In the Hall of Mirrors
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.