Friday, January 20, 2017

Russia and the US Can Never Be Long-Term Partners, Russian Historian Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 20 – Hopes and fears both spring eternal as to relations between Russia and the United States, with each new development prompting discussions about a possible breakthrough to some kind of permanent accord. But Vladislav Zubok says that “the radical differences” between the nationalism of the two countries make that impossible.

            In an article for Moscow’s “Vedomosti” newspaper, the Russian analyst who teaches at the London School of Economics and Political Science says that it is quite likely Putin and Trump will be friends for a time and make that the basis for “deals on some important issues” (

                “But this doesn’t mean,” Zubok says, that a new basis for Russian-American relations will arise.” The two radically different nationalist traditions of the two countries “will remain just as they have been.” And those who forget that fact will experience what others like them have in the past, “disappointment and a new confrontation.”

            All Russians remember that in March 1983, Ronald Reagan called the USSR “the evil empire,” but fewer of them recall that nine months later, in January 1984, he said that if ordinary Russians and ordinary Americans could sit down together and overcome the language barrier, they would find “a common language.”

            That second remark is one that “today the majority of Western journalists and also the opposition in Russia” share. Both view “the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin and the criminal-corrupt pyramid on which he sits as the main obstacle for ‘normal’ Russian-American relations,” the London-based scholar says.

            But such a view, Zubok continues, is fundamentally wrong because it ignores “the main thing: the foreign policies of the US and Russia rest on two largely incompatible models of national interest.”

             “The US,” he says, “always was a country of religious-national exceptionalism and messianism.” Since the first settlers arrived in North American, “millions of Americans up to now believe that their country is a promised land where good always triumphs over evil.” Cynics may say that in the US, money won out, but this isn’t the case.”

            According to the Russian analyst, “the nationalism of the Americans is based on the idea that their country is a beacon of freedom and good in a sinful world. What freedoms? Above all freedom of entrepreneurialism and of religion.” And those ideas informed the US decision to fight the Cold War against the USSR rather than retreat into isolationism.

            In the ensuing decades, “the nationalism of the Americans became global and it appeared reconciled forces and parties at odds with each other at home: conservative Republicans, Southern believers, the white population of the small towns, the Catholics of Chicago, the liberals of New York, the bureaucrats of Washington and the intellectuals of the leading universities.”

            To be sure, Zubok continues, in order to convince the American provinces that fighting the cold war was worth it, the US had to endure “several unfortunate years of the flourishing of McCarthyism and anti-communist demagogy. But gradually, the populist upsurge ended, and the establishment gained the upper hand.”

            The rapid growth of the American economy and the ability of the US to build a strong military helped in this regard by promoting a more simple-minded patriotism among the masses, but the values of the elite consensus remained those on which Washington operated, Zubok argues.

            Many Americans to this day remain “convinced” that the US became a superpower “only in order to “protect the free world from the communist threat,” and “eve survival in a nuclear conflict with the US was understood by many in religious and ethnical terms,” as was the case of Richard Pipes whose 1984 book was titled significantly “Survival is Not Enough.”

                Not everyone agreed with this, of course; but when the Soviet Union collapsed, President George H.W. Bush declared that “with God’s help, American won the cold war.”  The world became a unipolar one, and that was something he very much welcomed. It led to two decades of what one can describe as “American ‘triumphalism.’”

            “Russian nationalism and worldview are rooted in entirely different things,” Zubok argues. Building a powerful empire was always more important than business; indeed, business and trade have always been viewed as a means to that larger end rather than values in and of themselves.

            To be sure, at least since Petrine times, there has been a struggle within Russian elites between what might be called “the party of business” and “the party of power.” But the latter invariably wins when the Russian masses conclude that in some way their country and its political stability are at risk.

            “In the first years after the collapse of the USSR, Russian foreign policy was in the hands of the young and energetic ‘party of business,’” who believed that economic reforms would lead to political ones and that Russia could thus “at one and the same time become a democracy in the Western club and a great power.” At the very least, it would be “’a second Canada.’”

                But this project failed: “Millions of Russian citizens never lost the conviction that a strong power and a strong president are the most important medicine against a time of troubles and that precisely a centralized and powerful state will save people from complete anarchy and disorder.” And that took the form of a new conservative Russian national consciousness.

            Moreover, Zubok says, “a strong state for many in Russia is not about trade balances or GDP” except as those are needed for defense “as about the opportunity to rein in obstreperous neighbors.” And they accept Putin’s view that the US project would lead to the destruction of Russia and so must be opposed.

            But one thing that has changed since the cold war is this: now, the Russian threat divides rather than unites Americans, while “anti-Americanism works for Putin in Russia.” Even those who dream about the end of sanctions share in many of its tenets.

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