Interview: Obama Russia Adviser on Cold War Liberals

Natylie Baldwin asks James Carden about foreign policy views at the U.S. State Department and inside the Democratic Party, including the Bernie Sanders campaign. 

Aerial view of the State Department’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Washington, D.C., in 2009. The Watergate complex is in the foreground. (dbking, Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

By Natylie Baldwin 

James W. Carden served as an adviser on Russia policy in the Obama State Department. A contributing writer at The Nation, his work has appeared in a variety of media outlets. He is executive editor for the American Committee for East-West Accord. He serves on the board of the Simone Weil Center for Political Philosophy. This interview is based on emails we exchanged last week.

Natylie Baldwin: How did you gain your expertise on Russia?  How did you come to be a Russia adviser in the State Department in 2011?

James Carden.

James Carden: I came to be a Russia adviser at State via the Franklin Fellowship, a program for people in mid-career who wanted to make a contribution to the U.S. I had just gotten back from a post graduate semester (after having received my master’s at Johns Hopkins SAIS) at the equivalent institution in Moscow, where I took courses on Russian language and other courses on Russian foreign policy. It was eye-opening. I was in the foreigners’ program, only one other American was with me and it was clear there was something a bit “off” from the start. The only other American in the class, a fellow student — and Russian-fluent, unlike me —  from Columbia, told me that the dean or associate dean – took her aside and informed her, to our great amusement – that they “knew” she and I were CIA.

My response was basically “I wish, having a salary and health care would be nice.” 

BaldwinYour service in the State Department was under Hillary Clinton — at least, in the beginning.  What was the attitude toward Russia and Ukraine at that time and what was your experience like? 

Carden: I actually thought that for the most part (with one important exception) that the FSOs [Foreign Service Officers] were, well, many of them were neutral toward Russia. The political appointees were okay — or at least the ones I ran into.  But I began to wonder:  Why this lack of any real thought as to the country [assignment — or countries? (After all, the Russia desk shared a suite of offices with the desks that covered a number of former Soviet states.) The answer was that, with the exception of the desk head, these people didn’t know a thing about Russia either. Not their fault. But that’s how the foreign service is set up. You have expertise in, say, China? You will spend a lot of your working life in, say, Latin America. It makes no sense. 

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greeted by department employees on her first day. (Michael Gross, Wikimedia Commons)

BaldwinWere you able to ascertain if then Vice President Joe Biden had any special knowledge of, or interest in, Ukraine that would explain why he became the administration’s point person after the Ukraine crisis broke out?

Carden: No. I had left by then. I think it actually is reflective of Obama’s deep disinterest in European affairs that he had appointed Biden as his point man on such a pivotal issue as Ukraine. It seemed to me then that Obama had outsourced his policy on the Ukrainian crisis to his Assistant Secretary of State Toria [Victoria] Nuland and the then-Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, with disastrous results. 

BaldwinWith respect to the impeachment process we’ve been watching unfold, it seems that the Democratic Party establishment is emphasizing a Cold War framing regarding Ukraine and Russia.  What are your thoughts on this?

Cold War-era political cartoon depicting U.S. containment strategies.

Carden: I’m not particularly surprised. Part of the problem is personnel, many of the people advising these politicians working on the Hill or in the DNC can’t even reach back, try as they might, to 1989. What does 1989 mean to you and me? Well, obviously the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. What does 1989 mean to the average staffer? They have no memory of the first Cold War and consequently no conception of how the current one might be even more fraught with danger.

Part of it of course is the old adage “where you sit is where you stand.” So take Adam Schiff. Schiff has defense industry interests in his district, gets campaign cash from them and consequently  — as a very good article in Jacobin laid out recently — has never met a war he didn’t like. 

The underlying reason for the party’s embrace of the Cold War mentality though has, of course to do with the 2016 election. Had it gone the other way — as it could have had the Clinton campaign bothered to make a few more trips to Michigan and Wisconsin — we wouldn’t have heard much more about the much-vaunted Russian intervention. But she lost and her team took the issue of Russian interference (which, I’m sorry, was negligible) blew it up and ran with it in order to deflect blame from themselves. Now Robbie Mook runs a “disinformation” course up at Harvard. What a world.

BaldwinWhat do you think is the biggest obstacle within the government to the improvement of U.S.-Russia relations? What role do the following factors play:

  1. poorly trained “Russia experts;”
  2. ideology – particularly, Neocon and Humanitarian Intervention;
  3. influence of the military-industrial complex?

