Seventy years after World War II ended, it’s important to look back at this historical period of cooperation between Russia and the U.S. for insights into how to fix the current U.S.-Russian relationship.
Amateur actors re-enact the link-up of Soviet and American troops during the 70th anniversary of the Elbe Day in Torgau, eastern Germany, Saturday, April 25, 2015. The World War II link-up of US and Soviet Forces occurred here at the river Elbe on April 25, 1945. Photo: AP
Today, during celebrations of the 70th Anniversary of Victory Day, everyday Russians are talking about Soviet-American cooperation during the Second World War. And, indeed, this positive historical experience may help Russia and the United States emerge from today’s hopeless deadlock.
A solution seems to be out there, almost within reach. However, in order to put this historical experience from World War II to use, it is necessary, first of all, to carry out a sober assessment at where things stand today. This requires looking at the general logic of Russian-American relations, which, fortunately, is becoming clearer with each new round of mutual recriminations.
Especially helpful in this is not so much looking at the facts of past cooperation, but given today’s realities, to study the actual dynamic process – the quick change from warm friendship to sharp confrontation, and the ensuing arguments about why this all happened.
The latest crisis in mutual understanding between Moscow and Washington has once again confirmed the thesis, which was first voiced many decades ago, that the relations between the U.S. and Russia are of a unique nature. Their main distinguishing features appear to be the absolute predominance of emotion over rationality and the triumph of ideology over pragmatism.
Starting from the first years after the United States was born as an independent nation, mutual Russian and American perceptions have oscillated between positive and negative poles of a compass gone crazy. In the last two centuries, it is difficult to find even a couple of decades when bilateral relations developed quietly, steadily, and were centered on solving purely practical issues.
Given the fact that mutual passions in most cases were much stronger than the depth of the real contradictions, in terms of political or economic issues, we need to seek the reasons for this anomaly in the peculiarities of the mass consciousness and collective psychology of Russians and Americans. And more specifically, how these particular features were used by the political elites of the two countries.
Both Russia and the United States are sprawling global powers, and as such, are always looking for sources to support national unity. Being geographically located on different sides of the globe, as French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville noted long ago, has led to fundamental differences in political ideologies, and messianic tendencies on a global scale. All this has created an ideal environment for Russian-American symbiosis, which at times has seemed like antagonism.
Just like experienced stock market players, who earn money when share prices are either rising or falling, politicians in Russia and the United States have used the positive and negative phases of mutual relations of the two countries to strengthen their power and unify their nations. The other country was always considered as either the “main enemy” or the “most loyal friend and ally.” Historical experience shows us that both these definitions have always proven nothing more than a phantom, quickly disappearing under the influence of new events and circumstances.
One manifestation of this overly emotional nature of Russian-American relations is the never-ending fierce debate about who is right and who is wrong every time a new conflict surfaces – which side has the greater right to claim the moral high ground. Since the whole history of Russian-American cooperation is a continuous oscillation between periods of warm friendship and acute hostility, the discussions usually turn to trying to figure out who made it impossible to make the friendship everlasting, and restarted the spiral of confrontation.
If we look at the debate about how the Cold War era of Soviet-American relations started and about who was guilty of destroying the great alliance of the Second World War – we see that the decisive arguments in the end turn out to be not thoughtful verbal formulations and streams of propaganda and counter-propaganda, but the successes achieved in economic development, culture, and social institutions. These successes either increased the prestige of the country and created greater national wealth - or just the opposite.
When in the 1960s the United States entered a difficult period of development (after an unsuccessful war in Vietnam, social unrest and economic crisis), suddenly gaining popularity were historians of the so-called revisionist school (men like William A. Williams) which, among other things, stated that American political leaders were the main culprits that caused the destruction of the Soviet-American friendship that was established in 1941-1945 and started the Cold War.
Immediately there were a lot of convincing arguments made in support of this previously completely subversive thesis, and critics of the USSR (which at the time was looking very good against the background of American problems) started to be regarded as backward reactionaries.
The policy of détente and the parity of the two superpowers in the 1970s led to the popularity of hybrid historical theories, which moved from the equal guilt of both parties, and slid from friendship to confrontation.
And finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Empire, an increasing trend in the evaluation of the events that led to the Cold War was their consideration in the spirit that “the Soviet Union was doomed, as it initially behaved improperly.” The old maxim that history is written by the victors proved correct once again.
Today, an almost similar controversy is flaring up over which side is more to blame for the destruction of mutual understanding that existed in the Gorbachev-Yeltsin era. Opponents are battling each other into rhetorical ecstasy, and online discussion threads are stretching over dozens of pages.
Surprisingly, many of the participants in these discussions do not want to admit the obvious fact – that the outcome of the dispute, same as holds true for the dispute about those guilty in starting the Cold War, will ultimately be determined not by the oratorical skills of the participants, not the logic of the arguments, and not even by the size of the propaganda budgets.
Everything will be decided by economic and demographic indicators; that is, by the success or failure of each nation’s chosen national development strategies. The recipe for success is well known – less talk, more action. The intrinsically practical approach of the Americans could once again prove to be much more effective than the “kitchen debate” that is so popular in Russia.
Sooner or later, history will show once again who should be considered guilty this time, and the dispute will subside for a time. After that, most likely, Russia and the United States will move to the next phase of positive relations, to give each other the necessary breathing space – but then, inevitably, once again they will rush into battle.
As long as both countries exist in their present forms, as long as their national value systems exist, and as long as the political elites continue to use the time-tested tools to strengthen their power, it is difficult to think about finding a way out of this endless cycle, as well about the elimination of excessive, unhealthy emotions in Russian-American relations.
And this is why it is so important to keep remembering the times when friendship and mutual understanding seemed to the people of Russia and the United States something self-evident and necessary. Since we are not able to get rid of our emotions, why not focus on maintaining mainly positive ones? Remembering that this is possible ensures that hope stays alive – something very small, yet something the current generation of Russian and Americans can find solace in.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.