On the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, which changed not just East-West relations but of the entire world in the 20th century, this brief essay examines some of the dynamics of the seemingly eternal conflict behind US-Russian relations. As Foreign Secretary Lord Palmerston stated before the House of Commons in March 1848 amid the eruption of social revolutions erupted throughout Europe, countries have no eternal enemies or eternal allies, only eternal interests. Although national interests as defined by a government mold relations between allies and enemies, US-Russian relations since the Bolshevik Revolution illustrate how such interests account for eternal enemies.
As the stronger power of the two, the US has dogmatically pursued confrontation in most cases since the Bolshevik Revolution and made faint efforts to derive the benefits of cooperation only when there was no alternative as in the case of World War II where the USSR was absolutely key to forcing Germany into a two-front war. Besides dropping atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US sent a strong signal to Moscow that Washington reverted to the “eternal enemies” mode by promulgating the Truman Doctrine.
Owing to domestic and foreign policy dynamics that reflect the goal of maintaining imperial America’s role in the world, the “eternal enemies” mindset is deeply ingrained in the American society and prevalent in its political culture. Institutions that were built around this confrontation, politicians and military officers, academic and think tank analysts carved careers around it, the existence of consulting firms and corporations depend on its permanence.
Apologists of the “eternal enemies” thesis would never question whether a mid-20th century approach to foreign policy and Cold War doctrines promulgated by Truman, Eisenhower and Nixon has any relevance in the early 21st century. Whereas the US from Truman to Nixon could claim superpower status as a military, economic, and political global force, it cannot make the same claim in 2017 amid a polycentric world structure in which America’s ability to determine the balance of power is limited.
To manage the post-war global order, the US, USSR and China respected each other’s spheres of influence that defined the essence of the Cold War between Communist East and capitalist West. While the Cuban Missile Crisis proved an aberration that brought US and USSR very close to war, there was general agreement about each side’s spheres of influence - a 19th century Northwestern European imperialist concept.
In the post-Cold War order, both Beijing and Moscow concede that the US is the hegemonic power in the Western Hemisphere and would not attempt to challenge is historic role in the Pan-American System. They further concede that the Atlantic Alliance is a security foundation for which the US would risk war if members are threatened, but both Moscow and Beijing, among other countries such as Iran and India, are suspicious of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion.
Washington has placed no restrictions on its expansionist role when it comes to intruding in the spheres of influence of both China and Russia. The US has been expanding both NATO with the intent of weakening Russia by integrating more members in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe, and trying to contain China by having India under Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra Modi join the US-led Asian defense alliance system based on the old model of the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO, 1955-1977). Neither Russia nor China has imposed military containment policies on the US, despite a number of countries proposing that the solution to US military interventionism and covert operations is a containment policy.
The source of the underlying confrontation between the US and its former Communist rivals rests on Washington’s insistence for an asymmetrical military relationship that permits the US to define itself as the world’s policeman unilaterally and without limits. Proudly proclaiming that the doctrine of “Exceptionalism” (US has a mission to transform the world because it is superior to all other nations) rooted in historical precedent permits the US to pursue imperialism as part of a “mandate from providence”, Washington remains wedded to Pax Americana, as though the world has been standing still since the Truman Doctrine for the “American century” to continue forever unchallenged.
As anxious to maintain the Cold War status quo, in some respects even more so as they proved recently when the Trump administration suggested that NATO was anachronistic, the Western European governments see the Atlantic Alliance as leverage for their continued efforts at global economic expansion that favors their multinational corporations. Just as interested in the continuity of the “eternal enemies”, Japan, Canada, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, South Korea Taiwan, among others want to keep the Cold War strategic status quo a generation after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. However, realism has sunk in about the evolving polycentric world power structure and there is increased divergence between military dependence on the West and economic integration with China.
Historical Roots of the “Eternal Enemies” Thesis
Like the US, Russia is nearly self-sufficient in raw materials, but unlike the US it has struggled to maintain its national sovereignty throughout its history owing to autocratic regime under the Tsars geared to sustain about 150,000 aristocrats at the expense of the peasants and workers. Lagging behind the West economically since the Scientific Revolution that Peter the Great (1682-96) so admired, and focusing on military development instead of strengthening the economy to the degree that it could sustain a strong defense, Russia sacrificed multidimensional development so it could maintain a Medieval political economy and a social order based on serfdom abolished in 1861 four years before the US abolished slavery. Part of the East-West eternal clash is owing to the huge gap between Russia’s potential to realize its great power status and the reality of a country on the verge of falling into dependency on the West.