Carden: If this is a multiple choice I would say “d” — all of the above.”

BaldwinYou wrote a very interesting article recently that was published at the American Conservative called “Meet the Cold War Liberals.”  In it, you discuss some of the leading Democratic candidates — who are considered progressive, including Senator Bernie Sanders — and their foreign policy ideas as they’ve publicly discussed them. 

There seems to be a common theme emerging of the U.S. and democracies of the world in a struggle against an axis of “authoritarian” governments.  This is problematic on a lot of levels. For example, it continues the deeply ingrained idea that we have to have a bogeyman to fight and to reinforce our moral superiority over.  Although this framing of democrats versus authoritarians may play better to those who consider themselves to be liberal, it partly has its roots in neoconservative ideology.  Influential neocon writer Robert Kagan also said we needed to shift focus to the “newly confident” authoritarian governments of the world — referencing Russia and China — in a 2008 interview with Peter Beaumont of The Observer.  Neocons have now insidiously embedded themselves in both major parties.  In this same interview, Kagan stated his support of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy and claimed that he wanted to be called a “liberal interventionist” rather than a Neocon.  What are your thoughts on this?  

Carden: Well. Between the neocons and liberal hawks — it’s a distinction without a difference. And you see that the two war-happy wings of both parties have shaped our politics in the Trump era. The neocons see in their mirror image liberal hawks like Samantha Power and Susan Rice, and, above all, Hillary Clinton. They’re simply different sides of the same coin. But since the day [President Donald] Trump took office, liberals have really taken to heart the old (and wondrously wrong) adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But you would have to be pretty silly to actually believe something like that. And yet, mainstream Democrats, unable to get over the fact that Hillary lost the election, have become what they have long claimed to despise.

Bernie Sanders during January 2020 Democratic primary debate. (Screenshot)

Baldwin:  Though Sanders says some laudable things in his Westminster address (e.g. budget priorities, addressing our internal problems, expanding diplomacy), why does he seem to be embracing this framework of us-against-the-authoritarians?  Do you think it portends a Sanders administration possibly being lulled into a regime change intervention if it’s framed as “supporting democratic forces” against authoritarians?  Supporting “democratic forces” in other countries that we deem insufficiently democratic will no doubt be construed by the target country as interference in its internal affairs.  It is also seems to be right out of the playbook of the CIA and NED [National Endowment for Democracy] in terms of facilitating coups.  What do you think?  

Carden: I can’t name names here, but I’ll tell you this: Last year I was on Capitol Hill and ran into one of my sources, a very, very pro-Bernie kind of person. We got to talking about the upcoming presidential race and Bernie came up. I was quite surprised when this person told me, without much pushing, that they thought, whatever Bernie’s merits as a person, as a congressman, as a potential president, that Bernie would quickly and easily be captured by what President Obama called “the Blob.” That has stayed with me. Nevertheless, I will happily vote for Mr. Sanders in the general, as I did when I wrote him in on Election Day 2016. 

I think part of the reason Sanders has embraced the us-versus-them mindset is because of his advisers who come out of progressive activism and right now, as we have seen, it’s very in vogue among that set to say, “well, we’re not for regime change wars but we will take a hard line against the global authoritarians like Putin, Orban and Xi because they don’t share our enlightened politics.” It’s kind of a way to look “serious” in front of the entrenched foreign policy establishment of which, of course, they desperately want to be a part but will never admit to their peers on Twitter. I would say it is this that worries me most about a potential Sanders presidency. It’s a way that will allow the liberal hawks to enter through the back door.

Baldwin: Sanders regularly reinforces the Russiagate framework, calls [Russian President Vladimir] Putin a “brutal dictator” and doesn’t seem to have a very good understanding of contemporary Russia — the world’s other nuclear superpower.  He has, however, called for arms control diplomacy.  What do you think a Sanders administration might be like in terms of U.S.-Russia relations?

Carden: Better on arms control but pretty bad elsewhere. It’s nice that Bernie’s campaign makes the right noises now and again, but really, running around and taking selfies with Pussy Riot is a pretty bad sign. What next: Ambassador William Browder? Spare me. 

