Dear President Putin: It is no use trying any further to accommodate the United States or cooperate with it. We cannot afford any more concessions. It is clear that the United States only respects force and firmness…
Dear Mr. President: The below memorandum regarding Russian-American bilateral relations was drafted by my Ministry’s Department of North America. I do not share completely all the views espoused by my Foreign Ministry colleagues—sometimes they seem too harsh, even shrill, in their analysis of the United States—but I suspect their assessment closely reflects the views of the average Russian, so I believe it would be useful for you to read their analysis unadulterated by my edits. Because of the sensitivity of the conclusion reached, I have classified this assessment as top secret/eyes only. Sincerely yours, Sergei.
The July 7th meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin could have been the beginning of that long-awaited breakthrough in our worsening relations with the United States. Instead, that meeting served only to confirm that there is no longer any chance that we can forestall a new Cold War. Of course, for many American policymakers the Cold War is already here or, perhaps more precisely, for many in the West the Cold War never really ended. They never knew how to handle a more cooperative and friendly relationship with Russia, and are now oddly reassured and comforted that tensions are rising. You will recall how many high-level American officials during the Nineties nostalgically lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union because the world became less predictable and more muddled.
But this new Cold War—or more accurately, phase two of the original Cold War—will be worse than its predecessor from 1948-1990. This is because all the American elites are now united in their distrust and disdain for Russia as never before in our bilateral history. Although we pose no existential threat to America, embrace no ideology anathema to their way of life, and have dramatically reduced our territory while at the same time dramatically increasing our cooperation with America on a full range of issues over the last two decades, they remain dissatisfied. Indeed, one could argue that the more we give in, the more unreasonable they have become in their demands. When the National Review, the New Republic, the Nation, and the Washington Post are all bleating like good sheep the same uninformed half-truths about Russia, you know that building better relations is now impossible.
The American Psyche
Americans are perhaps unique in the world in their view of the world—they are truly a conflicted people: they know less about history and the rest of the world than any other developed country, yet they deem themselves experts on all things. More intriguingly, they feel a messianic impulse to save the world, while at the same harboring deep resentment when the world intrudes on them. They are, paradoxically, irredeemably isolationist and compulsively interventionist.
But what is most important to understand about America is that it is not evil. The American people and their leaders are good-hearted and always mean well. Such silly leftwing notions of America the Evil need to be cast aside, onto the trash heap of history so to speak, with so many other myths. They want only to do good—and that is what makes America so dangerous. They do not have a lust for power, nor truly a craving for wealth. But they do lust for glory and they do crave admiration. A white knight on a noble steed, erratically trampling the rest of the world into submission with benign intent.
What is most infuriating about America’s self-image, however, is the ease with which it deflects its own foibles and inclinations onto the rest of the world. For example, the long-held belief among Americans of every political stripe that Russia only understands force and toughness. But hasn’t the history of the last several decades shown just the opposite? It is the United States that never sees a concession as an effort at compromise, but instead views every concession as a victory for themselves. One glaring example that puts this into stark relief are the two pivotal events of 1989: the Tiananmen slaughter of peaceful demonstrators and the peaceful tearing down of the Berlin Wall a few months later. The Chinese cracked down on the demonstrators ruthlessly and with considerable violence, and now that massacre is a fading memory and does not at all impede relations with the West nor China’s ascent to regional hegemony. But our decision not to crackdown on those demonstrators in Berlin, as we had done in years past in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, has caused us endless trouble with the West. Yes, it would have caused a great international crisis and yes Russia would have been severely lambasted by global leaders, but all that fury would have died down by now and all the blood we would have had to spill would have long dried. Our reluctance to kill—to use force and be tough—and to keep what was ours at all cost has cost us dearly.
A Century of Interference
Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of American involvement—interference—in our domestic affairs. It was in 1918 that then President Wilson sent 13,000 American soldiers as part of the multinational invasion force to topple our government. This is a small footnote in history that shamefully few Americans even know about, but even those who know about it justify it because their intentions were good. That is after all the eternal American defense: we meant well. It is a universally applied principle, so for example it doesn’t matter that tens of thousands of Iraqis are dead and hundreds of thousands more are homeless and broken because the Americans meant well! It is of little importance that the United States militarily interfered in over a dozen Latin American countries because it also meant well in those places, too. The same for the dozen or more interventions and invasions in the Middle East and Asia. The intent is always good so the results don’t matter.