For Russia the eternal conflict with West has deep historical roots during the Tsarist era when the country lapsed into a virtual economic dependency of the West while retaining its Great Power military status. In as much as the Bolshevik Revolution was an attempt to end external dependence and reaffirm its sovereignty, The Bolsheviks achieved their goal at the price of compromising social justice to maintain high defense spending. This is partly because they confronted a hostile world trying to undermine the revolution by invading Russia with about three-quarter of a million troops during the Civil War.
One hundred years after the October Revolution, Russia finds itself in the unusual position of fighting for its sovereignty under a nationalist-authoritarian regime backed by the armed forces, police (Federal Security Service, successor to KGB), and state-supported oligarchs whose capital is well integrated in the world economy. Weakened by the chaos of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Russian Federation was relegated to a status similar to that under the Tsars when it was militarily powerful but economically dependent on the West, importing manufactured goods and exporting raw materials.
Integration in the world capitalist economy during the 1990s meant that Russia surrendered its superpower status and reverted to a regional Eurasian power surrounded by former Soviet republics that Europe and the US targeted for integration. During the Boris Yeltsin decade of the 1990s, Russia witnessed very aggressive European and US integration efforts throughout Eastern Europe and Eurasia that seriously compromised both its sovereignty and its historical zones of influence.
Having left Communism behind, Russia after Vladimir Putin’s presidential election in 2000 opted for a strong state structure, although very corrupt quasi-authoritarian bureaucratic system of capitalist clientism linked to the Kremlin. This was geared to defend national sovereignty while trying to safeguard some spheres of influence. The state structure model was based on the historical precedent of internal colonization that goes back to the reign of Ivan the Terrible (1547-84) when the Cossack rebel Vasiliy “Yermak ” Tomofeyevich Alenin and fur trade interests launched the era of territorial expansion with the conquest of Siberia.
From the Tsarist era to the current post-Soviet nationalist period, Moscow has pursued internal colonization that invariably entails creating a greater Russia to rival its neighbors. Western Powers from the 18th century to the present have viewed such policy as threatening because it clashed with their own outward expansionist integration goals. From the Crimean War (1854-56) until the current Western sanctions (April 2014-present) over the Crimea and Ukrainian conflict, Moscow has perceives Western expansionism in all its forms from military actions to economic domination of neighboring countries as a form of containment that threatens its security and national sovereignty.
Some argue that the East-West conflict (eternal enemies thesis) really dates back only to the Yalta Agreement of 1945 that divided the Communist East from the capitalist West into zones of influence and set up the stage for the Cold War. This theory fails to take into account the Russian Civil War in which Western Powers and Japan sent troops to bring down Leon Trotsky’s Red Army fighting against Tsarist remnants. President Woodrow Wilson quickly realized that Japan and European governments were using the Bolshevik Revolution as a pretext to carve territory from the fallen Russian Empire.
Even before the Bolshevik-led Revolution of 1917 that afforded the Great Powers the pretext of military intervention, the Europeans had a policy of containment toward Russia; a policy that they continued during the interwar era to the degree that they viewed the rise of Fascism and Nazism as counterweights to Bolshevism. One hundred years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the US and the West are living that legacy of containment and interventionism, striving to stop time and refusing to accept that the polycentric world order of the early 21st century has created new dynamics and makes the eternal conflict anachronistic and highly costly for all participants.
From Moscow’s perspective, the US and its Western and Asian allies do not want a strong Russian state asserting its national sovereignty and protecting its regional interests because such a state prevents the expansion of Western imperialism not just in former Soviet Republics constituting a buffer zone for Russia but in the Middle East as well. Stuck in mid-20th century Pax Americana mode of thinking, the US reserves the right of the long-standing postwar “transformation policy” as a superpower whose national security interests defined by the Truman Doctrine.
Russian Internal Colonization vs. Western Extra-Continental Expansion
Inheriting Europe’s containment policy toward Tsarist Russia, the US since the Bolshevik Revolution has been Russia’s eternal enemy for ideological, political, economic and military reasons. The historical coincidence of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of Pax Americana in its nascent phase in 1917 and the fact that the US emerged much stronger after WWI made the eternal enemies struggle possible. Despite sharp ideological/political differences during the Soviet era, the US-Russia “eternal enemies” conflict represents a clash of geopolitical interests with consequences in the domain of economic integration for Eurasia, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East.