It seems like he could use a tutorial from someone like Stephen F. Cohen. Barring that, I wouldn’t expect much in the way of progress in U.S.-Russian relations until (if?) Putin leaves the stage. But then, of course, we’ll make the same mistakes we always do: we’ll over-personalize/idealize the new Russian leader as “our kind of guy” and then be inevitably disappointed when it turns out he actually doesn’t want American troops on his borders and pursues geopolitical interests that conflict with ours. Then the downward spiral of demonization and Cold War will renew itself. Sanders will make a lot of noise about Russia’s kleptocrats and oligarchs but probably not push the issue of NATO expansion or missile defense, so on that score, he will be far superior than someone like Biden or [Senator Amy] Klobuchar.

Joe Biden during January 2020 Democratic primary debate. (Screenshot)

Baldwin:  A recent article by Joe Biden in Foreign Affairs, seems to suggest that he would generally continue the Bush-Obama policies.  Of course, he played a key role in legitimizing the 2014 coup in Ukraine and has been a big supporter of Russiagate.  What do you think a Biden administration would be like for U.S. foreign policy in general and U.S.-Russia relations in particular?

Carden: Disaster — on both counts. Biden will toe a much harder line on Russia, he will ratchet up tensions between Kiev and Moscow and likely push the issue of NATO expansion which is currently a dead letter — at least among the Europeans. 

He’ll take a tougher line on NATO expansion and will likely allow our policies to be dictated out of Kiev, Warsaw and Riga. There will be a lot of disingenuous talk about the glories of the Revolution of Dignity [a reference to the Western spin on the 2014 coup in Ukraine], lots about Russian information warfare and not too much about how to identify areas of cooperation — after all, how can you cooperate with a criminal like Putin anyway? This, by the way, will likely be the policy of any of the Democrats except for Sanders or by some miracle, [Representative Tulsi] Gabbard.

Outgoing president Herbert Hoover and Roosevelt on Inauguration Day, 1933. (Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons)

Baldwin:  As an alternative guideline for a more constructive foreign policy, you bring up FDR’s “Good Neighbor Policy” involving the UN and its original vision of the equality of all nations whose sovereignty would be respected.  Can you explain a bit more about this policy, its historical context, and why it might be good to look to this now as a way out of our destructive interventionist foreign policy?  

Carden: It was spelled out by FDR in his 1933 inaugural address and then his Secretary of State Cordell Hull gave it the further imprimatur of official U.S. policy toward Latin America at the Montevideo Conference later that year which produced the so-called Montevideo Convention which, among other things, pledged that the signatories not interfere in each other’s domestic affairs. Seems to me to be an eminently sensible way out of our current predicament. I would argue that it is informed by the best traditions of U.S. foreign policy going back to John Quincy Adams and George Washington. 

Baldwin:  Putin has made public comments recently about the five permanent security council members of the UN coming together and working cooperatively on peace and other pressing global issues.  He also referenced the original spirit of the UN.  Do you think there would be receptivity in Moscow to a Good Neighbor type policy as a possible foundation for improved U.S.-Russia relations?  

Carden: I think the Good Neighbor policy is premised on the validity of Westphalia, so yes, I think it would be welcomed by both Russia and China. If you look at the public statements of [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov, for instance, you see broad outlines — or echoes — of that rather sensible policy of non-interference. It would be a nice change to hear an American politician recall that tradition rather than bleat on about the “liberal international order” which of course is not liberal, international or orderly. 

Natylie Baldwin is author of “The View from Moscow: Understanding Russia and U.S.-Russia Relations,” forthcoming in April. She is co-author of “Ukraine: Zbig’s Grand Chessboard & How the West Was Checkmated.” She has traveled throughout western Russia since 2015 and has written several articles based on her conversations and interviews with a cross-section of Russians.  She blogs at

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12 comments for “Interview: Obama Russia Adviser on Cold War Liberals

  1. February 7, 2020 at 18:11

    Right, I recall Bannon spreading “Clinton and the dems want to attack Russia!”….the names have changed. trump’s record on “getting along with russia” has been abysmal since day one.
    1) has developed and deployed “usable nukes”
    2) ignored or ripped up every arms control agreement he could find
    3) called for Europe to expand NATO.
    4) brought thousands of troops, and expanded air and artillery attacks to Russia’s ally Syria
    5) continues to support Ukraine militancy
    6)Has determined to militarily dominate space
    Etc….but sure, worry about the dems…

  2. Jeff Harrison
    February 6, 2020 at 20:58

    The thought does occur to me – with advisors as thoughtful and knowledgeable as Cardin, why did Obama screw up so much?

