Useful Idiot (noun): a naive or credulous person who can be manipulated or exploited to advance a cause or political agendaMerriam-Webster Dictionary
The term ‘useful idiot’ has a long and storied Cold War history, often being used to pejoratively describe Western leftists who amplified and played into Soviet propaganda. Useful idiocy came in many forms, from outright laundering of Soviet lies (see Walter Duranty) to simply falling for the USSR’s disinformation and false narratives. Some in the latter category still exist today and seriously argue that, for instance, Julius & Ethel Rosenberg were not actually spies (apparently they have not seen the Venona Files). Most of these useful idiots were on the political left, but the main thing that their politics had in common was a reflexive anti-American bent. Useful idiocy as a relevant political concept fell out of favor at the same time the Soviet Union did, and most thought it relegated to works of history. Now, just as Great Power conflict has returned with a vengeance, so have the useful idiots.
Since we’re in the 21st century though, the useful idiocy has been upgraded just like everything else. In this new version, the propaganda-spewing authoritarians have doubled in number, and the cancer of useful idiocy has metastasized to both the populist right and the progressive left. What hasn’t changed, however, is the reflexive anti-American ideology underlying the whole concept. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the far ends of the American political left-right spectrum (as flawed a concept as that is) have little to nothing in common, but the reality is that they often do. Just like two ends of a horseshoe, the ideologies of the far right and far left converge at various points, making them more alike than one might assume; this is especially clear when it comes to foreign policy and international affairs. Both populist right and progressive left are isolationist in nature and see America’s broader role in the world as a net negative to ourselves and those we engage with. Much of this comes from a negative opinion about America’s historic or present role – progressives see the US as a racist settler-colonial state that purveys imperialism abroad, while the right-wing isolationists see the US as controlled by a woke libertine oligarchy that hypocritically criticizes the abuses of other, more properly ‘moral’ nations. Underlying these criticisms are nuggets of truth – the US does have a history of racism (but fairly minor compared to others) and American elite culture is more libertine than the average American (but that doesn’t mean the US has no moral standing). The problem that arises is when these attitudes are taken to their logical extremes, something which seems to be a constant issue in our modern politics. This position also assumes that American domestic politics should be privileged over foreign policy and tends to diminish the importance of American global hegemony to our ability to have these internecine cultural and political debates at home. This is a myopic view that should not be seen as a serious vision of international affairs, as it ignores history and the benefits – economic, cultural, and otherwise – that we gain from world power. When this flawed, hyperbolic ideology is paired with aggressive, propagandistic, authoritarian enemies abroad who deliberately seek to inflame these isolationist groups, you’ve got a perfect recipe for useful idiocy.
The biggest long-term concern for those of us opposed to the useful idiots is China. The Chinese Communist Party is the most serious foe of American hegemony and power internationally that we’ve faced since the fall of Soviet Communism some 30 years ago. The CCP is totalitarian, genocidal, repressive, and aggressive in their territorial revisionism. Yet they still have a large share of defenders here in the West – people who outright deny the genocide in Xinjiang, claim Taiwan is rightfully a possession of China, see Chinese expansionism as a positive good, excuse its culpability for the global pandemic, and celebrate China’s economic and political coercion around the world. These folks are anti-American to their core, and typically tend to be highly hypocritical when it comes to calling out the abuses of the CCP. The Olympics have given a very recent example of this malign behavior in action. Just try posting anything publicly on a large platform like Twitter about skipping the Olympics due to China’s ongoing abuses (this article works), and you’ll be inundated with useful idiots engaging in one of their key tactics: whataboutism. That term describes a rhetorical distraction technique often laden with moral relativism wherein someone deflects from a relevant criticism with an unrelated attack on a perceived hypocrisy – in the case of the Beijing Olympics, that would entail a call to boycott the upcoming 2028 Los Angeles Olympics because of police violence, poverty, or racism. As should be obvious, none of those American deficits is even remotely comparable with the actual ongoing physical and cultural genocide in China, or its myriad other human rights abuses. These specious arguments are expected coming from keyboard warriors at home, but they become seriously disturbing when they are echoed by more prominent figures. Populists on the right, including the writer Sohrab Ahmari and the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, have praised China for its ‘strength’ and ‘unity’, seeing it as a potential model for a new American society; Ahmari went farther in a now-deleted tweet, saying that he was “at peace with a Chinese-led 21st century.” Authoritarian envy is a real thing.
