Odom's Russia: A Forum

Odom's Russia: A Forum

Mini Teaser: Seven seasoned observers react to William Odom's interpretation of post-Soviet Russian reality, and Odom replies.

by Author(s): Martin MaliaJack Matlock, Jr.Jerry HoughGeoffrey HoskingAlexey PushkovRobert LegvoldHenry TrofimenkoWilliam E. Odom

WILLIAM Odom's essay, "Realism About Russia ", in the Fall 2001 issue of The National Interest put forth a stark and controversial view of Russia prospects and of how US. policy should adapt to those prospects. In the interest of generating a conversation over what remains an important and multifaceted relationship between former Cold War antagonists, we asked a group of distinguished scholars and analysts--among them Americans, Russians, and Europeans--to respond to General Odom's presentation. Little did we know at the time that the events of September 11 would alter the context of that relationship and generate what may turn out to be significant changes in it. Not surprisingly, several of the critiques presented here refer to the impact of the terror attacks and their aftermath on the course of U S.-Russian relations. That, in turn, has provided Gen. Odom with an opportunity to respond to his critics and to comment on the post-September 11 environment at the same time.  --The Editors

Martin Malia, University of California, Berkeley:

IN THE bogged-down debate about post-Communist Russia 's tribulations, William Odom has the merit of clearly identifying the chief villain of the story: "seven decades of Soviet rule are mostly to blame.. not the West." Among works written as if Yeltsin's "young reformers" had inherited a thriving society from communism, he appropriately calls Stephen F. Cohen's Failed Crusade "egregious." The same must be said of Peter Reedaway's Tragedy of Russia Reforms, which places the blame on "Thatcherite market bolshevism" (sic!).

Odom is again right to claim that it is not enough to decree neo-liberal economic measures to create a true market economy, or to hold a few elections to produce a genuine democracy. For a successful market democracy, a strong institutional foundation is necessary: "rules for deciding who rules", guaranteed individual freedoms, an independent judiciary, stable property rights, and so on--all "deficit" items in postSoviet Russia. Thus Putin has inherited "a mix of old and new institutions" a scaffolding of market democracy around a society still half-Soviet and with a holdover nomenklatura elite. Indeed, a decade after communism's collapse, Russian reform is clearly stuck in the mud, and the facile optimism of the days of "Boris and Bill" now appears juvenile and naive.

At this point, however, Odom's analysis bogs down in a pessimistic version of the "Washington consensus" equation of free markets with democratic politics that he otherwise rejects. For the main burden of his article is that Russia will remain arrested in a neither-fish-nor-fowl state for decades to come, a position he argues with such plausible state-of-the-art social science models as "path dependence lock-in" (meaning set ways are hard to break) and "weak state" syndrome (meaning reformist initiatives from above cannot make any difference). On this basis, Odom concludes that it is pointless for the Bush Administration to continue the Clinton Administration's efforts to move Russia forward. In particular, he says, we should not treat Russia as a great power, or even take it seriously as an international actor beyond its ability to cause trouble for weak neighbors. Nor should Russia's stock of decaying nuclear weapons move us to give undue importance to such joint security efforts as the Nunn-Lugar program (though the program's first purpose is to protect us against nuclear proliferation).

It should hardly be necessary to say that the globequake of September 11 rendered these conclusions nugatory overnight. Russia is back in the game, and our ally to boot. Yet even without that spectacular reversal, Odom's argument fails for the more fundamental reason that his social science lacks proper historical grounding. His gold standard for measuring progress is the usual one: that most lucky of modern European nations, insular England in 1688. Albion then "broke out of its old institutional pattern based on absolute monarchy" thereby finding its "effective economic path", one "that also took hold in Holland (my emphasis) at about the same time. Meanwhile, France [and] Spain ... Remained . . . chained to absolutist institutional arrangements . . . trailing the booming English and Dutch economies for the next three centuries." This simply will not do, even as a rudimentary summary of how Europe modernized.

