07 July 2009

America and Russia: No Manifest Destiny

Speaking to Russians today, the President dismissed as a "20th century" viewpoint the notion that the United States and Russia were destined to be rivals or enemies.While he's right to see this as a dated notion, it arguably dates back to the 19th century, or to whenever both countries began espousing their own destinies as great powers. I recall from a history book a cartoon from the late 19th century that showed Uncle Sam and a symbolic Russian figure straddling halves of the world and facing each other. The notion that Russia was a menace pre-dates Bolshevism. It seemed to follow automatically from the facts that Russia was vast and a tyranny. It persists today because of the lingering effect of anti-communist paranoia, which sees Vladimir Putin as a closet commie, because of partly justified perceptions of Putin's own conduct in power, and because of a lingering stereotype of Russians as a people who prefer to live under tyranny. Russia's own sense of destiny also predates the days of Lenin. From the time of Ivan the Terrible, at least, Russians saw themselves as "the third Rome," the rightful center of the Christian world. The Panslavic movement of the 19th century saw Russia as the rightful leader of eastern Europe, and its Orthodox culture as a corrective to the decadence of western Europe. To this day, Russians see themselves as big brothers to peoples as diverse as the Serbs and the South Ossetians, if not their rightful rulers. Their history of invasions by the Nazis, by Napoleon, by the Swedes, even, conditions them to see nearby concentrations of power (e.g. NATO) as more threatening than they seem objectively. Like Russians, Americans see themselves as bearers of a superior culture, destined conquerors of a continent and missionaries of "freedom." The Cold War was the fulfillment of the prophecy of that old cartoon, but now that it's over, is it destined to recur? That's up to Americans and Russians. Each country could stand to adopt a more modest self-image and stop seeing itself as guide or guardian to smaller neighbors. It might be argued that large nations are always going to be aggressive and bump against each other, but Canada is proof to the contrary. The real danger arises when countries see themselves as embodiments of cultural and philosophical ideals that justify them in telling other nations how to conduct their affairs. No nation is destined to turn out that way, but that depends on the opposite of destiny prevailing in both countries -- free will combined with the intelligence to understand the world as it is instead of how any one culture wants it to be.

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