Most noticeable under the Soviet Union, and lingering to the present day under a post-Soviet nationalist regime, the eternal clash dates to the Tsarist era of internal colonization at a time that Europeans engaged in extra-continental colonization. Less about ethnic, religious, cultural, and political chasm that has existed between Russia and the West, the eternal conflict in essence about what countries would determine the regional balance of power and the clash of Eurasian expansionism that Russia from Peter the Great (1682-1696) to Vladimir Putin pursued as a regional integration policy vs. the outward expansionist policy of global integration that the West was pursuing. While the integration policies on both sides have been obstacles to political cooperation and the source of long-standing confrontation, the US and Europe isolated the USSR in order to preserve the capitalist world order.
Unlike post-WWII America, the USSR and the Russian Federation did not have a transformation policy as an integral part of their foreign policy. Soviet intervention was invariably linked to its regional security zone and in accordance with the Yalta Agreement about such zones of influence. Clearly violations of national sovereignty, Soviet intervention in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) aimed to support pro-Soviet regimes, just as the intervention in Afghanistan 1979-89, rather than to engage in regime change policy. Nevertheless, the US and its allies pointed to those interventions to argue that Moscow was interested in perpetuating East-West confrontation by refusing to permit any of its spheres of influence to integrate with the West and using the nuclear deterrent to achieve its goal.
Typically identified with the nuclear arms race during the Cold War is as natural as the sun coming up every morning, the long-standing East-West confrontation serves both foreign policy and domestic policy goals. Because the eternal enemies have rarely achieved rapprochement, it is part of the mass psychology on both sides to view the other with profound mistrust and cynicism. Just as Westerners, especially Americans have a deep distrust of Russia, so do Russians of NATO and the US. After all, from Napoleon to Hitler, the Europeans invaded Russia four times (Napoleonic War 1812, Crimean War 1854, WWI 1914, WWII 1941) with devastating consequences, especially in WWII when Russia lost at least 20 million people and possibly many more depending on the source.
When there was NATO vs. Warsaw bloc competition amid sharply different ideological/political differences, it is easy to understand the ‘eternal enemies’ mode of thinking. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the goal became. the thorough economic integration of all former republics in the capitalist world economy and NATO encirclement of the Russian Federation. Moscow reaction against such Western designs has been a strong nationalist response with the forging of regional alliances, especially with China that shares Russia’s goal of preventing the US in achieving its goals in Eurasia and Trans-Caucasus region.
Perpetual Confrontation with Intervals of Cooperation
Throughout history, every power pursuing expansionist policies always had one or several enemy states to rally public support behind the flag as a means of unifying the country and justify unpopular domestic policies. The institutionalization of the “eternal enemies” mindset in US-Russian relations is so deeply imbedded that the US government views all conflicts, including the “war on terror”, which is highly unconventional, from the prism of the very conventional East-West conflict. This is not because people serving in US government agencies, think tanks and academia are bankrupt of ideas to the degree that they are unable to differentiate between facing a conventional state like Russia and unconventional militants scattered in more than forty countries and operating as cells. Ideologically and institutionally they have been captives of an archaic mode because this is what government and corporations fund and it is what ideologues backing both Republican and Democrat parties are advocating.
A segment of the Russian political and military elites have historically accepted the “eternal enemies” thesis as readily as their American and Western European counterparts. Russians also developed institutions around the “eternal enemies” thesis because they believed the rivalry meant a strong military state identified with “Great Power” status, while maintaining internal cohesion and conformity to the status quo by keeping nationalism as the secular religion of the masses. In fact, the existence of the rivalry is symbolically a status-affirming sign not just for Russian elites but for the masses indoctrinated in nationalism that the regime uses to its advantage as much as the US and its NATO partners.
Naturally, it is not true that the “eternal enemies” mode has meant obviating Lord Palmerston’s dictum about pursuing interests as government defines them. When absolutely necessary, there has been and there still is limited and focused cooperation on military issues, on scientific and space research, cultural and trade issues, assuming there are no Western sanctions imposed on Russia. During the Second World War, the “eternal enemies” suspended confrontation for the sake of achieving the larger common goal of defeating the Axis Powers and restoring order in the world.
When the nuclear arms race seemed out of control amid the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) doctrine, they cooperated by signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, SALT - I 1972; SALT – II 1979; Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, 1987; Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START – I 1991, and START - II 1993 – ratification 1996. Following a number of agreements in the 1990s to avoid East-West military conflict, in 2002 Moscow and Washington with its EU partners created the creation of the NATO-Russia Council. Although these have been the highlights of focused cooperation, the constant reality is confrontation on which institutions and vested interests are based in the US and Russia.
