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The Russian-American Cultural-Ideational Contention


by Gordon M. Hahn

Culture – ideas, beliefs, attitudes and values – matter in politics. Political and strategic cultures influence governments’ choices of domestic systems and foreign policies. Realists must analyze Russian foreign policy and the current clash of interests between Moscow and the West, in particular the United States, through the prism of Russian political and strategic culture and its differences from the American.

Domestically, it is generally accepted that the U.S. has a democratic and free market culture and those shaped the formation of U.S. political, social, and economic institutions. Russia, on the other hand, has had a millennium-long history of authoritarian and totalitarian rule and a tradition of state ownership of property. Although those traditions were weakened with the Soviet failure and ultimate demise, they were not completely broken and rebounded in the wake of the seeming failure of democracy and the market in Russia by the late 1990s.

To some extent, these domestic orientations influence both Russian and American political and strategic culture and thus both countries’ respective perceptions of their national interests and the proper foreign policy to protect them. In turn, lessons drawn from historical experience and geographical and geopolitical factors shape both countries’ political and strategic cultures and thus their respective perceptions of their national interests. In what ways have the ideas, beliefs, attitudes and values of these two countries led to, and define the current tensions between these two countries today?

One difference is the growing idealist element in American foreign policy. American policymakers long ago eschewed their first president’s warnings against “foreign entanglements” and limited “temporary alliances” and what Kevin Peraino, author of Lincoln in the World: The Making of a Statesman and the Dawn of American Power, calls the sixteenth American president’s mastery of “shrewd restraint” regarding foreign involvements. Although Lincoln was a committed “exceptionalist” regarding the American experiment’s potential for transforming the government across the world, “he wasn’t a crusader. He remained a lifelong skeptic of grand foreign exploits—resisting imprudent calls for military action abroad and preventing diplomatic donnybrooks from morphing into war”  (

By contrast, the twenty-eighth American president, Woodrow Wilson, was already championing making the world “safe for democracy,” the “self-determination of nations” and America’s leading role in the League of Nations. Wilson had moved far beyond any realist formulation of America’s foreign policy foundation, no less that of Washington’s highly restrained realism or Lincoln’s realism of restraint. America’s proactive orientation intensified during the Second World and Cold Wars: contests between diametrically opposed ideological and ideational systems.

In the Cold War’s wake, the sense grew that the U.S. foreign interest lay in repeating the fall of communism across the globe; a ‘regime change’ process that should be applied to all less than democratic states, regardless of their importance to American interests and security. Billions of dollars were spent on education, propaganda, and intelligence efforts towards ‘democracy-promotion’ (DP). DP was a ‘dual-use technology’ that could be used to forward democratic reforms or foment more uncontrollable revolutions that risked and often turned violent and in the bargain could bring less than democratic elements to the fore, as in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine.

Post-Cold War Russia, on the other hand, moved from a burgeoning pro-democratic partnership with the West, potentially oriented on DP idealism, to a cynical form of hyper-realism, as a result of the West’s rejection of Russia embodied in the mid-1990s’ decision by the Clinton administration to expand NATO beyond reunified Germany and the now decades’ long process of NATO expansion to Russia’s borders. NATO expansion instead of a modus vivendi between Russia and the West disenchanted Russians, strengthened the hand of anti-Western hardliners, and forced Russia’s military, intelligence, and defense industry institutions to search for partners in the usually undemocratic and sometimes anti-democratic, anti-Western and anti-American east and south, most notably China.For example, Russia’s military-industrial complex sells just about any weapon to just about any buyer. Relations with other states are based on a hard-sell, coldly calculated cost-benefit analysis that brooks no consideration of a country’s human rights violations. Moscow is as happy to sell nuclear energy plants to Iran or weapons to Syria as it is to sell oil and gas to North or South Korea.