These sentiments are also seen on the left, where progressives label Chinese dissidents who bravely stand up to the CCP as stooges of the US imperialist lobby and excuse China’s coercive diplomacy as nothing out of the ordinary. Some also engage in absurd revisionist history; I’ve personally seen the claim repeated that China has never engaged in war for territorial gain, which would be news to the millions who have died in those wars over the course of several centuries! Again, these narratives become more significant when they are mirrored by powerful people. A recent example of ‘useful idiocy with Chinese characteristics‘ on the political left came from the White House podium, when Press Secretary Jen Psaki stated that the rise in crimes against Asian-Americans in urban centers was “because of hate-filled rhetoric and language around the origins of the pandemic.” This framing is not only entirely incorrect – these crimes are often ones of opportunity and have far more to do with the refusal to incarcerate dangerous offenders than they do anti-Asian rhetoric – but also perniciously forwards a key CCP narrative: that China is not responsible for the pandemic and claiming otherwise is racist. I am more than happy to say it directly: China is responsible for the pandemic (either directly due to negligence or indirectly due to obfuscation & cover-ups) and it is not racist to state that truth. This is a perfect example of useful idiocy, particularly because the same false explanation for violence was promoted by Chinese state media just one day before Psaki repeated it near-verbatim and gave it the imprimatur of the President of the United States. Allowing the CCP to use our sensitivity to claims of racism against us is foolish, especially given the enormous racism existing in China even against other Asian ethnicities. Han supremacy is arguably the governing philosophy of Xi Jinping, and allowing the CCP to wield racism as a cudgel against us is an absurd show of weakness. The fact that our administration is not only yielding to these ridiculous claims, but boosting them, bodes poorly for the future of US dealings with our greatest geopolitical rival.
China is not the only global foe which has its share of American useful idiots willing to promote and defend its propaganda; Russia has gotten back into the act itself in recent years. Just like the useful idiots of the Soviet era, today’s Russian pawns – willing or ignorant – are going to the proverbial mattresses to defend Russia’s aggressive expansionism and attempts to exert coercive control over its neighbors. This has been clearly demonstrated by the isolationist reaction – right and left – to the threatened Russian military invasion of Ukraine. It is obvious to anyone neutral who is paying attention that the Kremlin is the aggressor here; criticism of the West’s approach to Moscow’s sabre-rattling is reasonable, but that’s not what we hear from the useful idiots. Instead, they seek to either downplay the massive Russian military buildup, ascribe blame to Ukraine or NATO for Russian belligerence, or justify de facto Russian control over its near-abroad. Given the history of the ongoing Russian-sponsored war in eastern Ukraine, something which has been actively documented since 2014, it is hard to understand the view that Russian security concerns are at all legitimate. But somehow, in the words of Jurassic Park‘s Dr. Ian Malcolm, “life finds a way.”
With respect to Russia and Ukraine, the isolationists on the left and right both echo the same arguments. The most prevalent is the idea that NATO expansion since 1991 is to blame for Russia’s militarism and hostility to its neighbors, and NATO military buildup near Russian borders is currently responsible for the crisis in Ukraine. This idea that has been promulgated by right-wingers like Carlson, Ahmari, and Candace Owens, as well as left-wingers like John Mearsheimer of the isolationist Quincy Institute, journalist Michael Tracey, and the progressive NGO Stop The War. The only problem with their thesis is that it is demonstrably false. NATO has not admitted a member on Russia’s border since 2004, when the Baltic states joined the defensive security pact. Those three nations, some of the most significant victims of Soviet tyranny, are the only NATO members that share a land border with Russia proper (excluding the enclave of Kaliningrad); Ukraine and Georgia have only been granted the status of ‘aspiring members’, which means very little in practice. NATO accession is a purely voluntary decision made jointly by those powers within the bloc and those aspiring to join it; attempting to coerce a state to not join such a pact is a fundamental violation of national sovereignty that should not be acceptable in 2022. With respect to the militarization of those NATO members closer to Russia, this process only began after the illegal Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea – sovereign Ukrainian territory – and the Moscow-sponsored separatist insurgency in the far east of Ukraine which began in 2014. In terms of troop numbers, these NATO deployments are small: including the standing armies of the Baltic states, total infantry numbers for NATO in-theater are about 35,000. Right now, the Russian military has nearly 200,000 troops within spitting distance of the Ukrainian border, all on high alert and seemingly preparing for an invasion. (If the deed has been done since publication: God bless the Ukrainian people. Keep up the fight.) Those are not even remotely comparable figures, and do not include the military of Belarus – a satellite of Russia – or the irregular forces in the occupied Donbas region of Ukraine. Another pernicious argument used by the useful idiots is a direct propaganda smear from the Kremlin – that Ukrainians who are defending their country are neo-Nazis and deserving of scorn and violence. This Russian disinformation has been laundered by Ahmari (see a trend here?) as well as leftists like the popular Twitch streamer Hasan Piker. But yet again, this simplistic narrative of ‘Russia good, Ukraine bad’ is fundamentally untrue and has been exaggerated out of all proportion.
The 21st century, in many ways, is a return to the tumultuous and dangerous world of the past, instead of being an expansion of the unusually peaceful and stable 1990s. History is indeed not over, and much of it seems to have come back with a taste for blood. With the return of Great Power conflict, the cultural trappings associated with it have also reappeared – one being useful idiocy. Just as was the case during the Cold War, Western isolationists with an anti-American bent have latched on to the cause of America’s enemies and naively repeat their propaganda ad nauseam. Unlike the last time, however, this phenomenon has infected a broader swath of the political spectrum and has been hypercharged by social media. Apparently, shilling for authoritarian regimes who hate America and wish to destroy our world power never goes out of style. Who knew? Hopefully, those of us who see this idiocy for what it is have the same level of success as our forebears did and we see our authoritarian foes consigned to the dustbin of history. But until that glorious day, we can at least do our best to make the new generation of useful idiots just a bit less useful than their predecessors were.