Much has been made of the recent Russian spy swap, in which ten Russian infiltrators were exchanged for four American infiltrators. The overall reaction has been one of amusement. Russian spies combined with Desperate Housewives? Straight out of a Cold War movie thriller!
In fact, the reaction to the spy scandal reveals far more about American attitudes towards Russia than most classified information would. Simply put, the United States no longer regards Russia as its number-one nemesis and rival. In the days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had ten thousand nuclear missiles pointed at America, the reaction would have been far different – far more hostile, and far less amused.
In the United States today, the role of number-one rival has shifted from the USSR to mainland China. Think about what would have happened if the story had been about ten Chinese spies, not ten Russian spies. The media would have had a heart attack warning about the Chinese threat. The New York Times and the Economist – America’s newspapers for the elite – would be filled with dire articles analyzing so-called American decline and Chinese military strength. Fox News would probably warn earnestly about more Chinese spies in the midst of America. (Though those looking for Chinese spies would do well to consider the substantial community of Americans hailing from Taiwan instead of the mainland; telling the difference between Taiwanese and mainland Chinese is about as easy as was telling East Germans apart from West Germans during the Cold War.)
The Russian spy scandal also reveals much about the way American media operates. For the past few months, very little of note has occurred in either the domestic or international front. Perhaps the most notable events have been financial reform’s passage, the Gulf of Mexico spill, and – most importantly – the World Cup. None of these stories is enough to sustain a month’s news coverage (although the World Cup certainly comes close). This is why papers like the Times turn to things like Russian spies.
The spy affair, then doesn’t actually reveal much about Russia that isn’t already known – that it is spying on the United States. What it really does is tell a story about America itself – about Russia’s threat level in American eyes, and about what the media latches onto when there is nothing else to report.