While the U.S. and Russia have a long history of geopolitical competition and clashes over values, shared global challenges could provide any impulse toward greater cooperation.
Coming up with a compromise. Pictured: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reached an agreement on Syria. Photo: Reuters
The American political establishment has a ready reason for the sharp deterioration in U.S.-Russian relations: Vladimir Putin. It even has a date on which the process began: September 24, 2011, the day Putin announced his decision to reclaim the presidency after the Medvedev interlude.
Putin's recent initiative to resolve the issue of Syria's chemical weapons – an initiative now taken up by the American administration - will do little to change that view, as official Washington's caustic reaction to his New York Times op-ed piece of Sept. 12 questioning American exceptionalism demonstrates.
There is a surface allure to that view. Putin's petulance, zest in pointing out American failures and hypocrisy, and encouragement of anti-Americanism have all darkened his and Russia's image in the United States. His persistent questioning of American policy - be it on missile defense, European security, the Middle East, or another high-profile issue - has eroded any enthusiasm there might have once been on the American side for cooperation.
Yet it is much too simple to lay the blame on him. The truth is that U.S.-Russian relations have been troubled from the moment the United States emerged as a great power at the end of the 19th century.
One hundred and twenty years ago, the United States opposed Russian efforts to dominate Manchuria. American President Theodore Roosevelt initially tilted toward Japan in its war with Russia over that region in 1904-05. Only after Japan humiliated Russia on the battlefield did he move toward Russia during the peace negotiations to help construct a geopolitical balance that favored American interests.
For sixteen years after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the United States refused to recognize the Soviet Union, which led the international Communist movement dedicated - at least in theory - to overthrowing capitalism, including in the United States. After a brief period of cooperation in defeating Nazi Germany - laced however with profound mutual suspicion - the United States and the Soviet Union entered the Cold War, a bipolar existential struggle across the globe that lasted for more than forty years.
And since the end of that war and the breakup of the Soviet Union a generation ago, the United States and Russia have been unable to build a firm foundation for cooperation, despite repeated assurances on both sides of the desire to do so.
Putin might bode ill for relations today in American eyes, but clearly the roots of animosity lie elsewhere, in a history of geopolitical competition and clashes over values.
Geopolitical competition was - and remains - natural between two great powers with vital interests in both Europe and Asia and different assumptions about the requirements of national security and economic prosperity. Living exposed on the vast Eurasian plain, Russian rulers have historically sought to push their borders outward to defend the heartland. The seizure of land with vast natural resources allowed them to pursue autarkic policies, which in turn required them to limit the access of other powers to those resources.
By contrast, once it had spread across the North American continent in the 19th century, the United States faced no serious security threats in its neighborhood, while its economic dynamism fueled a search for resources and markets abroad. In short, a secure United States promoted open markets; a vulnerable Russia preferred closed markets under its control.
These contrary positions led to the competition in Manchuria 120 years ago. They were a key factor in the Cold War - even if there was also a prominent overlay of ideological conflict.
They have manifested themselves in the post-Soviet period, as the United States moved into the former Soviet space, at least in part with the goal of bringing its resources to global markets, while Russia sought to maintain its economic primacy, most recently through Putin's effort to create a Eurasian Union.
Geopolitical competition, however, does not provide a full explanation of the animosity. For it was insignificant from 1905 to the outbreak of the Second World War. During that period, the United States stood aside from the conflicts in Europe - except briefly at the end of the First World War. Although it remained engaged in East Asia, Japan had replaced Russia as the main rival. As for Russia, it was focused on tamping down revolutionary impulses inside the empire before the Bolshevik Revolution and thereafter on consolidating a new regime domestically while fending off the mounting challenges of turmoil in Europe. Yet, even absent sharp geopolitical competition, U.S.-Russian enmity endured.
During that period - indeed for the entire period under review - what we would today call the values gap between a democratic America and an autocratic Russian Empire, totalitarian Soviet Union and soft authoritarian post-Soviet Russia fed the mutual antipathy. The Kishenev pogrom of 1903 was the first in a series of acts that precipitated an American crusade against Russian anti-Semitism. Ever since, criticism of Russia's human right violations and undemocratic practices has been a constant in American policy toward Russia, even if its intensity has ebbed and flowed.
For its part, Russia has nourished an envy of American success, but refused to acknowledge the validity of system of values that underlay that success or at least its suitability for Russia (except for a decade or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union). Today, it seeks to redefine democracy in its own terms, and it supports a dialogue of civilizations, in which different value systems can compete.
Is this history of geopolitical competition and contending values just the prologue to a future dominated by animosity and rivalry?
It will be if we continue to look to the past for guidance - or ignore it to suggest there is some easy path toward constructive relations. Rather, what we need to do now is to look forward and ask whether continued rivalry makes sense given the challenges our two countries will face.
As we know, the world has entered a period of historic transformation, as a consequence of shifting power balances, breakthrough technologies, and social transformations. The United States may remain the world's preeminent power, but its margin of superiority is narrowing, and the unipolar moment, if there is such a thing, lies in the past not in the future. Russia may have pretensions to being a global power, but it has the capacity only for a regional role, albeit in a critical part of the globe, Eurasia writ large.
In this turmoil, neither country poses a strategic challenge to the other, as they once did, and there are no compelling reasons why they should in any new world order. Rather, both face the challenge of building structures that provide security and promote prosperity in regions of strategic importance, which, for both countries, include Europe, the broader Middle East, and East Asia. In each of those regions, building durable structures will require U.S.-Russian cooperation. Moreover, there is an increasing number of global problems - non-proliferation, international terrorism, climate change, energy security, transnational crime, pandemic diseases - that demand global cooperation, particularly among the world's leading powers.
Acknowledgement of that common challenge could help erode the ground for geopolitical competition and provide an impulse toward greater cooperation, while a concerted effort to deal with the global problems could help narrow the differences in values. There is, of course, no guarantee that would occur, despite the best efforts of both sides. But forward-looking American and Russian leaders should at least see the wisdom of seeking to overcome the past to meet the challenges of the future.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.