A FORCE OF HABIT MORE THAN ACTUAL STATE OF MIND


To answer the first question we should first understand why these relations matter for 1) the United States; 2) Russia; 3) the world.

My American colleagues have already given an exhaustive answer to the initial part of the question: the very existence of Russia critically affects the provision of national interests and national security of the United States. As for the significance of the United States to Russia, in my personal opinion, it is not the politics and economy, although these areas are also very important, but above all social psychology that defines the attitude of Russians to America. During the last century, people in Russia (then the USSR) perceived the United States as a kind of landmark for the state upsurge and entity for their self-identification.American dynamism, initiative, and thirst for freedom have always attracted the Russians. The slogan “catch up and overtake America” was not just an ideological stamp, but one of the driving forces for the country’s development (and not only in the military field). America has always been a role model to compare against, a worthy opponent to compete with, as well as an honored object to criticize.  Perhaps the strong words produced energy…

The same is true today. Americans should not overreact to the current anti-Americanism in Russia: it is rather a force of habit than the actual state of mind.On the other hand, are there many reasons for a typical Russian to love America today? Only for the fact that it is rich and democratic? Because it teaches him or her how to live? For Yugoslavia, Iraq, and the support of Chechen separatists? For the sad results of reforms in the 1990s, which many in Russia identify with the recipes made by the U.S. advisors? The image of the country, its reputation, is dependent on many factors. Not only Russia, but the United States must recollect this fact constantly. Unfortunately, the inertia of thinking greatly influences the policies of both countries toward each other. Moreover, their political elites and leaders are mired in the routine of the present and seldom look to the future, unlike the leaders of China, who see decades ahead.

A couple of words about the importance of Russian-American relations to the rest of the world. I am not going to repeat the well-known truths about our countries’ responsibility for the world’s future. Both have enough resources either to ruin mankind or to ensure its stable development. The important thing is that as long as Moscow and Washington are busy debating each others’ merits, other countries and violence-prone nongovernmental groups are increasing their hazardous potentials. I consider another factor equally important: the competition between Russia and the United States. In the 20th century, their race, though not always peaceful, was one of the major driving forces of technological progress and our civilization’s development. The current situation in Russia means speaking with a certain irony of its ability to compete with the United States. However, as we used to say, “it is not over yet!”

What do both countries have to do to fix the relationship, change it from the customary “aggravation–warming” duality to steady, constructive, and cooperative relations?

First. Each side must perceive the world as it is and not as they would like to have it, must stop blaming the other side for the emergence of problems, and not avoid looking in the mirror for sources of friction. They should not “look into the neighbor’s garden” and teach the other side how to live. Russians are much better at seeing their problems, and hate them much more than the Americans do, but these evils need a long time to overcome.

Second. The time has come to shift the focus of U.S.-Russian relations from Europe and the Atlantic, where they are weighed down by the burden of age-old mistrust and unresolved frictions, to the Pacific Ocean. There are a lot of prospects as well as many common problems that require bilateral and multilateral cooperation to solve in this region. Thus it is very important to shift the emphasis in bilateral dialogue from the issues that divide the parties to those that unite them.

Third. Both the United States and Russian civilizations are pioneering cultures, predisposed to great achievements and usually impatient of the routine. To build the relationships for the long term we need major breakthrough projects, like the Soyuz-Apollo mission from the 1970s. It is only in such ventures that both nations are able to show their best qualities, patience and wisdom.

Victor Larin is director of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of History, Archeology, and Ethnology of the Peoples of the Far East

This post is part of the Perspectives on Peace and Security: Rebuilding the U.S.–Russia Relationship project produced by Carnegie Corporation of New York in partnership with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

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