American idealism is rooted in its exceptionalist mission to bring democracy to the world. American pro-democracy messianism, which historically has been carried out by religious as well as political missionaries, seeks to transform the world in its own image. Wilson’s World War I pledge to make the world safe for democracy has evolved into a policy of making the world democratic here and now. This involves abandoning all spontaneity – as another revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, called the supposed natural process of evolution to socialism – and fielding an army of USAID and other U.S. government and government-sponsored operatives to spread the ‘good word.’ No longer content with building and maintaining the “shining city on the hill” as a model for others to emulate when ready, as President Ronald Reagan, once declared, American government is now about bringing the shining city to your country, whether a majority in a ‘target country’ has the cultural prerequisites, popular support or slightest knowledge as to what the shiny democracy and markets entail.

Accompanying American messianism is an American ‘revolutionism.’ As leading American historian Gordon S. Wood argues, revolution created our American political and strategic cultures: “Not only did the Revolution legally create the United States, but it infused into our culture all of our highest aspirations and nobelest values. Our beliefs in liberty, equality, constitutionalism, and the well-being of ordinary people came out of the Revolutionary era. So too did our idea that we Americans are a special people with a special destiny to lead the world toward liberty and democracy.” (Gordon S. Wood, Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States (New York: Penguin Press, 2011, pp. 2-3.) No wonder then that revolution itself has become a value or a near-value of our culture. This American revolutionism has emerged from a firm faith in the positive nature and outcomes of revolutions, having been misinformed by our own and rather exceptional experience in which a violent revolution from below brought democracy and freedom. Today U.S. government bodies and operatives openly call for DP operatives to foment “political crises” in order to achieve regime change and democratization. For example, the U.S. Marine Corps University Journal published an article examining DP’s “international dimension,” which in addition to “coercive” and “intrusive” measures in support of creating democratic regimes in authoritarian states also discussed more benign “prodemocratic public diplomacy.” Author Alessandra Pinna noted that this form of DP is “combined action of government agencies and private partners” that seeks to “influence opinion and mobilize the public in ways that support interests and policies of foreign states” within the target state. Its “essence” is “strategic communication,” which is modern-speak for propaganda and “aims to capture the hearts and minds of the general public in recipient countries.” (See Alessandra Pinna, “The International Dimension of Democratization: Actors, Motivations, and Strategies,” Marine Corps University Journal, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 2014), pp. 27-57, at pp. 49-50) ‘Capturing the hearts and minds of the general public’ in ‘recipient countries’ is also an important task in the conduct of politics by military means.

Depending on how one defines terms, at least one of the three possible goals pursued by DP’s public diplomacy and stratcomm – ‘political liberalization’, ‘democratization’, and ‘consolidation of democracy’ – requires a regime change or transformation. By definition, democratization of an autocratic (or authoritarian) regime (form of rule) means a change from a non-democratic form of rule to a democratic one. Even if one argues that DP programs are focused on process rather than ultimate outcome, another problem arises. The path and outcome of any regime transformation process is often unpredictable. This is all the more so since, as Pinna notes, DP seeks to fundamentally transform all the institutions of state and society: the constitution, legal system, police forces, and bureaucracy. Political society’s political parties are transformed through the training of party leaders and practitioners who choose leaders, recruit candidates, manage campaigns, and make policies. PD programs also work with the target state’s civil society, including private voluntary organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), interest groups and professional associations, and independent media (Pinna, “The International Dimension of Democratization: Actors, Motivations, and Strategies,” pp. 54-6).

Once liberalization or democratization processes begin, there is little to no control over where the institutions, political societies and civil societies of states targeted by such programs will lead. The vector would be all the more uncontrollable if the object of PD is to create a political crisis. In her Marine Corps University Journal article Pinna acknowledges that this is precisely what the DP process aims for: “Because political parties participate in elections to acquire ruling incumbents, international actors tend to assist prodemocratic parties to bring about a crisis in the authoritarian regime and to encourage a democratic transition” (my emphasis from Pinna, “The International Dimension of Democratization: Actors, Motivations, and Strategies,” p. 55).