At the end of WWII, the US had a choice of cooperation or confrontation with the USSR. In 1948, former vice president Henry Wallace representing the dovish wing of the Democrat Party criticized Truman’s confrontational militarist approach that sought to create crises rather than engage in diplomatic solutions. Forging a bipartisan foreign policy of confrontation, Truman decided that imperial interests were best served through diplomatic confrontation backed by an arms race that would at the same time maintain conformity to the status quo at home. Making a geopolitical decision to reindustrialize Western Europe to counter the menacing threat of the Soviet bloc, Truman’s decisions reflected a global transformation policy under the aegis of the US. Reindustrializing Japan, the US helped with the industrialization of Taiwan and South Korea as counterweights to Maoist China that formed what US policymakers wrongly perceived as a monolithic Communist bloc with Moscow at the core.
Once the Nixon administration opened the door for China and laid the groundwork for its reintegration in the world economy, the decision was to strengthen it economically as part of a geopolitical plan to weaken the Soviet Union. US Cold War strategies to the “eternal enemies” problem came at a very high cost, namely, economic decline, suffering chronic balance of payments deficits and with public debt of about 105% of GDP (2016) and expected to rise rapidly in the next decade.
From the Bolshevik Revolution until the end of the Soviet bloc, the eternal conflict was justified on the basis of the ideological, political, economic and cultural chasm between East and West. Under the New World Order of the 1990s, the US expectation was that it would be the single superpower determining the world balance of power. America’s refusal to accept the reality of its relative economic decline and China’s emergence as the inevitable economic superpower entailed a clash of visions not just between Moscow and Washington about the structure of the world order but between Beijing and Washington. This clash became more evident after the deep recession of 2008.
The US was found itself mired in contradictions about how it wanted to manage its global economic and geopolitical interests, resorting to destabilization tactics in the Middle East, North Africa and encroaching in zones of influence historically under Russia’s purview. Neo-isolationists and economic nationalists, after 2016 siding with Trump, questioned multilateral institutions that the US established at the end of WWII designed to manage the world economy under American political, military and economic leadership.
Because multilateral institutions that the US established no longer favored US global economic and political hegemony, many in Trump’s camp favored bilateral relationships and weakening of multilateral institutions that were just as advantageous to the European Union, Japan and China as to the US. This shift was in itself a contradiction forcing some to rethink the eternal conflict with Russia, while others whose ideological framework, careers and fortunes dependent on perpetual confrontation remained skeptical about rapprochement. Both the neo-isolationists and the “eternal enemies” advocates realized that the US cannot possibly have an eternal conflict with China without self-destructive consequences, other than maintaining a containment policy militarily especially targeting North Korea, while at the same time pursuing economic engagement. Simply put, Russia is a good fit for a policy crying out for an eternal enemy.
Could there be a manufactured ‘clash of civilizations’ that applies to Russia as it does to Islamic countries? The “clash of civilizations” (Samuel Huntington’s theory) between Islam and the West as many conservatives, various ultra-right wing populists including neo-Fascist ideologues, and Western militarists and interventionists operating under the guise of democracy want people to believe, has no relevance for Russia. Huntington developed the “clash of civilizations” theory after the Soviet bloc collapsed and never intended it to apply to Russia under Boris Yeltsin. If the clash persisted, it had nothing to do with culture but rather US-led integration of as much of the former Soviet bloc as possible under the Western sphere interested in securing raw materials and markets, while containing Russia.
With the exception of Poland for obvious historical reasons, Europeans are not as concerned about Russia as a real threat as are the Americans, with the exception of the Poles. Even more interesting and indicative of how political propaganda has been effective in the US, the second chart shows that the unfavorable rating of Russia was much higher from 2014-2017 than it was just before the Soviet bloc collapsed. Anti-Russia sentiments expressed by Cold War Democrats and Republicans, the mass media, and think tanks analysts whose salary is paid by corporations funding them have worked to convince the public that today’s Russia is more menacing than the Soviet Union in its declining years.
Russia’s Quest for Eurasian hegemony and US Reaction
Although the East-West conflict may appear “natural” like snow in Siberia, there was a period in the 1990s during the weak regime of Boris Yeltsin (1991-99) when it appeared that rapprochement was possible. This rested on the “End of History” theoretical construct of Western neo-conservatives and it entailed US superpower hegemony (hyperpuissance, as French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine called the US in 1999) over the entire world and the considerable retreat of the Russian Federation to a regional status that reflected its weak economy and institutions in transition.
