Friday, December 17, 2004

Russia and U.S. Foreign Policy

A column by Eugene B. Rumer in the Washington Post today discusses "Russian neoimperialism," evidenced most recently in Moscow's efforts to control the outcome of the presidential election in Ukraine. Rumer cites this and other examples of apparent Russian neoimperialism and expansionism since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, most of which ended badly, and concludes,

It appears that despite all the talk about Russia's neoimperialism, its record of accomplishment is a good deal more limited than its ambitious rhetoric.

He continues,

Our policy, which essentially has remained the same since 1991 -- keeping the door open to a broad strategic cooperative effort with Russia and expanding a web of relationships with its neighbors, while not reacting to every Russian outburst -- is working.

I spent much of my academic career on Soviet and Russian studies, I lived in Moscow for almost three years, and I speak the language fairly well. I don't claim to be on the level of professional experts; however, I know the country, and I've dealt extensively with average Russians.

Rumer is right. Our policy toward Russia is correct and should continue pretty much as it is. It's interesting, though, that this policy isn't consistent with President Bush's stated beliefs in regard to a universal desire for the benefits of western-style democracy, free market economics, and sensitivity to human rights. (Of course, this lack of consistency between philosophy and practice in U.S. foreign policy isn't limited just to Russia; think also about Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, and a host of other countries.)

There are people inside Russia, mostly marginalized intellectuals, who talk and write about those kinds of western norms, but they don't speak for their leaders or the Russian people. Russian leaders are overwhelmingly self-interested and corrupt, and they understand their people. The Russian people, by and large, are predisposed to strong, even autocratic leadership, and they don't respect or support leaders who fall short of that standard.

Like all other peoples, the Russians created their own history. They went from the autocratic iron hand of the czars to the commissars and party hacks, with only a few months of faux-democracy in between. When communism and the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia immediately came under the control of staggeringly corrupt politicians and economic oligarchs who sucked up the country's wealth with the efficiency of a giant Hoover. The trend for the future is most likely to be something of a decline in the power of the fabulously wealthy nouveau riche and a consolidation of power in the hands of very strong, not particularly democratic leaders like Putin. This will meet the expectations of the Russian people, and they will approve. We have to work within the limits of that reality.

This experience with Russia, and other countries, teaches us that foreign policy must be more pragmatic than idealistic, however strong our desire to propound the virtues of western concepts in politics and economics. U.S. foreign policy, like that of any other country, must advance U.S. national interests. That means we must understand the necessity for realpolitik in world affairs, where "the art of the possible" must take precedence over idealistic perfection.

Evangelizing for democracy and free-market economics is fine, as long as it doesn't interfere with practical policy. Iraq presents a perfect example. Are we going to wallow around forever, creating a quagmire that doesn't yet exist as we wait for the Iraqis to stop being Arab Muslims and become something else? Or will we do the best we can, then get the hell out and leave them to their own devices? The answer should be obvious.

As practical folks in Texas and similar places might say, "You can wrassle with a pig if you want to, but all you're going to do is get yourself dirty and piss off the pig."


Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:33 AM, December 17, 2004  
Blogger Gindy said...

Russia's actions are a great reason to replace Colin Powell with the Russian expert Condi Rice. I don't think we will change our policy towards Russia a whole lot.

2:23 PM, December 17, 2004  
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