In sum, DP is a dual- or multiple-use political technology intended to bring about a political crisis and a resulting regime change by way of any one of several modalities of regime transformation and tactics. The latter are to be determined by the locals, providing Washington, Brussels and others—intentionally or unintentionally—a convenient plausible deniability of intent to foment regime change. DP programs seek or can seek to create or otherwise result in a political crisis that leads to a regime transformation. Like the political crises that can produce regime change, the mode of regime transformation that ultimately develops – if one does and the crisis does not lead to a crackdown, authoritarian restoration, or civil war – is uncontrollable. There is no guarantee of an orderly, peaceful “democratic transition” that Pinna and other DP practitioners assume. The ‘democratic transition’ is but one of many modes of regime transformation. Some forms of regime change are benign and inspiring; others are malign and horrifically violent. Revolution is a blunt instrument, an unwieldy messy thing. Once the adepts of democracy and political protest are unleashed the regime transformation can be reformist, gradual and transitional, even negotiated or it can be illegal and extra-constitutional with a potential for great violence and the installment of a new version of authoritarianism or totalitarianism rather than democracy.

Given its national history, post-Soviet Russia by contrast rejects revolutionism and, with a growing caveat, messianism as well. The post-communist regime looks back at the February 1917 revolution and especially the resulting October Bolshevik coup with horror—a disastrous break with Russian tradition and diversion from a developmental path that offered potential for a nascent and organic regime-imposed transition to democracy and the market, with Russia having been the fastest growing economy in the world on the eve of World War I. Similarly, the Putin era version of the post-Soviet Russia looks at Boris Yeltsin’s revolution from above and the consequent sudden collapse of the communist regime and Soviet state as a catastrophe that led to near civil war, an economic depression, the loss of much of Great Russia’s territory, and decline in Russian power in Eurasia and farther abroad. Thus, the overwhelming majority of Russians are anti-revolutionary. Regardless of how bad things may seem under the extant regime, Russians and many other post-Soviets view revolutions as horrific things, likely to bring violence, terror, poverty, and famine. They view Western-backed—before or after the fact is immaterial—regime changes in the post-Soviet space, the larger post-communist world, and the Middle East with trepidation. In this sense as well as in their attitude towards NATO and EU expansion, post-Soviet Russia has been a status quo power, supporting regime stability over foreign-inspired regime change, state sovereignty over humanitarian intervention, territorial integrity with regard both to states over national self-determination and separatism, and to spheres of influence over expanding alliances.

However, whereas Russia adopted a status quo stance after the Cold War, the U.S. and the rest of the West pursued an anti-status quo policy based on Western expansionism through NATO and EU enlargement and DP-inspired regime changes or ‘color revolutions’. As the West increasingly encroached on Russia’s interests and sphere of influence in post-Soviet Eurasia, Russian integration with the West faltered. Post-Soviet Moscow’s ideological disorientation explained in part the default position of cynical hyper-realism in its foreign policy. Consequently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has supplemented Russian hyper-realism with new ideological elements that could evolve into a new Russian idealism, which like American idealism, could counter-balance the realist imperative in any foreign policy.

Putin has taken some elements of Russian Eurasianism to foster a pragmatic rather than radical more grand messianistic Eurasianist view. He has organized an economic union in Eurasia—economic Eurasianism— in the form of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). He has adopted some of the ideological precepts of radical Eurasianists like Alexander Dugin and Alexander Panarin, posing the traditional Russian, Eurasian, and non-Western socioeconomic and sociopolitical customs as a counterweight to the liberal, secular, and increasingly leftist West. In this regard, there is a note of past ‘Russian’ messianisms here, with Moscow having been the seat of both the ‘Third Rome’ in medieval times and the seat of the world communist revolutionary movement in Soviet times. More concretely, Russia has also begun to build new counter-alliances, abandoning some of its previous status quoism, evidenced in the BRICS association, the increasing ‘securitization’ of SCO, and the deepening Sino-Russian strategic partnership.

