HISTORIANS OF the future will look back with amazement at U.S. foreign policy at the turn of the millennium, especially with regard to Russia.
It’s true, of course, that the Soviet Union once posed a severe threat to the United States and its allies -- a global challenge that tied up American energies for 50 years and cost tens of thousands of American lives in anti-communist proxy wars. But that struggle ended in 1989 with a Western victory that was not only complete but miraculously peaceful. Since then, the U.S.-Russia relationship has been uneasy but usually cooperative. Not one American has been killed by Russia. And after 9/11, Russia immediately offered its sympathy and help.
So what possible explanation is there for the fact that today -- at a moment when both the U.S. and Russia face the common enemy of Islamist terrorism -- hard-liners within the Bush administration, and especially in the office of Vice President Dick Cheney, are arguing for a new tough line against Moscow along the lines of a scaled-down Cold War? According to media reports, they advocate forming anti-Moscow military alliances with Russia’s neighbors and giving overt support to domestic political opponents of President Vladimir V. Putin.
This even as President Bush repeatedly and correctly reminds Americans that terrorists are seeking weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that threaten to obliterate both American and Russian cities.
Tension between the U.S. and Russia is a gross distraction from the mortal threat posed to the world by Islamist terrorism. Why at this critical moment in history, would Washington pick unnecessary fights with Russia, a country that certainly has differences with the U.S. but that threatens neither American lives nor vital U.S. interests?
Some proposed U.S. policies toward Russia seem deliberately provocative. The U.S. should certainly support Georgian and Ukrainian democracy, but is it really in U.S. interests to back the Georgians in their ethnic civil wars against Russian-backed separatists? And why is it in the U.S. interest to take Ukraine into NATO, long before that country has become a stable free-market democracy and when a great many Ukrainians strongly oppose such a move and continue to favor an alliance with Russia?
Encouraging conflicts on Russia’s borders is especially unwise and immoral given that, because of the war in Iraq, the U.S. does not actually have troops available to back up any security commitments it might wish to offer countries that break with Moscow.
Of course, the West is right to oppose Moscow on some questions, such as Russia’s backing of attempts to rig the last Ukrainian election. But on other issues, there is either room for compromise or reason to question Washington’s assumptions.
For example, why castigate Moscow for working with dictatorships when Washington has long done the same thing, routinely accommodating any dictatorship possessed of sufficient oil? Why lecture Russia on the need to adopt “universal market practices” and then howl when it raises its prices for supplying energy to its neighbors to market levels? Why give huge amounts of U.S. aid to one Georgian leader after another just because they are anti-Russian, even after they become corrupt potentates?
Washington certainly has the right to criticize Moscow for aspects of its dealings with Hamas and Iran. But a minimally honest U.S. approach should also recognize that on these matters, Moscow is more in tune with world opinion than Washington. Moreover, the tough American approach to Iran and Hamas may unfortunately be doomed to failure, making Russia a useful intermediary for the U.S.
Then there’s Putin’s record on democracy. This is indeed a problematic issue because the Russian president has grown increasingly authoritarian. But U.S. expectations in this area are unrealistic. After all, the “democracy” that Putin has allegedly overthrown was, in fact, not a real democracy at all but a pseudo-democracy ruled over by corrupt and brutal oligarchical clans. During the 1990s, the administration of Boris N. Yeltsin, under the sway of the oligarchs and the liberal elites, rigged elections, repressed the opposition and launched a bloody and unnecessary war in Chechnya -- all with the support of Washington.
To ordinary Russians, Western-sponsored “democracy” meant watching helplessly while “liberal” elites looted the country and transferred vast fortunes to Western banks, to the profit of Western economies.
Harvard University, for example, is very belatedly investigating the conduct of professor Andrei Shleifer, who allegedly profited corruptly from a U.S. government-sponsored Russian privatization project on which he was an advisor. Shleifer was long protected by Harvard President Lawrence Summers, who as President Clinton’s Treasury secretary himself helped push Russia’s monstrous variant of privatization. If U.S. scholars are -- rightly -- outraged by the Shleifer case, imagine how ordinary Russians feel.
Because Putin is seen as having ended the post-Soviet decade of chaos, looting and national humiliation; because he has presided over rising living standards; and yes, because he has stood up to the West, he currently has the support of a large majority of Russians.
By contrast, the Russian “democrats” Washington favors have no chance whatsoever of winning a free election. Moreover, the more ardently we support them, the more unpopular they become. Excessive Western criticism of Putin, far from strengthening Russian democracy, angers ordinary Russians and risks driving them further toward chauvinistic nationalism.
Yet Washington still seems to not understand the consequences of its disastrous Russia policies of the 1990s. Hypocritical and extreme anti-Russian attitudes are not confined to old-style Cold Warriors such as Cheney but are widely held among the nation’s foreign policy elite. They are on display in a report on the U.S.-Russia relationship just issued by a bipartisan task force of the Council on Foreign Relations. In 76 pages of hectoring criticism of Russia, there is not one suggestion that any U.S. action toward Russia has been in any way wrong or harmful.
Of course, Russia has been largely to blame for the decline of the relationship; but exclusively to blame, for everything? This is the kind witless propaganda expected from arrogant, ignorant, obedient Soviet apparatchiks during the Cold War -- not from supposedly independent scholars in the world’s greatest democracy.
And this kind of moral autism, alas, is seen in the attitudes of the American establishment toward many other countries. It reflects not only nationalist conformism but a chronic failure on the part of official and semiofficial U.S. analysts to do their first intellectual duty: to place themselves in the shoes of ordinary people in other countries and try to see the world through their eyes.
Such empathy may not necessarily lead the U.S. government to agree with other nations, but it would at least help Washington avoid the kind of unrealistic, aggressive and dangerous policies now being urged with regard to Russia.