On the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia is not as weak as it was after the October Revolution, followed by a foreign invasion intended to support the Tsarist forces against Leon Trotsky’s Red Army. However, Russia is hardly the mighty power it was in 1949 when the Kremlin proudly announced the successful testing of the first atomic bomb coinciding with Mao’s victory over US-backed Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. By contrast, the US is much more powerful in 2017 than it was in 1917, but much less so than in 1949. While the road to global ascendancy was still in its nascent stage during the Wilson presidency reaching its zenith in 1945, in the early 21st century the US is experiencing a downward slope of its global hegemony.
For all practical purposes, the US has retreated to a position from “hyperpuissance” in the 1990s, to a military-police-state superpower two decades later. Its strategy of destabilization reflects as much a dogmatic adherence to early Cold War transformation policy as sheer desperation amid contradictions of its own domestic and foreign policies that continue to weaken it. Instead of addressing structural problems in its economy as the foundation for its global economic role, the US is spending its way into higher public debt on defense and the vast police-state (everything from Homeland Security to the entire intelligence, police, and criminal justice system). This is where the “eternal enemies” thesis is convenient as a justification of staying the course with a system detrimental to the majority of the American people. Republicans under George W. Bush and Democrats under Obama played catalytic roles in molding public opinion to accept the “eternal enemies” thesis in order to continue with the militarist-police state regardless of rapidly rising public debt and eroding living standards.
China and the Contradictions in the “Eternal Enemies” Thesis
In June 2016 during Putin visit to Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping stated that his country and Russia are bound by “eternal friendship,” in sharp contrast to the “eternal confrontation” of Russia and the US. “President Putin and I have unanimously decided that the more complicated the international situation, the more determined we should be, guided by the spirit of strategic cooperation and the idea of eternal friendship,” President Xi was in fact targeting the US and its EU allies that had imposed economic sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and sending the message that China presents the best hope for integration as the US was focused on military adventurism rather than economic cooperation.
While pursuing improved economic ties with the US, China’s “One Belt-One Road” is a global economic integration initiative and an integral part of its economic diplomacy countering US military diplomacy that has alienated not just rivals but allies as well. Considering the inevitability of China as an economic superpower in the 21st century and the relative decline of the US as a superpower in all respects except military, does the “eternal enemies” thesis make sense in a polycentric world power structure either for the US or Russia?
China has shown that it will not permit the US and NATO to weaken Russia and its zones of influence bordering the Russian Federation and that any overt of covert policies such as in the Ukraine and Syria meet resistance not only from Russia but China as well. In short, the “eternal enemies” thesis is flawed by design because the US confronts Beijing backing Moscow and that is too great a challenge for Washington and its military allies as inexorably linked to the Chinese economy as the US.
Although the history of Communist regimes in the 20th century demonstrated that nationalism transcended Communism, it seems that the US government and many analysts in the West remained oblivious to this reality. This was partly because of ideological blinders, partly political and cultural, partly sheer opportunism linked to careers and profits of the eternal enemies apologists. Stuck in the mindset of mid-twentieth century, the American political, military, and economic elites as well as the media and academics in the service of the establishment are caught in all sorts of contradictions about pursuing the “eternal enemies” thesis and failing to appreciate that the Russian demand for a limited US global role reflects the limits of American power.
US policy of economic engagement and simultaneous military containment toward China is not analogous to US policy toward Russia. However, it places Beijing in a delicate position of balancing its strategic ties with Moscow with its economic ties to the West which are essential if it is to realize its goal as the world’s preeminent economic power. Containment of China has entailed not just strengthening strategic alliances with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, but challenging Beijing in the South China Sea and when it comes to North Korea as its satellite that acts as a counterweight to South Korea. Because China has enormous economic leverage with the US and globally, it is able to counter Washington’s strategic containment policy much more effectively than Moscow. However, this is a clear case of the US taking on much more than it can possibly handle in confronting both Russia and China and risking destabilizing itself.
Beijing has demonstrated by its cooperation with multilateral institutions – WTO, IMF, World Bank, etc. – that it is much more interested acting as a guarantor of stability than the US openly challenging multilateral institutions under Trump. Moreover, Beijing favors political solutions to regional problems such as North Korean ballistic missile testing. China’s proposal to de-escalate a military arms race in the Korean Peninsula or a possible war has fallen on deaf ears in Washington. This clearly illustrates that the purview of the “eternal enemies” mindset encompasses a policy toward China as well as Russia, viewing them monolithically. This is not flawed only empirically, but reflects a reckless approach because at best it will result in mutual chaos and at worst open conflict perhaps by accident, misunderstanding, or hastiness. As stated above, it illustrates the refusal of the US to respect the Chinese sphere of influence, while it expects China to accept the US definition of national security extending over the entire world.
