By Nina L. Khrushcheva
The fact that Russia is supposedly bad doesn’t make America better, or better off now at the end of George W. Bush’s presidency-mistrusted by the world, with two wars on its hands and an economy in ruin. In this environment is Russia a threat to the United States? Unlikely, but branding it as dictatorial revives the old fears and diverts attention from the immense problems America faces today.
Barack Obama’s presidency promises to usher his country into a new era of post-unilateral decisions, international diplomacy, and coherent foreign policymaking. This new era should also, perhaps, end the senseless public animosity towards Russia that has continued since 1991 when the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and, for all intents and purposes, disappeared. Becoming the world’s only superpower proved very damaging to the United States. Over-confidence, to no one’s surprise, bred hubris.
Bill Clinton’s administration tirelessly reminded the former Soviets that they, the losers, should unwaveringly follow the lead of all-powerful America. Boris Yeltsin’s privatization and marketization programs were not speedy enough, at least as judged in a Washington anxious to spend as little as possible helping Russia. Any thoughts of a Marshall Plan to ease Russia’s path were dismissed in Gingrich/Clinton Washington as welfare for communists.
In 2000, as a by-product of the all-or-nothing capitalization demanded of Russia by its American advisors, the country returned full circle—the KGB with President (now Prime Minister) Vladimir Putin at the helm gained the ruling hand. Putin’s promise to restore Russian self-respect did indeed involve policies familiar from the communist era: jailing “dishonest” oligarchs, clamping down on an “irresponsible” press, and “deceptive” non-governmental organizations, pressuring neighboring countries by increasing prices or limiting Russian oil and gas, as well as flexing a bit of military muscle in Georgia (although Georgia’s own irresponsible leader, Mikhail Saakashvili, deserves equal blame for the August 2008 war), or sending training ships to Cuba and Venezuela to show the world that Russian military power was back.
Russia is certainly far from perfect, and its current return to authoritarianism is not all, or even mostly, America’s fault. But the Clinton-era economic arrogance coupled with the political egotism of the Bush years was not a sound strategy, at least in terms of impact on Russia. Wagging the dog of Putinism can serve only one purpose-to appeal to the familiarity of the communist threat in order to cover up America’s own imperfections.
A CNN conversation with American high school students illustrated the divide: a good number of these students equated Putin with Osama bin Laden, arguing that a diplomatic sit down would not be possible with either. What this “young generation of future policymakers” should have known is that although Russia continues to occupy 11 time zones it is not the Soviet Union, no longer communist, nor locked in a self-imposed isolation from the world. However, even Thomas Friedman, The New York Times’ foremost authority on internationalism, in one interview called Putin’s Russia “the Soviet Union.” To be fair, Putin is not an arch democrat—but he’s not Joseph Stalin either.
Indeed, how much better was Pervez Musharraf, the ex-Pakistani president whom the Bush administration hailed as a beacon of democracy even as the Taliban regrouped in his country’s tribal regions? Or Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, another alleged democrat who arguably presides over the most corrupt government in the world? What about Georgia’s Saakashvili, a politician who under the guise of democracy has been silencing those of his citizens who protest his rule? And what of Hugo Chávez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? There are similar problems in Turkey, Greece, Poland, and Ukraine.
And may I remind you that the United States itself boasted that perverse constitutional theorist, Dick Cheney (a modern Dr. Strangelove if ever there was one), as its vice president for the last eight years?
Russia is the butt of political jokes, of Sarah Palin’s foreign policy ire, of The New York Times’ new Red Scare. And let’s not forget Hollywood, where the Russians have returned, after a brief interval, as the designated bad guys. In the recent X-Files movie, they are the horrible dog trainers and organ harvesters; in the 2004 Hellboy, the mummified Grigory Rasputin seeks to spread evil around the world; in Hitman, we have an evil Russian president, his criminal double, and his corrupt brother; and even in the Coen brothers’ comedy, Burn after Reading, Russia is the enemy, albeit in an absurd and funny manner. In the Golden Compass, one of the many recent fairy tales (Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, etc.) that have attempted to take Americans’ minds off their troubles, the villainous animals speak perfect Russian.
We all need a good enemy. As U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates once shrewdly pointed out, the talk of a new Cold War fills him “with nostalgia for a less complex time.” Indeed, the world made a glib sort of sense back then: communism vs. capitalism, good vs. evil empire.
Terrorism is too amorphous, Osama bin Laden you actually have to catch, Arabs as enemies are somehow politically incorrect, and who but ourselves can we blame for the world economic collapse? Not to be unfair to China, they too make an excellent adversary. Yet China is too mysterious (the middle kingdom of Jet Li, kung fu, and capitalists posing as communists) for a simple us vs. them confrontation. China also produces American toys, medicine, and nearly everything else; tainted, leaded, or spiked, there is no living without them. Russia, on the other hand, remains a distant land of ballet, bombs, and Dostoevsky. The Cold War mystery has defrosted, but the familiarity of the threat remains conveniently alive.
What makes Russia a great enemy is that, unlike Osama bin Laden, you don’t really need to worry about it. Not yet. However, if the Russians continue to be treated as if the first Cold War never ended, a new one will actually arise.
Nina Khrushcheva teaches international affairs at The New School University in New York. She is the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics.