US Leads World in Credulous Reports of ‘Lagging Behind’ Russia

On Sunday, the New York Times maintained a long, proud tradition of uncritically repeating official claims that the US–despite having twice the population, eight times the military budget and a nominal economy almost ten times as large–is “lagging behind” Russia on a key military strategic objective:

US Is Playing Catch-Up With Russia in Scramble for the Arctic

NYT: US Is Seen as Lagging Behind in Scramble for the ArcticThe original front-page headline uses the classic New York Times passive voice: “Seen as.” As does much of the article’s framing:

In Washington and other NATO capitals, Russia’s military moves are seen as provocative – and potentially destabilizing.

“Seen” by whom and why? As it turns out, it’s “seen” this way entirely by the United States military and its partisan think tanks. The story overwhelmingly quotes Western military brass, anonymous White House officials and Western think tanks, namely the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Cold War holdover that published a paper dubiously titled “The New Ice Curtain” to warn of the pending threat of Russian presence in the Arctic.

It’s clear, based on the timing of this story, that CSIS’s paperalong with the president’s trip to Alaskais the inciting incident justifying this latest round of Cold War 2.0 posturing. Indeed, right on cue, Obama’s announced plans for a stronger military presence in the Arctic were accompanied by another Times article Tuesday stressing the urgency of the polar “gap”–citing the Times‘ own Sunday report twice in the opening paragraph:

Obama to Call for More Icebreakers in Arctic as US Seeks Foothold

President Obama on Tuesday will propose speeding the acquisition and building of new Coast Guard icebreakers that can operate year-round in the nation’s polar regions, part of an effort to close the gap between the United States and other nations, especially Russia, in a global competition to gain a foothold in the rapidly changing Arctic.

Both hyperlinks go back to the Sunday report.

So here we have it: Pro-NATO think tanks and military brass feed a narrative to the Times, the Times prints it with little skepticism, then these very same forces turn around and use this reporting to justify its military buildup. The crucial question as to whether or not America is objectively “lagging behind” is never really approached critically.

More importantly, the normative question as to whether the US has any intrinsic obligation or right to maintain parity with Russia in the Arctic is never brought up. The assumption is just taken for granted, and once it is, US military officials and their friendly establishment press are off to the races debating how–not if–they can amass more military brass in another corner of the globe. 

On the issue of the US’s legitimacy of having a military precess in the Arctic, one critical point is obscured: Russia has roughly 14 times the Arctic coastline the United states does, 1,760 km vs. 24,140 km. A fact cartoonishly ignored in the New York Times‘ misleading graphic:

New York Times labels make US, USSR seem to have equal claims on the Arctic Ocean.

New York Times labels make US, Russia seem to have equal claims on the Arctic Ocean.

The reality is that the US stake in the Arctic is relatively tiny compared to Russia's.

The reality is that the US stake in the Arctic is
relatively tiny compared to Russia’s.

This is nothing new, of course. Ominous warnings about “gaps” with the Russians are a decades-long tradition in US and Western media. Over the past few years alone, the US has “lagged behind” the dreaded Russians in the following departments:

Cyber security

Online and traditional propaganda

Space race

“Military tactics”

Nuclear technology

Now let’s remember: Russia’s military budget is one-eighth the size of the US’s–and 1/14th as large as NATO’s cumulative $1 trillion in annual military spending. But we’ve been here before. During the Cold War, the public was constantly told the US was “lagging behind” Russia in developing enough nuclear weapons.

lagging behind 1950s

A combination of uncritical press, military Chicken Little-ism and policy wonk groupthink spread a fear that we later learned was largely false. There’s little reason to think–based on the one-sided nature of these reports–that this round of military posturing and Russia-baiting should be any different.


Adam Johnson is an associate editor at AlterNet and writes frequently for FAIR.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc.

You can send a message to the New York Times at letters@nytimes.com, or write to public editor Margaret Sullivan at public@nytimes.com (Twitter:@NYTimes or @Sulliview). Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.