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The world and history are full of conspiracies. From the assassination of Julius Caesar to the prank orchestrated by the evil trio in primary school, they are part of the human experience. We are not talking about conspiracy theories but about episodes in which a small group of people ally to harm someone, advance a cause or provoke a laugh, often a bitter one. In 2009, the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the victim of a small but significant sabotage. Analysing what happened can help us to look at the US in a different way than usual.
A meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton took place in Geneva. The intention was to initiate the so-called Russian reset. The Obama Administration, which took office just over a month before, had already expressed through Vice-President Biden and the Secretary of State the desire to improve bilateral relations with Russia, resetting the past.
At the end of the press conference, Clinton opened a small box in front of the photographers, pulled out a red button and handed it to her counterpart. The word reset was written on the button in English and Russian in Latin characters. The idea was to press it together, which they did. But, when asked if they had chosen the right word, Lavrov, a little embarrassed, replied that they had not. The Russian word on the button was not perezagruzka, i.e., reset, restart, but peregruzka. The difference seems insignificant, but the meaning is very different. Peregruzka translates as overcharge, worsening.
When we think of a foreign country and specifically the US, we usually think of a monolithic entity that thinks and decides how to act. Mass media and simple bar talks have created the image we all have of the US President as the most powerful man in the world.
But this is not the case: the president has limited powers, especially in foreign policy. In addition to the White House, the great beast we call state has many heads. And there are some that direct it much more than the current president in his few years in office. The head that leads back to the little conspiracy we are talking about is one of the biggest, most monstrous and most fascinating: bureaucracy. That linked to defence, the State Department and all the offices (armed forces and Pentagon, CIA, etc.) involved in American security and foreign policy.
When Trump talked about the deep state, he was taken for a fool even by his closest advisors, and here we do not wish to run the same risk. But people who live inside the state machine do exist. They work, progress in their career, maintain relations, have economic interests, retain influence by counselling once they leave the public sector. They thus form a coherent apparatus that transcends political affiliations and makes or influences decisions above, beyond and behind the law. The careers of the analysts, bureaucrats and technicians are longer than any political mandate, and this not only gives continuity to the institutions but also creates a monopoly of knowledge. Politicians are in awe of the apparatuses because the latter have unique and indispensable administrative capabilities and expertise necessary to implement any political decision. This is what “deciding beyond the law” means. A State Department office can decide to follow up or not a decision of the Secretary of State, who is supposed to run that office, depending on the specific beliefs and interests of the people involved.
A distinctive feature of the ideology within the US apparatus is the need to identify Russia as an enemy. Everyone needs an enemy because that is the only way to have a friend. Moscow is and will always remain the enemy par excellence for the United States, regardless of its importance or danger (which is not insignificant). It is a useful enemy, an instrument of mobilisation constitutive of the national foreign policy. Russia as an enemy is much more useful than China, which is infinitely more dangerous and more expensive to deal with.
This sentiment, however, is not carved in stone. And the idea of making peace with the Russians to perhaps focus on something else, or to use it against enemies like China, does not always seem so bizarre. In short, this view has often belonged to the presidents, as it did to Obama. During Dmitry Medvedev’s stint at the helm of the Kremlin, Obama and his staff nurtured the dream of reviewing relations with the Russian Federation and collaborating on numerous dossiers. But they had not reckoned with the apparatuses and the convictions that were and are in force within them.
Here, finally, a small plot makes sense. For weeks, leading figures in the new presidency had been making declarations of openness towards Russia. The will was clear. These were the first moves after the election, the first hundred days in office, the visiting card to the nation. The Government decided to make a small but symbolic gesture to mark a day, the 6th of March 2009. The press would be there, and the diplomatic adviser to the new Secretary of State Clinton wanted to be sure. He then turned to the apparatus and the linguists in his Department. The technicians had the necessary language knowledge to make everything go smoothly.
And the button was prepared and put in its little box.