Pursuing a policy of containment toward China and “eternal enemies” confrontation toward Moscow in the 21st century inadvertently strengthens China as it affords it leverage with Russia while enhancing its global leadership and allows it to focus on expanding global trade and securing an even stronger economic leadership role. Despite the jihadists as a common enemy, Russia and the US are hardly prepared to end the “eternal enemies” rivalry that in essence helped to bring down the USSR and has slowly weakened the American economy.
Trump, Putin and Political Propaganda
During the presidential election of 2016, political observers in the US and around the world were optimistic that under a Trump administration the “eternal enemies” foreign policy thesis would end. Naturally, if Hillary Clinton was elected, they expected the continuation of antagonistic relations, building on Obama’s revival of the Cold War and destabilization policy toward the Middle East. Considering the statements of personal praise by both Trump and Putin for each other, against the background of the obvious victory of Russia in weakening ISIS in Syria, the US felt embarrassed about its diminished military role in the Middle East. Not that Syria is so essential to US national security interests, but considering the reality of Iran as the undisputed Middle East power adamantly opposed by US Arab allies and Israel, the question was about which power would determine the balance of power and claim credit for combating ISIS.
As a predatory capitalist, Trump viewed the issue in one-dimensional economic terms. He wondered why the US simply did not seize Iraq’s oil assets, thus admitting that the goal of wars of imperialism is economic benefit not just nebulous diplomatic victories with a large defense bill left over for the taxpayers. Viewing the war on terror as an immediate threat, Trump called ‘stupid’ those not interested in improved US-Russia relations as a means of fighting ISIS. By questioning the “eternal enemies” thesis, which Democrat and Republican lawmakers as well as analysts and the media insisted on promoting, Trump was depriving the military industrial complex of its reason to develop more weapons, despite raising the defense budget by 10%, while questioning the entire public and private sector institutional structure built around the “eternal enemies” thesis.
There have been reports about the Trump family making millions in Russia and several of his advisors and cabinet secretaries with links to Russian money. There is no doubt that Russia is a very corrupt country and the closer to the Kremlin hierarchy the better the chances of upward socioeconomic mobility and clinetist capitalism. While Norway and perhaps the rest of the Scandinavian countries could level criticism at Russia for its public-private sector corruption, does the US have any moral or political authority to do the same considering its considerable financial/banking scandals alone since 2008 and the hundreds of billions they have paid to the Justice Department in fines - $110 billion alone in mortgage-related fines?
To stop Trump from ameliorating relations, and challenge his domestic policies, Democrats argued that Russians were behind WIKILEAKS that released the DNC-related emails in 2016 and CIA documents in 2017. The March release of CIA documents proved particularly embarrassing to the CIA that has the ability to spy on any cell phone, computer or even a smart TV, despite claims it does not violate the privacy rights of US citizens. Without focusing on the essence of the leaks of both the DNC and the CIA, the “eternal enemies” advocates focused instead on the hackers, presumably the Kremlin, although there has never been any evidence presented to prove the allegations.
Let us assume that everything the US intelligence agencies and media have alleged is 100% true. If instead of Russia, Israel had been accused of hacking into US government and political party computer systems there would not have been an issue. If Trump and his cabinet officers and advisors had the exact same allegedly corrupt financial interests with the UK or Germany instead of Russia there would have been little media coverage and no political issue. However, because of the “eternal enemies” thesis deeply inculcated into the American institutional structure and psyche, any links with Russians is an anathema.
From 1946 until 2000, the US interfered in foreign elections 81 times, excluding the numerous US-sponsored coups and military interventions intended for regime change. Moreover, because of the Snowden and WIKILEAKS revelations, it is a matter of public record that the US intelligence services constantly spy on the rest of the world as well as their own citizens regardless of the Constitution and the law. It never escaped the attention of the Kremlin that since the Clinton administration, the US has interfered in the internal political affairs of former Soviet republics with the aim of weakening their ties to Moscow and reducing them to Western satellites as part of a larger containment strategy. This was especially the case with Georgia’s Rose Revolution 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution 2004 and Euromaidan movement of 2013-14.