  3. anon
    February 6, 2020 at 20:33

    Carden attributes poor U.S.-Russia relations to the MIC and anti-Russia ideologists, who install fake “Russia experts” at State. But the MIC hypes any fake threat that way, so this reduces to the DemRep anti-Russia ideology. But in fact Russia has never been a threat to the US (even the Cuba missile crisis was due to the US putting missiles in Turkey, and was resolved by removing them).

    All tyrants invent external threats to cover domestic kleptocracy. So the root cause is economic power in control of all branches of Congress and mass media. Good to know that Sanders is no better on US-Russia relations except arms control: his advisors probably oppose Russia in the Mideast to advance zionism in Israel.

  4. February 5, 2020 at 08:14

    Statements like “ the struggle against an axis of ‘authoritarian’ governments” and “liberal international order” belie the reason for the developing confrontation between Russia and the West: national interests. We have had two world wars (already) to learn the lessons of history – but haven’t.

  5. Glen Van Lehn
    February 4, 2020 at 21:26

    Thoughtful article. Like the idea of Bernie getting a brief from Stephen Cohen, even better — having Cohen in room when the “Blob’s” front folk come brief him.
    When Cardin elaborated on Biden & Ukraine with, “.. It seemed to me then that Obama had outsourced his policy on the Ukrainian crisis to his Assistant Secretary of State Toria [Victoria] Nuland and the then-Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, with disastrous results. “, Ms. Baldwin followed up 3 questions later with reference to role played by Robert Kagan. … I wish she had made the link that Nuland and Kagan are/were married.

  6. Tarus77
    February 4, 2020 at 19:24

    It really is a pathetic indicator that our “foreign policy” establishment knows absolutely nothing about Russia and China but they run to the talk (read babble) shows to sound tough, confident, and knowledgeable. Of course, that is how they make their careers, their promotions, their resumes.

    And, their is big money via the “think” tanks via the swing doors.

  7. Paul
    February 4, 2020 at 19:05

    It is very heartening to see this interview here. One of the best commentaries I’ve seen recently on US Russia policy. Carden’s point about ‘different sides of the same coin’ gets it exactly right.

    Carden is also correct when he states that the Russian side would be ready to come to agreements, including on non-interference in the other sides’ domestic affairs. Indeed, Russia has made such offers in recent years, including in the sphere of cyber interference, and it is my understanding that it was the U.S. side that refused such offers.

    As Patrick Lawrence pointed out in his excellent essay published here this week, the U.S. side has largely abandoned diplomacy, relying on force instead. Trump has his way of doing that. But so do most of the Democrats: the latter add a layer of moralizing to their neocon expansionism, but the essence is the same.

  8. Stephen P
    February 4, 2020 at 17:56

    If ever we are going to do anything about the looming disaster of climate change of course we are going to have to abandon American Imperial power politics and make peace with Russia and China. We are going to stop flushing trillions down the toilet for the military and costly weapons systems and use that money to mitigate climate change. Anything else is criminal on a scale unknown in human history.

    “We need to focus every inch of our being on climate change because if we fail to do so then all our achievements and progress have been for nothing. And all that will remain of our political leaders legacy will be the greatest failure of human history and they will be remembered as the greatest villains of all time.”

    Greta Thunberg

    I’ll repeat: The greatest villains of all time.

  9. Jeff Harrison
    February 4, 2020 at 17:38

    I have often read Mr. Cardin over on the Nation and found him to be eminently sensible (unlike a number of other Nation writers). This piece reinforces that opinion. Unfortunately, Washington is so corrupt that it’s stunning that it doesn’t fall apart.

  10. Realist
    February 4, 2020 at 16:13

    Once again, thanks, Obama… for nothing. Your biggest mistake, apart from the corporatist structure of Obamacare, was naming the extreme Russophobic war-mongers Clinton and Biden to the two most influential offices in your administration.

    (And what attracts voters to Klobuchar who is cut from the same cloth? I can understand corporate America wants war to feed their already engorged bottom line, but the people?)

  11. February 4, 2020 at 11:04

    Who can miss the plaintive call for support of Tulsi Gabbard. On the networks, she has disappeared except for she talked to Assad. The discussion about the Good Neighbor Policy, Putin and the Security Council, and Sanders all enlightening. Very meaty exchange.

    Also Cardin’s remarks on Congressman Schiff helps explain some of the latter’s absurd comments during the Impeachment Trial. To paraphrase, if we don’t confront them over there, we will have to confront over here. Good grief.

    • TimN
      February 4, 2020 at 18:40

      Yes, and Schiff and the other Dems’ crazed ravings get little notice. Not good.

Comments are closed.