Presidents Bush and Putin
America has enough enemies in the world; we don't need another one in Russia. Yet much of the recent media and political commentary on the Eurasian giant comes across as one sided, without nuance and unnecessarily alarmist. Russia is not our ally, but it is also not our foe. Of course, we can provoke a greater hostility if we really work on it. But doing so is plainly against our national interest.
Indeed, national interest is exactly the light under which U.S.-Russian relations should be examined. As Lord Palmerston said of England in the 19th Century, a great nation does not have permanent allies or permanent foes. That only sounds cynical; in fact, it is the basis for building serious, open-eyed cooperation that must benefit both countries.
Putin and Bush at the G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg in 2006
Photo by: St. Petersburg Times
Recently, the Russians have upset Iran and pleased the US by suspending work on the Bushehr nuclear reactor where Russian scientists and engineers had labored for a decade. That shows the positive, if ambiguous, role Russia plays in global politics.
Russia's rebuke of Iran, its co-sponsorship of increasingly strong UN sanctions and, most important, its refusal to provide further technical support or fuel for the Bushehr project may be traced to purely financial concerns. Iran, say the Russians, isn't paying what it promised. Or it may be that Russia does really see the danger of a nuclear weapons state headed by a radical like Mahmoud Amadinejad of Iran operating close to the border of Russia. Today Iran may seem friendly towards Russia, but if it gains nukes, it will still have them on some future date that relations turn sour.
Likewise, Russia historically has been nervous about the power of another neighbor, Turkey. Although Turkey enjoys U.S. protection, if Iran gets nuclear weapons, there will be domestic pressure in Turkey--and in several other Eurasian and Middle Eastern countries--to acquire a locally controlled nuclear force.
History then, like national interest, is a useful light under which to examine Russia. Whether headed by Czars or Commissars, Russia for centuries played the "great game" of competition (often with England) for the attention of Iran, while fending off Turkey.
None of this is likely to change in the new Russia, and none of it need affront the historic interests of the United States. What is necessary is to see what is going on now in the context of history.
That also includes post-Cold War history. Russia after the fall of communism could have been one of our best friends. It desperately needed us. America did help a lot, but not whole-heartedly, even as the Soviet political collapse was followed by economic collapse and near social anarchy. Untold misery resulted.
We chose to help instead the former Soviet satellites and those Soviet "republics" (the Baltic states, Ukraine, etc.) that, more than anything, wanted an independent future.
The end of the Soviet Union was a hugely positive development for the United States, and world peace, in ways that still have not been assessed. But we should not begrudge the view President Vladimir Putin stated a few years ago, that the breakup was "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century... a genuine tragedy." In many ways, for Russia it was a tragedy. Certainly the people who went broke, whose pensions disappeared, whose health suffered in the painful transition deserve more understanding from those of us in the West who observed it and did rather less to help to help Russia after the Cold War than we did after the German and Japanese collapse in World War II. Ultimately, we are not to blame for the suffering, but we should not minimize it, either.
The liberals we backed in Russia had a chance to set the economy upright, and they succeeded to some extent. Creation of a 13 percent flat tax revived government revenues, for example. They deserve appreciation even for their well-meaning failures. But they did fail overall. Instead of democracy, Russia got near-anarchy, a terrifying social condition we have never had to experience in this country. Instead of free markets, it got lawless exploitation by oligarchs who virtually stole the assets they came to direct. Boris Yeltsin's decisions, including his choice of a successor, Putin, established an imperfect, but orderly economy and legal system to reign in excesses and set the course for today's boom.
Democracy in Russia is reminiscent of the flawed old Mexican system, where rivals to the prevailing party were allowed, but discriminated against. We certainly don't have to ignore high-handed and anti-democratic actions or pretend we approve of them. However, Russia is not a dictatorship and preserves room for further reform. There are still troubling instances of gangster-style murders of government officials and journalists, but those occurrences have lessened rather than increased as the years go by.
Russia's economic policies also are not ideal by US standards, especially in leading industries. But the economy has been growing at seven percent for most of this decade, raising living standards sharply and diversifying rapidly. Foreign investors in this decade--in contrast to ten years ago, when a Wild West atmosphere prevailed--have done very well. If the government's attitude is not fully capitalist, for certain it is not communist. Money matters much more than ideology. If anything, Russia's policies perhaps are closest to the mercantilism one historically sees in France.
In a number of cases, such as Shell's problems with the Sakhalin Island # 2 oil project, initial reports of the company's falling out with the Kremlin made it seem like a simple and ruthless matter of chauvinist government intimidation of a private Western investor. Later inspections (in the Wall Street Journal May 7, for example) have indicated a much more typical contractual controversy between a multi-national and the host government. Herbert Ellison, former Director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington cautions against taking a too-credulous view of such controversies before getting all the facts and hearing both sides.
Dr. Ellison is the author of a worthy biography of Boris Yeltsin ("Boris Yeltsin and Russia's Democratic Transition," University of Washington Press, 2006) that describes better than any other account so far what actually happened in Russia after Gorbachev. During the hard days of the old Soviet regime, I found in Ellison a reliable and relentless critic of the USSR, at a time when so many other academics were trying to excuse it. His riveting documentary film series, "Messengers from Moscow" (1995), was so revealing about the "Evil Empire" that it embarrassed the left-leaning PBS that only reluctantly put it on the air and gave it almost no publicity.
Dr. Ellison was only interested in the truth back then and follows the same commitment now. Only these days he is increasingly annoyed with US observers of the Kremlin who seem intent on putting the current Russia into a similar category as the old USSR. In private and public he calls for dispassion and a "normal" outlook in our relations with Russia. Just as we don't like it when Russians commentators behave in a paranoid-seeming way about the West, we should avoid succumbing to paranoia about the modern Russia. Having benefited by Herb Ellison's counsel in the past, I am not about to ignore it now.
It is gratifying that Ellison's perspective is shared, in general, by the Bush Administration, as well as by that old-hand, Henry Kissinger, and by the editors of the Financial Times. But it's a different matter with most of the media and, frankly, some of my political friends. As always, I am open to hearing contrasting views based on hard evidence. But for now I think Ellison's call for balance is well merited.
Yes, we might like Russia to handle business more the way we do. We might like its democracy to operate more like ours. But we have had to deal with much worse in Russia in its past and we could have been dealing with much worse now. For its citizens, Russia is now a hopeful place. It has shown lately that it has prodigious potential in all spheres. Our chance of influencing its future will progress better with a spirit of cooperation than with an attitude of we-know-best. The latter attitude is not going to work.
Bruce Chapman, a former US ambassador to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, is president of Discovery Institute.