Not just politicians, but the media, think tanks and most in academia analyze US-Russian relations as though we were back during the Cold War and there was still a Soviet bloc with Maoist China to back it up. In a recent CNN report regarding the Russian Ambassador’s role in the Trump administration, the news anchor called Sergey Kislyak him “comrade”, deliberately to give the impression that Russia under Vladimir Putin is still the same old Soviet Russia that is so markedly different from the capitalist West. This is intriguing because Russia’s Communist party has about 20% popular support while Putin’s nationalist bureaucracy and capitalist oligarchs behind him are running the country. Even more intriguing, Americans do not have analogous views about China, which is one-party state under the heirs of Mao’s Communist rebels, despite carrying the torch of capitalism and globalization.
This is not to excuse any possible Russian hacking or covert operations intended to undermine the US electoral process and tilt the vote toward Trump whose family and advisors may have deep financial ties with Russians. Is it time to review US-Russian relations and adopt a new course that best reflects the broader national interest, rather than the narrow ones of the military industrial complex and the many thousands who earned a living in the public and private sectors promoting the “eternal enemies” thesis?
“Eternal Enemies” as Catalyst for Regional Blocs
American apologists who advocate US-Russian confrontation always point to European security, and specifically NATO as the oldest and most stable alliance system that non-European nations also support. How significant is NATO to EU security, considering that France and the United Kingdom have a nuclear deterrent. Isn’t true that collective continental security would give the Europeans greater military sovereignty, greater stability and improved relations with Russia? Even more significant, considering that Europe is increasingly turning to China for trade and investment does it make sense to have military interdependence with the US while pursuing greater economic interdependence with China?
A number of East European and Balkan countries, Turkey, Syria, and Iran have been and could likely remain more accommodating toward Moscow for a variety of reasons ranging from geopolitical to economic. Besides profound disillusionment with the US offering military solutions and instability rather than economic development, these periphery countries have become just as disillusioned with the EU that follows in the footsteps of the US model of exporting weapons and instability. By contrast, the Russian gas pipeline going through some of these countries is vital to their economies, while benefits from EU integration have diminished substantially since the austerity crisis following the global recession of 2008.
Considering the political and military uncertainty in EU-US future relations, the “eternal enemies” thesis no longer works as a catalyst to maintain solidarity of regional blocs because individual nations see greater benefits integrating with Russia and China. The majority of the people in four NATO members believe that Russia offers more stability and security for their countries than the US. Echoing the skepticism toward EU and NATO, Serbian former Prime Minister Alexander Vucic of Serbia recently cautioned that many look to Moscow for economic and political leadership, not the West. According to a Gallup poll, the majority in Serbia view Russia more favorably than NATO, a sentiment reflected across the Balkans, especially Greece but also Spain and even France. In a public opinion poll, the majority respondents In Germany and Italy replied that they would oppose a conflict with Russia. http://www.dw.com/en/nato-faces-hitches-in-public-opinion/a-18536217
Because the US and its Western EU partners realize the diminished role of the West in areas of rising Russo-Chinese influence, their reaction has been to infiltrate Georgia and Ukraine, while cultivating closer ties with the Baltic States. More than any other periphery region, the Baltic States and Poland are the easiest to accept the “eternal enemies” thesis because of their history with Russia. Despite attempts to determine the balance of power in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States primarily through military means without offering an economic development component, can the US counter Russian political influence considering that Europe needs cheap energy and the EU is becoming more interdependent with China?
The Georgia-Russia conflict (August 2008) revealed that EU-Russia and China-Russia inter-dependence takes precedence over US ambitions to determine the trans-Caucasus balance of power as it does in the Middle East through satellite countries. It is inevitable that Russia and China will increasingly be partners in determining the balance of power in areas where they have vital economic and strategic interests and where the US is threatening to destabilize as it has in the past two decades. The question is whether the US-Russia eternal conflict will evolve toward a new arms race, as it now seems inevitable if we are to take Trump’s rhetoric seriously, with the possibility of war between the great powers over small regional conflicts – Iran and North Korea as prime US targets.
Despite the rising tide of rightwing populism and economic nationalism as a reaction to globalization after BREXIT and Trump’s election, delinking from the world system and adjusting development policies to serve internal needs rather than foreign capital is not a real prospect at this juncture. The Western World and a number of non-Western nations are experiencing a resurgence of rightwing populism and nationalism as we have never seen since the interwar era of Fascism and Nazism. In the absence of Communism as a pretext for the rightwing political tilt, politicians, capitalists, the corporate media and apologists of the “eternal enemies” thesis believe that society’s greatness is defined through its military strength no matter the cost to society.
