Stepping Past the Cold War’s Shadow

by Alexandra Vacroux, Executive Director, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

The Cold War still haunts U.S.–Russia relations over 20 years after it petered out. There is near-universal consensus that the central tenet of the Cold War—that the United States and Russia are superpowers engaged in a zero-sum game—is obsolete. Yet the shadow of this Cold War thesis persists: we see it in Mitt Romney’s March declaration that Russia is still the “number one geopolitical foe,” and we see it in the May threat by Russia’s top military officer to launch a preemptive strike on U.S./NATO missile defense systems in Europe. Why does this shadow persist given that both countries face far greater threats from terrorism, transnational epidemics, drug trafficking, nuclear proliferation, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea?

One perspective is that the paranoia on both sides is justified. Americans who grew up during or after World War II look east and see Russia’s enormous arsenal of nuclear weapons, a sclerotic and corrupt political system, and an unwillingness to go along with Western pressure on unlikable regimes. Russians look west and see an arrogant hegemon with delusional global ambitions, a military that wants to muscle in on Russian neighbors, and an unstable system of domestic political institutions. Anemic bilateral trade (compared to even the smaller European countries) means that private sector investment cannot stabilize the relationship when political relations sour.

The other perspective, one more widely held by the post-Soviet and post-9/11 generations, is that while these two countries may play an outsized role in the public imagination, they do not actually represent the most pressing concerns of the day. This view is more widespread in the United States, where a significant number of people are still not entirely clear on the difference between the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation. In Russia, a more comprehensive understanding of American culture—an understanding that begins with an impressive study of American literature in school and ends with cautious appreciation for many products of American capitalism—is easily exploited by nationalists who rally supporters by blaming others for domestic problems rather than promoting solutions. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Russians think about the United States much more than Americans think of Russia.

Without long-term economic ties or shared cultures, the U.S.–Russia bilateral relationship is in the hands of political elites. When there are good personal relationships and common interests, as there were between Reagan and Gorbachev, or between Clinton and Yeltsin, the relationship works well. When there is tension or open mistrust among the leaders, as there was between Bush and Putin, the relationship is tense and brittle.

As President, Obama has tried to depersonalize foreign relations, including the U.S. relationship with Russia. His “reset” was an effort to approach bilateral relations pragmatically—to put aside rusty notions of “us vs. them” and instead identify areas of common interest. This effort started with then-President Medvedev and extended down to 18 bilateral commissions of lower-level officials and entrepreneurs working on issue areas from space cooperation to arms control to health. While the reset has generally improved ties between the countries, it has not erased the shadow still cast over the bilateral relationship.

Coyly invoking the concept of an “evil empire” is still useful for American politicians. English-language media coverage of Vladimir Putin, rarely forsaking an opportunity to deploy the “former KGB” moniker, makes it easy to engender mistrust. Russian intransigence on international issues, from Georgia’s rebellious regions to missile defense, is cast as “typical” Russian obstructionism, and is a convenient way of justifying more defense spending and intervention abroad. Similarly, President Putin finds it useful to blame Western forces for supporting the massive political demonstrations that caught him by surprise this winter. Politically expedient pronouncements on both sides may produce short-term domestic gains for politicians, but they come at the heavy price of trapping us in an anachronistic bilateral relationship.

The reset has not produced the hoped-for breakthrough in bilateral relations. It has, however, moved us towards normalizing our political relationship, and has generated networks of ties on issue areas where cooperation is either essential or easier. The reset is still young, and any light it has cast on the relationship can be overwhelmed by the shadow of the Cold War. For this reason, it is particularly important that the next American administration not reverse the incremental gains of the Obama administration. Despite his harsh (some would say naïve) rhetoric on Russia during the presidential campaign, Romney, if elected, will be confronted with an international reality that does not support the Cold War–era obsession with fighting the Russians. The next American president will have more serious threats to deal with than the occasional anti-Western rhetoric from the Kremlin. Russia and the United States will need to work together, even if it’s uncomfortable.

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