Russia, by contrast, has seen its exceptionalism in the pursuit of a just world order, based on religious principles during the Tsarist period and on Marxist ones in the Soviet era. Alexander I’s Holy Alliance of European powers grounded in Christian faith or Nicolas I’s tenacious defense of divine monarchal legitimacy up to the Crimean War were the early manifestations of that exceptionalism. As Dostoyevsky put it in his Pushkin Speech in 1880, Russia was unique in its aspiration “to reconcile the contradictions of Europe …, to pronounce the final Word of the great general harmony, of the final brotherly communion of all nations in accordance with the law of the gospel of Christ!” Soviet Communism overthrew the Tsarist religious vision of a just order, only to replace it with a Marxist one with global ambitions. Today, in line with his predecessors, Putin poses as the leading advocate of a just, democratic world order based on the equality of sovereign states against America’s unipolar designs.
Taken to the extremes, American and Russian exceptionalism are mutually exclusive. America’s has no room for other great powers—there can be only one truly global leader—while Russia’s has no place for American leadership as it tends towards a concert of great powers as a kind of global directorate.
Near-Term Troubled Relations
The competitive nature of U.S.-Russian relations thus has a traditional, enduring quality grounded in deeply-held beliefs of national identity and destiny. What does that portend for the future? Are the only questions the intensity of the strategic competition and the threshold at which it tips over into perilous confrontation? Or can one imagine a future that inclines toward strategic cooperation? And whether it is confrontation, competition, or cooperation, will it matter? Will both the United States and Russia remain important enough to the global balance of power for other countries to care about the state of U.S.-Russian relations?
For the near term, the answers are clear. Relations will remain troubled, and they will matter. They will remain troubled because there are no easy solutions to issues that now divide the two countries. The Ukraine crisis is embedded in radically different views of the appropriate architecture for European security, with the United States still supporting NATO expansion and Russia adamantly opposed. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Russian support, may be on the verge of eliminating his domestic opposition and ISIS may have been defeated, but the crisis has now broadened into a question about the balance of power in the Middle East, which pits Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s traditional partners, against Iran, which has worked closely with Russia. The United States and Russia are both modernizing their nuclear arsenals and developing advanced conventional and cyber weapons, which complicate agreement on the requirements for strategic stability. Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election has roiled the American public and led the U.S. Congress to mandate anti-Russian sanctions that cannot be lifted without its approval. American leaders are moreover convinced that this interference is continuing despite repeated Russian denials. Meanwhile, leaders in both counties have found it politically convenient to have a foreign enemy, to demonize the other side, in order to deflect attention from their own failure to deal responsibly with major domestic issues.
This troubled relationship will continue to matter for obvious reasons. Russia and the United States control some 90 percent of all nuclear weapons in the world. They each have vast natural resources, including oil and gas, and a proven talent for developing the military applications of advanced technologies. They each wield vetos on the UN Security Council. The United States has acknowledged global reach, while Russia has demonstrated capability to project power along its entire periphery into Europe, the Middle East, South and East Asia, and the Arctic. No less important, the elites in both countries have the attitudes and mindset of a great power and the determination to exercise what they see as their rightful prerogatives on the world stage.
The long term, out to mid-century, does not yield easy answers, however. Each country’s domestic developments as well as global trends could lead one or both countries to recalibrate the priority of their relations. They could provoke new thinking about the requirements for security and prosperity and reinterpretations of exceptionalism and thereby reinforce or erode the traditional grounds for competitive relations. They could raise challenges that spark confrontation, sharpen competition, or encourage cooperation. In short, the future is open. The best one can do is identify the key trends and choices that will shape it.
Key Global Trends
The world stands at a historic inflection point, one of more consequence than the demise of the Soviet Union a generation ago. Four trends in particular bear watching for the impact they will have on U.S.-Russian relations.
First, global dynamism is shifting from Europe to East Asia, from the North Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific region. China’s influence in particular is growing rapidly across the globe, witness the Belt and Road Initiative, even if Chinese growth rates are likely to decelerate, perhaps even dramatically, in coming years. China’s global presence is of such dimensions now that a major set-back, a prolonged recession, for example, would have far-reaching consequences for the global economy and balance of power.
Meanwhile, Europe will remain a major source of economic activity, but its political influence will depend on whether it moves further toward consolidation, particularly in foreign and defense policy, or nation-states recapture their sovereign authority and renationalize security matters on the continent. The Middle East will likely figure much less in the global energy mix, and thus decline in strategic importance, as shale gas and tight oil deposits, as well as renewable energy technologies, are developed and brought online. By contrast, global warming and the concomitant melting of polar ice will raise the strategic importance of the Arctic, as its abundant natural resources become accessible and lucrative maritime routes open up linking Europe, East Asia, and North America.
Second, technological advance—in artificial intelligence, robotics, computational techniques, methods of communication, and biogenetics—will have a dramatic impact on all aspects of human endeavor. Most important for our purposes, it will redefine the nature of power in the modern world and make technological competition a central focus of great-power relations. New technologies will also have far-reaching consequences for power relations between the state, society, and the individual, thereby triggering a sharp global debate on fundamental values and civic and human rights.
Third, the world will likely remain interconnected, even if globalization is attenuated as countries seek to reassert their sovereignty through the reinforcement of borders in both the physical world and cyberspace. This interconnectedness will inevitably come with a degree of interdependence among major powers, and those states that prove most adept at manipulating that condition will rise toward the top of the global hierarchy. At the same time, this interconnectedness will raise transnational challenges—notably, the spread of extremist ideologies and groups and criminal organizations, the proliferation of technologies that can wreak enormous destruction in malevolent hands, and climate change—that will figure large on the global agenda. Meeting them will require a modicum of collective action by the great powers and other states.
Fourth, uneven economic and technological advance will create a new global distribution of power. The system is unlikely to become unipolar or bipolar. More likely will be the emergence of multiple centers of power of greater or lesser capabilities, which will eventually arrange themselves in a more or less durable global hierarchy. From today’s vantage point, China and the United States appear to have the best chances of standing at the top, while a handful of other countries, including Russia, India, Japan, and, perhaps, some European powers, could rank high. Regional powers will emerge in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Added to the mix will be numerous transnational actors, including terrorist and criminal groups, some of which could wield major influence on global affairs.
Power Potential and Political Will
Whether the United States remains at the top of the global hierarchy and Russia a key player—and by extension whether U.S.-Russian relations will matter in the global context—will be determined in large part by the relative power potential and political will of both countries.
With regard to Russia, the questions concern more power potential than political will, about which there should be little doubt. Being a great power lies at the core of Russian identity. Throughout history, Russia has been willing to endure great deprivation and exert extraordinary effort to catch up to the leading powers of the day and assert its prerogatives in world politics, witness Peter the Great’s forced Europeanization of Russia at the beginning of the 18th century, Alexander II’s Great Reforms after the humiliation of the Crimean War in the middle of the nineteenth century, and Stalin’s forced industrialization in the 1930s as war approached in Europe and East Asia.
But the effort was only needed because every time Russia caught up, it soon found itself lagging behind again. Such is the case today, as Russia competes with the world’s leading powers. In nominal terms, Russia’s economy is one-twelfth the size of the United States’ and one-eight the size of China’s (In purchasing power parity terms, the figures are one-fifth and one-sixth, respectively). At the same time, Russia is being outpaced by India, while it remains far behind Japan and major Europe states even if it is closing the gap. Perhaps more important, Russia is lagging in R&D, which will prove critical to economic competitiveness as new technology drives productive capabilities. The challenge is only likely to grow: even official Russian projections foresee economic stagnation for the next decade, absent major structural reform.