In the Hall of Mirrors

Anne Orford

For now, no one other than Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and their impressively inscrutable translators knows for sure what happened in the gilded Hall of Mirrors at Finland’s Presidential Palace during the recent US-Russia summit. Yet from the moment that the two presidents emerged to address the waiting press corps, their statements and actions have created the sense that, rather than leaving the hall of mirrors themselves, they have dragged the rest of us into it with them. And as with any visit to a hall of mirrors, the experience of doubling and distortion can be confusing, disorienting and, at times, a little frightening.

This isn’t a new sensation for observers of the relationship between Trump’s America and Putin’s Russia. The outrage with which US commentators have discussed the possibility of foreign interference in their elections is understandable, but hard to square with decades of US interference in elections around the world, or with US support for forceful regime change. American concern with the potential damage caused by state-sponsored hacking of its vital digital infrastructure is warranted, but seems hypocritical in the aftermath of the Snowden leaks, which revealed the scope of cyber intrusions carried out by the National Security Agency, or in light of President Obama’s 2016 boast that the US has the world’s most advanced offensive cyber capacities. The latest indictment of Russian officials for hacking into US computers, stealing information, and using it against the US, is a strong response to cyber-espionage; but why wouldn’t other governments follow suit and use their criminal law as a counterintelligence tool against US hackers?

The Russian president, in turn, is a master of the art of moral equivalence. In 2014, Putin justified Russia’s actions in Crimea as being in support of the peninsula’s remedial self-determination, following the ‘well-known Kosovo precedent’. He told Trump that he would allow US officials to question the 12 Russian military intelligence officers indicted by Robert Mueller, if Russia could question 11 US diplomats, civil servants and business people who had worked with opposition organisations in Russia or supported sanctions against Russian officials for human rights abuses. The State Department dismissed the proposed exchange as ‘absurd’. Yet behind it lies Putin’s view that US involvement in Russian politics is as illegitimate as the activities on Mueller’s charge sheet.

For critics of expansionist US and Russian foreign policy, and the legal machinations that have accompanied the actions of both powers, the resort to charges of hypocrisy is familiar. It is hard not to resort to cynical eye-rolling about moral or legal relativism when hegemonic states seek to cloak their own interventions in the language of moral virtue, while denouncing similar conduct by their rivals. Yet the tit-for-tat games played by the leaders of hegemonic states, and their apparent willingness to treat individuals within their jurisdictions as pawns, suggest what is at stake if those entrusted with the monopoly of state violence and control over mass surveillance abandon any shared sense of restraint on the means or ends of their use. Something more is needed than calling for those leaders to look in the mirror and recognise a wrongdoer.

The criminal investigation into Russian intervention in the US elections reveals a world in which interference in the affairs of other states is both enabled and restrained by the secretive actions of intelligence, military, security and computer experts, whether working for, with or against state governments. The stakes of the current dialogue between the populist leaders of two powerful states over what consequences, if any, should flow from interventions by one in the domestic affairs of the other are high. The tension between freedom and security that underpins this dialogue has long structured the project of creating a global legal order. That tension is intensified by the mass surveillance of communications, state-sponsored hacking, the use of personal data mined from a commercialised and lightly regulated internet for profit and propaganda, and the resort to criminal law as the only form of regulation that is still seen as acceptable by neoliberals.

As the world becomes ever more integrated, the struggle over what values should underpin that integration are becoming more intense. The US has avoided arguing that Russia’s activities violate international law, perhaps because it would then be difficult to explain how its own actions are legal. Yet if there is a silver lining to the apparent Russian intervention in the US election, it is in the broader reminder that the principles which underpin international law – non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, sovereign equality and self-determination – are worth defending. All countries should be able to choose their leaders freely, without distortion, coercion or interference from foreign powers. Democracy depends on people being able to make judgments for themselves about the common good. How those principles and values should be defended, and by whom, are once again on the table. The negotiations about these vital questions cannot be left to Trump and Putin, meeting in private in a hall of mirrors.


  • 22 July 2018 at 1:27pm
    Joe Morison says:
    I’d be interested to know how Russia, with the severe economic sanctions in place against it, will be effected by the trade wars that Trump is starting. We’ve read various estimates of how much global growth will be damaged, but will this have a disproportionally lower impact on Russia? Because if it will, it really does look like Trump is doing everything that a Russian asset would do.