It would be unfair not to admit we too have fallen prey to this self-delusion in our past. Like the average American today who is blissfully oblivious to the harm done because the intent was good, we once felt equally vindicated in all our actions since Marx and Lenin had taught us we had history on our side. But we’ve grown up; America never will. It always believes it’s actions are sanctioned by God and its mistakes forgiven by that same God. That is enough to salve any conscience.
The other mental technique employed with great effect by the Americans is having a dual timeline to history; this technique impressively reinforces its “good intentions” defense. Whenever one raises a past transgression—e.g., their interference in various democratic elections—Mosaddegh in Iran, Allende in Chile, etc.—these offenses are all characterized as ancient history. Whereas when they assess the actions of Russia or any other “enemy” state, past transgressions are never ancient history; instead, our past aggressions are always seen as an “immutable pattern” of bad behavior that will never cease unless confronted. Thus, Czar Peter’s desire for a warm water port three centuries ago is still believed a Russian obsession, while the United States obsession with maintaining absolute hegemony over all of Latin America is a harmless relic of a distant past. Yet, American interference in domestic elections continues unabated. Certainly not as heavy-handed as in the past, but still inexcusable and inappropriate. We need only recall former Secretary of State Clinton publicly criticizing our own 2012 elections: “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted. And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.” A remarkable statement, without a hint of irony, from a woman who had no hesitation to rig the party rules to ensure her own nomination as the Democratic party candidate in 2016.
But this cognitive historical dissonance is best exemplified in the United States outrage over our annexation of Crimea, which has always been overwhelmingly populated by Russians. For nearly two hundred years Crimea was part of Russia, when in 1954 for purely domestic political reasons it was internally transferred from Russia to Ukraine, both of which were parts of the Soviet Union! Never was it envisioned at that time that Ukraine would ever become an independent state and even when it became one never was it envisioned that the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol would be threatened. How does this compare to America’s continued occupation of the Cuban port of Guantanamo? Is that naval port intrinsic to the security of the United States? Is it populated by an overwhelming number of Americans? Was it historically ever a part of the United States? Of course, the answer is no to all these questions. Yet, the United States sees no hypocrisy and inconsistency in its retention of Guantanamo despite Cuba’s legitimate demand to have it returned. It is amusing that the world focuses on the detention center for alleged terrorists at Guantanamo and no one—other than the Cuban government—sees the far greater outrage in the refusal of the United States to give back to Cuba what was taken at the point of a gun in 1903. Gunboat diplomacy may be condemned by the United States now, but it refuses to give up the fruits of its own past employment of military extortion.
The Tragedy of the Last Thirty Years
Since Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1986 Vladivostok speech, we have tried to reach a true accommodation with America. In that speech, largely ignored in the United States at the time, we announced that we would substantially draw down our troops in Afghanistan with an expectation of finding a political solution that would allow our complete withdrawal. The American analysis should have been instructive and served as a warning: American policymakers dismissed any possibility that we would withdraw our troops and insisted that the promise of a troop withdrawal was a ruse not to be taken seriously. At the same time, they explained that if we did withdraw troops it would only be because we had been defeated! We should have taken this early warning more seriously about the American penchant for holding two opposing views simultaneously. This same American assessment occurred in the months leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall: that we would never allow it to happen, and then that we could not stop it from happening because—again!—we had been defeated.
The path from those early “defeats” to our present dire predicament was easy to see, but we were yearned for better relations. When Germany united, we allowed it—even agreeing to keep a united Germany within NATO. But we made clear that would be the extent of NATO’s expansion eastward. Gorbachev in his memoirs underscores that NATO provided assurances that it would not expand further toward our border. Indeed, in 1990 it is hard to believe that anyone even considered the prospect of our former allies joining NATO! But soon they did, and again we remained silent. First former President Clinton allowed various former Warsaw Pact countries to join, then former President Bush added insult to that injury by even allowing former Soviet republics to join. At the same time, Gorbachev’s suggestion that we be allowed to have a pathway to NATO membership was dismissed out of hand! We were being hemmed in on all sides and all we sought was better relations and to become fully integrated into the Western community.
