Generational Change and the Future of U.S.-Russian Relations

By Mankoff, Jeffrey | Journal of International Affairs, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Generational Change and the Future of U.S.-Russian Relations


Mankoff, Jeffrey, Journal of International Affairs


The Cold War has now been over for nearly two decades. In that time, a whole generation has grown up, both in the United States and Russia, with no memory of the conflict that defined world politics for half a century. Not only do today's college students have no memory of even the final stages of the Cold War, many were not even born when the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991. For an ever increasing share of young people in both countries, seminal events from the Cuban missile crisis to Ronald Reagan's stirring call to "tear down this wall" occupy approximately the same place in individual historical consciousness as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand or the Battle of Waterloo. That observation may seem obvious, but it has profound implications for the future course of relations between the two former Cold War rivals.

For much of the foreign policy elite in both Washington and Moscow, the Cold War remains the prism through which U.S.-Russian relations are filtered, largely because that elite gained its reputation and experience in an era when the entire panoply of foreign policy was based on the East and West struggle. Views and stereotypes that crystallized during the long twilight struggle of the late 20th century continue to provide an important intellectual framework for making sense of the messy post-Cold War, post-September 11 world. Institutionally as well, the United States, and Russia to a lesser degree, has struggled to adapt a Cold War tool-kit to a post-Cold War world. (1) After largely establishing its role to spy on the bureaucratic, authoritarian Soviet Union, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is still, nearly a decade after September 11, racing to figure out how to penetrate the amorphous ideological movement of Al Qaeda. Russia faces this problem as well, as demonstrated by its checkered efforts to downsize and professionalize its military in an attempt to address the asymmetrical threats of the 21st century. (2)

Yet, if the Cold War remains the default paradigm for viewing U.S.-Russian relations among elites in both countries, the very fact of generational change means that within a comparatively brief period of time, that relationship will have to change in fundamental ways. In the United States, a generation for whom the "evil empire" and the communist menace are merely chapters in a history book will evaluate the challenge posed by Russia in a dramatically different light from a generation that grew up ducking-and-covering from imaginary Soviet missiles. In Russia, the situation is somewhat more complex. In contrast to the United States, the chaotic events since the collapse of the USSR never provided a respite in which Russians could dream about the end of history, nor has the end of the Cold War meant that Russians can stop worrying about the United States to the same degree that Americans can afford to ignore developments in Russia. Rather, the United States remains a central reference point for most Russian foreign policy, and Russian youth continue to hold strong, largely skeptical opinions about the United States.

For the United States, Russia has been downgraded as a foreign policy priority due to the diminution of Russian power and the emergence of new threats such as the spread of extreme Islamist ideology and the rise of China. The reduced centrality of Russia to U.S. foreign policy is matched by a much-diminished interest in Russia at the societal level. One important measure of public interest in Russia is the number of Americans learning to speak Russian: a number that has plummeted since the end of the Cold War. In 2006, 24,845 students at American universities were enrolled in Russian language courses, compared to a high of 44,626 students in 1990. (3)

Younger Americans, in other words, have increasingly moved on from the Cold War. Russia for them is just another country, one that offers less in the way of opportunity for travel, study, or doing business than China or India, and whose salience to American foreign policy appears to have slipped behind not only those two rising powers, but also the Middle East.

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