    It was a good liberal joke to say that he was controlled by the Kremlin, but he does now look like the western glove on the Soviet hand. Trump and the Russian supported anti-EU movements have attacked, perhaps fatally, Nato and the EU; sown division in individual western democracies to a degree unseen in living memory; and attacked the whole idea of a free press. A new autocratic, pseudo democratic, world order with an entrenched global elite is clearly something Putin desires; and Trump seems to be doing everything he can to aid him. That might be the world Trump wants but it’s hard to imagine he has the vision to enact it, not so Putin. The forthcoming disruption in the world economy can only aid those aims by increasing disenchantment with democracy and making the emergence of ‘strong men’ politicians (I doubt there will be even a token woman) attractive - we can already see how many of Trump’s base look upon Russia as an ally. If Russia will take a lesser hit than the rest of us, what once seemed impossible might actually be the terrifying reality.

  • 24 July 2018 at 6:29am
    FoolCount says:
    That is true that there is no moral equivalency here. Russia is hardly a "hegemonic state". All its efforts are directed towards opposing and confronting the hegemony of USA. Someone had to do it sooner or later and everyone will benefit when this exploitative hegemony is eventually dismantled. As any racket, American global protection enterprise relies on cowardly compliance of the extorted. Someone always needs to be the first to stand up to the bully, and the that first is always subjected to particular abuse, as the bully's credibility (on which the whole business model relies) is challenged. We all must be grateful to Putin and Russia for challenging the unfair status quo and doing it at considerable risk. But you only could push people and countries so far.

  • 24 July 2018 at 8:48pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Yes, once that valiant schoolyard hero, Vlad the Innocent, stands up to the bully, things will be much better throughout the world, especially for the Russian people, whose love for him knows no bounds. A few journalists, artists, and various ilks of protestors should be advised to keep wearing their body armor, but that's a small price to pay for "liberation". My sides are splitting, as V. hitches up his drawers and D. rubs his posterior.

    • 24 July 2018 at 11:34pm
      FoolCount says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Well, your laboured "laughter" will not impress anyone, as only the most gullible are still buying this "evil-Putin-Russia-bad" schtick. Keep that demented show going at your own peril.

  • 27 July 2018 at 7:28pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    No one’s going to be impressed by FoolCount’s reasoning, either. While whittling away the USA’s global hegemony (which isn’t really an accurate description of its political and economic position in today’s world) is an admirable goal, and such a diminution will probably come about sooner through the mistakes and illusions of its own leaders (Trump included). This will be a good thing. However, there is an impression FC creates that Putin’s leadership is a good thing, based solely on the way he’s going about achieving this particular goal. Loss of US “hegemony” in the areas bordering Russia (an even more questionable status), including many parts that formerly were part of the USSR, will not improve the daily lives of the vast majority of people who live in those areas. That would require economic progress, internal reforms and a whole cohort of leaders and political parties committed to escaping authoritarian government, which is not the trend of the present, especially (but not only) for this region. Putin is a man to be feared, and perhaps even respected, but certainly not to be emulated. His ideas about restoration of a “Great Russia” are backward, and the methods he uses to maintain his control are brutal. And he won’t be leading any “world liberation from the US hegemony” movement – that’s a joke.

  • 31 July 2018 at 10:54am
    Camus says:
    Anybody who reads Snyder’s monumental work will have great admiration for the peoples of the western fringes of the Russian Federation. They have suffered immense hardship, famine, occupation, years of war, economic exploitation, bloodshed in huge quantities and the suppression of their culture, languages, religion and customs. Nobody in the west cares very much about the fate of the people in Luhansk or Donetsk, where war has been going on four five years, with NATO weapons used to help a plutocratic dictator starve out the Russian speaking majorities in those “republics” that could not survive without Putin’s support.
    A recent book by Navid Kermani has depicted the historical development along the “fault lines” of the territory between Poland, white Russia and the troubled states of the Caucasus. A region that is so close and yet country miles away in terms of Western European understanding. Read Snyder or Kermani to find out the immense courage of these forgotten peoples.

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