But to America and NATO we had already amply signaled our weakness and unwillingness to stand up to them, so the threats to our security kept multiplying. One of our few remaining allies, Serbia, had a portion of its territory annexed that became the separate state of Kosovo. This abrogated the crucial understanding among all European states to keep all national borders intact. The sanctity of borders had kept the peace for five decades, but now it was to be tossed aside at the whim of the Americans! (Amazingly, when we did the same thing with Crimea—taking Kosovo as precedent—we were roundly attacked.) Yet we accepted the partition of Serbia in order to maintain good relations and we again we kept our mouths shut.
Then in 2002, in light of the horrific 9/11 attacks, former President Bush unexpectedly and mystifyingly withdrew the United States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Had the Americans forgotten that we had originally opposed such a treaty back in 1967? Had they forgotten that it took them five long years of negotiations to convince us to embrace the ABM Treaty, but once it was signed in 1972 we adhered to it completely and came to accept that it was a cornerstone of our relationship with America. But when Bush abrogated the treaty we said very little: that it was a “mistake” but that withdrawing from the treaty would not have any serious impact on our warm relations. Showing his formidable intellectual prowess, Bush explained that the ABM treaty needed to be abrogated because four hijacked planes had caused widespread destruction on American soil. Of course, an ABM system would have been completely ineffective against such an attack anyway, but that somehow was beside the point. Feeling sympathy for the American tragedy we did nothing to oppose this decision.
Yet even this was not enough obeisance. In 2007, again using the pretext of defending itself and its allies from a different threat, the United States proposed placing a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, countries once our allies. In 2009 former President Obama declared that the United States would abandon this proposal, but now a site is already operational in Romania and another will be operational in Poland in another year. At the same time, NATO continues its inexorable march eastward. The understanding that no NATO troops would be stationed on the territory of the new NATO members, such as the Baltic states and Poland, is no longer viable. Using so-called Russian aggression as a pretext, NATO is deploying more and more troops closer and closer to our border. It was not until the United States and NATO pushed to undermine Ukraine, orchestrating the removal of a democratically elected president, that we finally started to find our voice and our courage to stand up and say enough.
What Once Was and What Is to Be
Apart from a very brief period of genuine cooperation during the great global struggle against fascism and Nazism, the United States has worked tirelessly to weaken us and bring us to our knees. And how it characterizes that global conflict indicates just how distorted and flawed a view of history the United States embraces. Read any American high school history textbook or watch any Hollywood movie about World War II and you would think that America almost singlehandedly saved the world. Yes, their production capabilities were prodigious and their logistics unrivaled, and their soldiers did fight bravely, but they could never have won without Russia. They mourn the loss of 400,000 Americans, yet think our loss of 20 million Russians just an incidental matter. It was Russian blood more than American production that defeated Germany, but that indisputable fact is found nowhere in the books or hearts of Americans. The Americans faced a German army of only 1,500,000, while we were fighting nearly five times that many Germans. Do the Americans really believe they ever would have gotten off the Normandy beaches had the Germans been able to deploy even a few more troops to the Western front? But they all like to bask in the glow of what they unthinkingly describe as that “greatest generation” of Americans, while we must shoulder the burden of having endured the “greatest loss of a generation” of Russians.
A rapidly expanding and aggressive China and a determinedly nihilistic and ruthless Islamic fundamentalism are America’s true threats, but if they cannot see that themselves, we will never succeed in showing it to them. They should be eager to form closer ties with Russia, both to counter China in the East and to safeguard NATO in the west. Are we not part of that same broad Western civilization that they all ought to want to preserve? But only President Trump appears to understand the value of better relations. However, in a sad, strange twist, we would probably be better off if Trump denounced us. Given how the American elites both on the right and the left view Trump, it has become a liability to have him defend us and try to foster better relations for one simple reason: any policy or idea he espouses is automatically assumed to be tainted and twisted.
Given this reality, it is no use trying any further to accommodate the United States or cooperate with it. Our unprecedented and crucial logistical support to the United States in its Afghanistan campaign is already forgotten, and our willingness to cooperate in Syria and elsewhere is always presumed as diabolical attempts to resurrect a long-faded glory and long-lost empire. Perhaps someday the United States will come to its senses, but until then we must safeguard our own interests and ensure our own security. We cannot afford any more concessions. It is clear that the United States only respects force and firmness. If the psychological term that best fits the United States is cognitive historical dissonance, then the psychological term that best fits our foreign policy toward the United States for the last 30 years is “battered spouse syndrome.” We need to stop making excuses for the United States, we need to stop blaming our own past behavior for their current actions, and we certainly need to say enough is enough and just admit this relationship is broken.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.