US
In 2018, the situation more or less resembled the echo chamber environment: 73% of Americans considered Russia a threat. Moreover, it was perceived as the main national security threat by 30% of respondents. China was in second place with 21%, followed by North Korea with 18% and Iran with only 7%.
However, the situation changed in early 2021. Even though Russia was still considered a threat by 69% of Americans, it had lost its major-threat status. As of the beginning of 2021, 37% of Americans ranked China as the top threat, while Russia dropped almost by half, to second place, with 16%. North Korea and Iran had 15% and 8%, respectively.
China’s taking first place among national security threats is quite simple to explain. “It reflects the mindset and the narrative that has existed in the U.S. since at least 2018, when Washington abruptly changed its policy toward China in favor of outright confrontation. The U.S. authorities identify China as the main adversary and the major threat. Indeed, China is the only country in the world that challenges U.S. supremacy and can make America the second greatest technological and military power,” said Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, Moscow, in his interview with Vzglyad.
This is recognized by both American experts and high-ranking politicians. They argue that the U.S. is losing its technological edge. This is largely due to an outdated approach to scientific research, where the emphasis is placed on the amount of funds allocated rather than on technological innovations, as such. “Even a single failed test of a new technology can have serious consequences on officers’ careers. This attitude smothers innovation and reinforces using the same old ‘proven’ technologies that don’t meet modern threats,” said Mike Rogers, Republican ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee in the U.S. Congress.
It should come as no surprise that there is a massive U.S. media campaign against China now. “Anti-China sentiment is on the rise. It is being accused of all the deadly sins, including genocide against the people of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Moreover, the economic pressure exerted on China is intensifying, with anti-Chinese sanctions far outnumbering anti-Russian sanctions,” Suslov continued. That’s why the number of Americans who view China as a threat — not a major threat, but simply a threat — increased by 12% from 2018 to early 2021, from 55% to 67%.
The Democrats Give Up
It is true that Russia has shifted to the rank of “enemy No. 2,” but not every category of respondents felt the same way. The Democrats still held their views: 28% of respondents who considered themselves Democratic Party supporters put Moscow in first place among national security threats (28%) and Beijing in second place (20%). Only 6% of respondents who considered themselves Republican Party supporters (58%) viewed Russia as the main threat, whereas 9% of those who had no party affiliation (39%) did the same.
The Republicans were even more afraid of Iran and North Korea than they were of Russia. In many ways, it happened because Russia was overly used for the purposes of internal political struggle in the U.S. “Republicans mostly didn’t believe in Russian interference during the 2016 election, calling Russiagate, Donald Trump’s ties to the Russian government, a provocation against him,” Suslov said. By the time Joe Biden took office, the Democrats continued to believe that Russia was meddling in the U.S. election and trying to harm the U.S. in every way possible.
It would seem that they should have only strengthened their views with Biden, who replaced “the Russian agent” Trump. However, the November poll recorded their surrender: 44% of Democratic Party supporters — that is, more than twice as many as in early 2021 — already saw China as the top threat. Among Republicans, the number rose to 64%, while among those with no party affiliation, it increased to 44%.
As a result, 52% of Americans now believe that China poses the main threat to their country, and only 14% give this questionable leadership to Russia. Moreover, Moscow could well fall from second to third place because North Korea is already right behind it (12%).
“With Trump gone, Russia’s role in the U.S. internal political struggle has been drastically reduced. While Russia was the main weapon in the hands of Trump’s opponents during his presidency, it is far less frequently used now. Russia is being viewed as a foreign policy challenge and a second rival to the U.S., therefore it is perceived more accurately by the public now,” Suslov explained. Furthermore, the Biden administration even wants to weaken its anti-Russian agenda since it prevents the White House from reaching an agreement with Germany and Russia, whether it is on Ukraine or arms control.
If we regard the situation from the standpoint of Russia’s interests, and not of certain Russian politicians who like the country’s status as a major threat to the U.S., it is more likely to be optimistic. It would undoubtedly be better if the U.S. paid less attention to Moscow, trying to consolidate the American public and Western society on anti-Russian sentiments.
On the other hand, the Russian Federation is still an enemy. “The fact that most of the U.S. elites do not see Russia as threat number one does not mean that Russia is not perceived as enemy number two on an ideological, geopolitical and military basis. Thus the U.S. establishment is not predisposed to make concessions to Moscow. They want to continue the confrontation with the Kremlin without escalating it to the point where it affects American interests or strengthens the Russian-Chinese military and technological partnership,” Suslov said.
According to some reports, this might be a window of opportunity for Vladimir Putin and Biden to hold a new round of negotiations that are expected to take place in the first week of December. Fortunately, neither president is in an echo chamber environment, and both are well aware of what is really going on in the world.
The author is an associate professor of the Financial University under the government of the Russian Federation.