How the United States Got Russia Wrong

February 1, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Tags: RussiaBill ClintonBoris YeltsinPoliticsDonald Trump

How the United States Got Russia Wrong

The West today is paying for its collusion with Russia in the 1990s.

The pivot to Asia and the search for a Chinese alternative to Western hostility began before Putin came to power. In fact, Putin went through the same stages as Yeltsin had: from hopes of establishing equal cooperation with the United States to the understanding that it was impossible and transitioning to a more independent course. Gorbachev went through a similar process, but only after he was no longer in power. Today, Gorbachev is extremely skeptical about the United States. The similar evolution in the views of three initially pro-Western Moscow leaders shows that it is nearly impossible to establish equal cooperation with the United States because Washington does not, in fact, accept this concept.

Why were U.S. liberals so persistent in implementing a policy that was both senseless and even harmful to U.S. interests, and why do they continue to defend it so zealously now? The reason is that their thinking is extremely ideologized. This ideology, which we might call “democratism,” bears a strong structural resemblance to communism. Like the “true communism” that never actually emerged, Western ideology anticipates a “liberal world order” that has never actually existed, but that the United States and its allies—as the global avant-garde—hope to create. The best way to integrate “backward” nations into the world of “freedom and democracy” is to submit them to political influence through economic and political alliances. For this to happen, they need leaders who understand that this will benefit their countries (that is, Western-leaning ones) and who will therefore work towards this end. Even if these forces fall short of “democratic” standards, it will not be a big issue. Once they submit economically and politically, they will be pushed up to the required level with Western prodding.

This scheme, however, does not work well with all countries. Although the West managed to bring the culturally similar countries of Eastern Europe into its sphere of influence, it ran into serious problems when trying to impose its political system on such major and culturally distinct countries as Russia, Iran, China, and the entire Arab world. Applying the policy of “democratism” in those regions led to either chaos or a strengthening of anti-Western ruling regimes that could protect their countries from such chaos.

Such ideology-driven Russia specialists as Strobe Talbott and Michael McFaul never really understood this country or wished it well. Rather, they believed that the best thing for Russia would be to fit it somehow into their utopian schemes. But the real Russia turned out to be very different from the Russia of their imaginations. In fact, the same can be said about the real America which also rejected their progressive ideological dream. When it became apparent that most Russians and Americans did not accept their plan, they became disappointed and made Putin and Trump into scapegoats. So now they demand to destroy the real Russia using all American might and accuse Trump of refusing to do it. But, as the Russia proverb says: “Don’t blame the mirror for your own ugly face.”

From this perspective, Trump’s policies are far more understandable because they are less ideologized and hypocritical. Trump candidly states that his goal is to preserve the U.S. hegemony and economic advantage. He wanted to improve relations with Moscow not because of some mythical collusion, but because he viewed Russia as less of a threat than China and Iran. This position is at least rational. Talbott and his like-minded associates in Washington’s political class, however, prevented Trump for pursuing this plan. I think both Russians and Americans will not be grateful to them for this, just as they will not be grateful to them for the U.S. foreign policy of the 1990s.

Alexander Lukin is head of the Department of International Relations at National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia.

Image: Reuters