President Obama's interview with the Economist is mostly an excuse for him to talk up this week's Africa Leaders Summit in DC, but the section that stands out the most is this brutal diss of Russia:
Russia doesn’t make anything. Immigrants aren’t rushing to Moscow in search of opportunity. The life expectancy of the Russian male is around 60 years old. The population is shrinking. And so we have to respond with resolve in what are effectively regional challenges that Russia presents. We have to make sure that they don’t escalate where suddenly nuclear weapons are back in the discussion of foreign policy. And as long as we do that, then I think history is on our side.
There's a whole lot wrong here, as Mark Adomanis at Forbes notes. Russia is the second most popular immigration destination after the United States. Male life expectancy is about 65 — very low for a country at Russia's level of development, but not 60. Its population is growing, though it's likely to start shrinking in the future. It actually makes tons of stuff — Russia is the second biggest arms exporter in the world, for instance, after the United States.
But the fact that Obama felt compelled to say this — inaccuracies and all — is interesting. The implicit argument being countered here is the idea that, as TIME magazine recently put it, a "Cold War II" is afoot and Russia might present a real rival to the US. But one crucial thing that made the Soviet Union a plausible rival was that, for much of the world, Communism was an extremely attractive ideology, one embraced by guerrilla and resistance movements across the globe and thus capable of pulling numerous countries into the Soviet orbit. As Obama points out, there's nothing so attractive about 2014's Russia, which profoundly limits how successful it can be as a world power.