The first "modern" economy was obviously 17th-century Holland (building on the antecedents of medieval Northern Italy and Flanders), for which Jan de Vries' prize-winning The First Modern Economy (1997) gives the full story. Throughout the century, moreover, the English imitated the Dutch--as in the creation of a national bank--not the other way around. And in 1688 the Stadtholder of Holland, William of Orange, mounted the English throne with the aid of Dutch and French Huguenot troops in order to contain Europe's premier power, France. Thus, with Dutch help, Britain was set on its way to becoming, by the mid-18th century, the continent's leading model for what we now call "modernity."

THESE remarks are no pedantic quibble about remote events without relevance to 21st century conditions. Rather, these developments defined the Atlantic matrix out of which modernization both institutional and economic, later came to central and eastern Europe. Indeed, among the earliest sovereigns to take the cue was Peter the Great, in 1697-98. Significantly, he went first to advanced Holland and only later to William III's more recent dominion, England. So St. Petersburg came to be laid out in imitation of Amsterdam; and Peter for a time considered making Dutch the official language of his empire (William said the Czar spoke it "like a Dutch sailor").

Similarly, and in fact somewhat earlier, the Great Elector of Brandenburg-Prussia had imported Dutch craftsmen and Huguenot exiles to develop his backward realm; and later the Stein-Hardenberg Reforms introduced into Prussia a watered-down version of the French Revolution's innovations. As for Russia, from Alexander II's Great Reforms of the 1860s down to Sergei Witte's industrialization of the 1890s and his Duma Constitution of 1905, it was successfully plodding its way to both the economic and the institutional foundations of a more open order, this despite a notable "path dependence" of autocracy and serfdom--progress annulled by seventy years of communist pseudo-modernization.

The great social science model for this West-East dynamic of development is, of course, given by Alexander Gerschenkron in his Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective (1962). Its central thesis is that backward societies modernize not by retracing their predecessors' exact steps, but by compressing and telescoping them through state action from above: ergo Peter, Alexander II and Witte; and, in his perverse and ultimately disastrous way, Stalin.

Could it be, then, that the new Petersburg boy, Vladimir Putin, is contemplating a Petrine-like leap to lift Russia out of its present humiliation? This is surely suggested by the way he was energized by September 11 to face down his stuck-in-the-mud military and gamble his Kremlin tenancy on the West. Witness the ardor of his embrace of Bush, his Lorelei song to the German Bundestag, and his economic wooing of the European Union in Brussels--all this at a time the Russian economy is at last picking up. It is most unlikely that such radical defiance of his earlier domestic base is merely a Potemkin ploy to lull us again into naivete. So perhaps Russia's "path dependence lock-in" is not as tight as Odom thinks. And perhaps the organic coupling of the market and democracy may yet turn out to have merit, even in darkest Muscovy.

Martin Malia's principal works are The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 and Russia Under Western Eyes: From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum.

Jack F. Matlock, Jr., Princeton University:

GENERAL Odom tells us that Russia is not a great power, probably cannot be one for a very long time, and therefore should not be treated as one. He does not, however, explain what a "great power" is in today's world, or how U.S. behavior should be influenced by the power hierarchy he imputes to the international scene. He implies that since Russia is no longer a great power it should be sharply demoted in significance, since its willingness and ability to support American interests are limited and its ability to harm those interests is not much greater.

Odom's perception of the world, of Russia, and of American interests differs from mine. The world I see is one in which states are no longer the sole players (if they ever were). It is a world in which non-state actors have seized part of the stage, acting sometimes as tools, sometimes as partners, but sometimes also as scourges of governments and the states they rule. It is a world in which success and failure do not depend entirely or even primarily on the size of a country, or its military strength, or the affluence of its population, or any other single factor-or; for that matter, on any simple combination of factors. States can be comparatively powerful in some respects and weak in others. In today's world, it is impossible to conjure up some litmus test that will usefully distinguish a "great power" from other states. One must first ask, "Power for what?"

Essay Types: Essay