The United States and Russia

By Goldgeier, James M. | Policy Review, October-November 2001 | Go to article overview

The United States and Russia


Goldgeier, James M., Policy Review


Keeping Expectations Realistic

IN AUGUST 1991, watching Russian President Boris Yeltsin standing on the tank in defiance of the last-ditch effort of the old Soviet elite to hang onto power and empire, we were euphoric. The old guard was finished, and within months, the Soviet Union, our main adversary of 45 years, was finally placed on the ash heap of history. After the cooperation between U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during German unification and then in the Gulf War, it seemed at the beginning of 1992 that a future partnership between Russia and the United States in a post-Soviet era would be relatively easy to achieve.

Ten years later, it is not partnership that seems to have defined the past decade, but rather growing suspicions and finger-pointing. In the U.S. 2000 presidential campaign, the talk was not about what had been achieved with Russia. It was about "Who Lost Russia?" With Russian President Vladimir Putin's government clamping down at home and U.S. President George W Bush's top advisers initially calling Russia a threat to U.S. interests, the start of the second decade of America's relations with post-Soviet Russia is a farcry from the heady days of 1992, regardless of what Mr. Bush saw when he peered into Putin's soul at their first face-to-face meeting in June.

There are several reasons that we have arrived at this point. One problem was simply the overblown expectations after the collapse of Soviet communism about what Russia might achieve politically and economically. By all accounts, the past 10 years should be seen as a major victory for freedom when one compares political and economic life to the odious nature of the Soviet period, and yet instead progress seems to be woefully inadequate. Second was an underestimation in Moscow of how quickly Russian power would decline, leaving the Russian government on the outside of the agenda-setting process, especially in Europe, which is not what Gorbachev and Yeltsin had envisioned. After all, they had assumed that Russia would be part of any major decision-making on the continent, as they had been, for example, during the nineteenth-century Concert of Europe.

But these are not the fundamental obstacles to greater U.S.-Russian cooperation. To understand the crux of the problem in U.S.-Russian relations, one needs to remember what factors led to cooperation in previous eras -- because none of these underlying dynamics is as powerful today as it was in the past. Russia still has an interest in integrating into the West, and the United States still has an interest in fostering this integration, but the domestic politics on both sides make this effort more difficult for the next few years than they were in the 1990s.

Past cooperation

THREE BASIC REASONS brought the United States and Russia closer together at different points during the twentieth century: the fear of growing German and Japanese power in the decades after 1905, which culminated in the creation of the Grand Alliance of World War II; U.S.-Soviet parity in strategic nuclear forces and a mutual fear that a Cold War crisis might escalate to nuclear war, which led to the cooperative competition known as detente in the early 1970s; and the domestic political needs of leaders on both sides, which produced the Clinton-Yeltsin partnership in the 1990s. Today, without an easily identifiable common enemy, fear of nuclear holocaust, or domestic political imperatives on either side, there is no major impetus to greater cooperation.

Prior to the twentieth century, neither country had had much to do with one another as there was no real need, except for isolated incidents such as the United States purchase of Alaska. But early in the twentieth century, changes in the European and Asian balance of power and the growing U.S. presence on the world stage led to a greater coincidence of strategic interests despite the political and ideological gulf that existed. …

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