The Icon and the Eagle
Ambivalence characterizes relations between Russia and the United States. President Vladimir Putin snipes at American conduct and policies, while his foreign minister reaffirms Russia's interest in a partnership with the United States. Washington seeks Russian assistance on nonproliferation while pursuing policies on Russia's borders that Moscow and many Russians consider highly provocative.
In the meantime, both countries are threatened by radical Islam; cooperation between the nuclear powers of the world is imperative, and an emerging set of issues – like environment and climate change – can only be solved on a global basis.
Given the extent to which their national interests have become interconnected, neither side can want or, indeed, afford a new Cold War.
The two countries have reached this point under presidents who took office nearly contemporaneously and will leave it about the same time. Remarkably, the personal relationship between the two presidents has remained much more constructive than the overall relationship.
To the extent that personal trust can shape policies, the two presidents have an opportunity to use their remaining months in office to overcome some of the tensions that have weakened the basis for long-term cooperation.
The estrangement falls into two categories: on the American side, disenchantment with domestic trends in Russia, disappointment in Russia's foot-dragging on the nuclear issue in Iran and reservations about the abrupt way Russia has dealt with the now independent former parts of the Russian Empire.
On the Russian side, there is a sense that America takes Russia for granted, demands consideration of its difficulties but is unwilling to respect those of Russia, starts crises without adequate consultation and intervenes unacceptably in the domestic affairs of Russia.
Though each side's complaints are to some extent justified, the difficulty in resolving them reflects a vast difference in historical experience.
In the 19th century, acting on the surface in parallel, both countries devoted much of their national energies to expanding into contiguous, thinly settled regions.
But there was an essential difference. America's expansion was carried out by men and women who turned their backs on their countries of origin to shape their individual futures.
Russia's pioneers arrived in conquered territories in the rear of armies, while the indigenous populations were absorbed into the Empire. Almost all the cities in southern Ukraine and, of course, St. Petersburg were created by czars who moved thousands forcibly into newly conquered regions.
The vastness of the territories and the openness of the frontiers produced a claim to exceptionalism in both countries. But American exceptionalism was based on individual fulfillment, Russia's on a mystical sense of national mission.
America's exceptionalism produced an essentially isolationist foreign policy, interrupted occasionally by moral crusades. Russia's exceptionalism expressed itself in military expansion. Between Peter the Great and Mikhail Gorbachev, Russia expanded from the heartland of Slavic Russia to the center of Europe, the shores of the Pacific and deep into Central Asia.
Until the end of World War II, Russia and America rarely interacted on a global basis.
America felt secure behind two great oceans, at least until the emergence of Russian long-range missiles and perhaps until 9/11. Russia, with no natural borders, especially in the West, considered itself permanently threatened.
America identified normalcy and peace with the spread of its political values and institutions; Russia sought it through a security belt in contiguous territory. The more polyglot the Russian Empire became, the more vulnerable Russian leaders felt, until expansion turned into a defining characteristic of the Empire.
This dichotomy explains the psychological tensions of recent years. To America, the collapse of the Soviet Union was a vindication of fundamental democratic values; to most Russians – even anti-Soviet Russians – the disintegration of empire is a shocking affront to Russian identity.
To Americans, the 1990s in Russia were a period of reform and progress. Most Russians view them as a time of humiliation, corruption and national decline. Many Americans criticize Putin for reverting to an autocratic system. His supporters would argue that Russia's immediate priority must be the restoration of its international standing. That perception, according to independent polls, seems to be shared by a large majority of Russians.
Putin sees himself in the tradition of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, who established Russia as a great power. Autocratic beyond the standards of even 18th-century monarchies, they nevertheless considered themselves reformers who would drag a backward country and recalcitrant population into the modern period.
For Russia to regain its historical status, America is in many respects the most desirable partner. Russia will stop short of making Asia the focal point of its policy, partly because China itself would shrink from such a partnership. Russia's ties with Europe are traditional, but Europe, until its unity is further advanced, is highly reluctant to accept the risks that may be needed to overcome radical jihad or to pose the penalties and rewards to prevent nuclear proliferation.
Strategically, the United States and Russia are very important to each other. Yet a new constructive relationship between America and Russia will require the modification of two traditional attitudes: the American tendency to insist on global tutelage and the Russian proclivity to emphasize raw power in the conduct of diplomacy.
As the two largest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia have a special responsibility for nonproliferation.
Iran is the key. The haggling over Security Council tactics needs to be brought to a conclusion. Is Russia striving for a special position in Iran and, if so, to what purpose? Is there a different assessment of the imminence of an Iranian nuclear capability?
The most sensitive psychological aspect of America's relations with Russia concerns what Russians call the "near abroad": the new independent states that were once part of the Russian empire. Many Russians find it difficult to think of them as entirely foreign countries and react truculently to what they consider American attempts to infringe on historical patterns.
This issue requires restraint on both sides. As someone who strongly supported the expansion of NATO to its present limits, I am uneasy about pushing these territorial limits even further outward except under extreme provocation.
At the same time, Russia must understand that America is bound to consider the genuine independence of these countries, like Ukraine and Georgia, as an essential component of a peaceful international order.
A major challenge is the degree to which Russia's internal evolution should affect U.S.-Russian relations.
Russian leaders must understand that the American public is as shaped by its national history as is Russia by its own. America will always judge other societies, to some extent, by their respect for human rights.
When the line is crossed from advocacy to overt pressure, more intractable issues arise. Russia's internal condition necessarily is an amalgam of its autocratic, historic past and the new opportunities generated by the collapse of the communist ideological system.
A Western-style democratic political system cannot quickly emerge from the building blocks of Russia's political past; new vistas are needed. Putin's Russia is an inherently transitory synthesis produced by the impact of the USSR's closed system on the requirements of a globalizing world.
This synthesis combines elements of Russia's historic authoritarian, centralized bureaucratic state and the new opportunities opened up through a cooperative relationship with a unifying Europe and a friendly America.
For the moment, the authoritarian, centralizing aspects are dominant, though arguably less so than in any previous period of Russian history.
The goal of sound U.S. policy should be to maximize incentives for Russia's evolution to become more compatible with democratic norms. The dominant factors shaping this evolution will be domestic, not external.
Overreaching efforts to determine political evolution in Russia will be more likely to strengthen authoritarian tendencies than the reverse.
In that spirit, a relationship between Russia and the United States that goes from removing frictions to active cooperation will make a major contribution to peace, progress and stability.