In as much as it reflects a nationalist-militarist-authoritarian political course, surprisingly not very different from what Putin is pursing, Trump’s election favors rightwing populism. There is hardly a strong leftist or progressive grassroots force to slow down this rightwing course that could have repercussions in globalization that China favors and economic nationalism that Russia has been pursuing. While the rightwing is on the move, leftist political parties and groups have been thoroughly co-opted by the liberals who are just as responsible for the foreign policy of confrontation as the conservatives.
Given the bankrupt leftist movements in the Western countries, any revolutionary impulse is almost non-existent, and after the failures of Arab Spring certainly not sufficiently strong to put an end to alter interventionist and militarist US foreign policy. The combination of new alliances and alignments between nations and regional blocs and internal contradictions will undercut the anachronistic “eternal enemies” model on which US and EU institutions are based.
No US president can alienate entrenched interests that benefit from the US-Russia confrontation; not just the defense companies, the Pentagon, the intelligences agencies, the think tanks, consultants, academics, and journalists all whose career fortunes are made on the “eternal enemies” thesis. Recently a National Public Radio (NPR) expert guest on cyber-security argued that there cannot be international agreement on cyber security with “totalitarian” countries like Russia, only with NATO members. The term totalitarian came out of the NAZI-Fascist era to describe the regimes in Germany and Italy. It was then adopted by the US during the early Cold War to lump together Russia with the former Axis Powers that Stalin helped to defeat. Nevertheless, in 2017 US “foreign policy experts” use the exact same term as Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson in the 1940s when there was a need to justify the Truman Doctrine.
Even in the absence of the Warsaw Pact, the US-dominated Cold War regional “military blocs” model is one that many US allies still favor despite China increasingly integrating more countries under its economic umbrella. More than any other country, China has benefited from the “eternal enemies” rivalry economically and militarily because it does not have to worry about Russia given that the US keeps it in check.
As stated above, there have been and still are areas of Russian-American cooperation because the dictum of Lord Palmerston regarding eternal interests transcending eternal allies or enemies has validity. Even areas where mutual cooperation appears to be a policy goal, as the war on terror since 9/11, there are tensions and confrontations just beneath the thin veil of cooperation. It is no secret that the US “regime change” operations in Libya placed the government in Washington on the same side as al-Qaeda. It is no secret that the US backed Saudi Arabia not just financing ISIS in Syria, but Sunnis in Yemen against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels. In short, the goal is influencing the balance of power even if it means supporting jihadists directly or indirectly by selling arms to Saudi Arabia.
There are alternatives to the global balance of power resting on the US checking Russian power and the latter using its influence with Iran and Syria to influence the regional balance of power. When does it become too costly financially as the US budgetary deficit spirals out of control, when there is a sharp rise of anti-Americanism around the world, even among allies, when the militarily in the absence of achieving its objectives to police the world simply demands greater budgetary allocations? As the US continues to shift resources from the civilian economy to defense, homeland security, and intelligence operations, and as the rising public debt continues to erode middle class and working class living standards, while China remains focused on global economic expansion, there would have to be a serious reassessment of the “eternal enemies” thesis that has been a driving force in policy and a more narrowly focused rationale for the military industrial complex.
Trump’s intentions notwithstanding, Washington will not pursue a cooperative relationship with Russia, something that many hawkish anti-American nationalist elements in Russia do not mind. The anachronistic “eternal enemies” thesis, which has been around since the Bolshevik Revolution, precludes both Russia’s and America’s optimal economic development and ability to solve conflicts through diplomacy rather than armed conflict. In the absence of defining limits on both sides, both the US and Russia appear nostalgic for the old East-West confrontation that had divided the world into ideological and political camps.
In retrospect, Georgi Arbatov, Soviet advisor to Mikhail Gorbachev on US-Russian relations was wrong in the 1980s when he said in a number of forums that Moscow’s secret weapon was to deprive the US of an enemy. Although the US found Islamic terrorism as the new enemy, it just did not measure up to the old conventional rival. Besides underestimating his own country’s need of an enemy, Arbatov failed to appreciate the deep roots of America’s “eternal enemies” institutional structure. Decrying the Reagan administration’s “campaign of demonization, of dehumanization of the other side,” Arbatov did not live to see that US-Russian relations were not much different under Obama in the second decade of the 21st century than under Reagan in the 1980s.
Not Communism, but nationalism and Russian refusal to accept integration under Western aegis is the common thread between the USSR and Russia. The reaffirmation of the nationalist aspects of the Westphalian System in the US and Europe will inevitably clash with the realities of a highly integrated world economy influenced more by Asia than the West. As globalization under a neoliberal corporate welfare state weakens the American national economy, Washington will focus even more on US military power status as global leverage to promote its economic imperial interests.