In other efforts to counter Western expansionism, Russia began to mirror Western duplicity regarding the principle of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. NATO and the EU supported the break up of the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Serbia, most brazenly in Kosovo in violation of UN Resolution 1244 stipulating the inviolability of Serbia’s territorial integrity in the 1990s and early 2000s. By 2008 Russia countered by supporting South Ossetiya’s and Abkhaziya’s independence in Georgia and in 2014 by annexing and reunifying Crimea with the Russian homeland. Russian officials and media increasingly betray a satisfaction when issues of secession emerge in Catalonia, Quebec, and Scotland. Thus, increasingly there are two double standards. The West favors DP, regime change and separatism outside the West but opposes it inside the West. On a lower scale, Russia favors regime change and separatism inside the West or in Westernizing states but virulently opposes them outside the West.

None of the above is to say that Russia is anti-democratic—opposes democratic capitalist systems—in its foreign policy either regarding the far or near abroad as of yet. In other words, in contrast to the ideological and idealist USSR, Moscow does not aim to undermine and subvert democratic systems or refrain from developing mutually advantageous relations with the world’s democracies. If it did, then Moscow’s good relationships with a host of Freedom House-approved democracies need to be explained. For example, if Moscow sought to oppose democracies, its relationship with a democratic power like India would be an antagonistic one. In accordance with the view of many Westerners, we ought to see Russia challenging Indian power, encouraging China and Pakistan to gang up on the democratic interloper on the subcontinent and fomenting ultra-nationalists to destabilize the country. Moscow’s partnerships and alliances with China and other states would be marshaled to subvert India’s democratic stability and territorial integrity.

Instead, we see Moscow having close and ever improving relations with New Delhi. Rather than countering India through a strategic partnership with China, as Moscow has practiced in relations with the U.S., Moscow has joined New Delhi and Beijing together with it in the BRICS. That association’s most recent summit in October saw Russia and India sign a series of military-industrial and civilian economic contracts, including attack helicopter and nuclear plant deals. Moscow has been careful not to step on India’s toes as it develops post-Cold War relations with Pakistan. Moscow has sterling relations with the world’s largest democracy, because India unlike the Western democracies, is not seeking to expand a military alliance into Russia’s sphere of influence. It has neither encouraged nor supported illegal, revolutionary seizures of power in states neighboring Russia. Even Moscow’s relations with democratic Tokyo exhibit few tensions—far fewer than Moscow’s with Washington, Brussels, Berlin, Paris, Warsaw and Riga, despite Russia’s and Japan’s failure to settle the sensitive territorial dispute over the Kurile Islands left over from World War II.

Thus, Russia’s gripes with the West are geopolitical in essence not ideological. The crux of the matter is a tectonic of conflict created by contention between the West’s, in particular Washington’s, claim to a global sphere of influence—a benevolent global hegemony—and Russia’s to a regional one in central Eurasia, at most throughout Eurasia writ large. The Washingtonian view presupposes a unipolar world or structure in international relations; the other presupposes a multipolar structure, with a Russian-led Eurasia comprising one pillar of the international system. Such competing, directly clashing claims cannot coexist without great tension and the significant risk of military conflict.

In contrast to the predominant Western view, both these claims are driven by a kind of nationalism. Russian-Western tensions have been fueled by and have been fueling a growing nationalism in both Moscow and Washington since the Cold War. Russia increasingly identifies as its traditional self—powerful, independent, outside and sometimes opposed to the West with a rightful claim to a Eurasian sphere of influence in world of many such spheres. At its ideological fringes, the new Russian nationalism aspires to a new Eurasian-wide empire as the only way to secure Russia and its periphery from Western encroachment and reorganization in Washington’s image. However, Putin is not the personification of that radical Eurasianist nationalist view in political power in Moscow but rather a barrier to or cap on its influence on Kremlin policy.

American nationalism, as Anatol Lieven notes, is expressed most forcefully in its exceptionalist self-identity: a fundamentally unique, good and truth-bearing America has a right, even a duty to secure a global sphere of influence. Only this way, can the world be made safe for American DP and global democratization. America’s post-Cold War triumphalism was ideological not geopolitical, expressed most eloquently by Francis Fukuyama in his The End of History and the Last Man, which encouraged this line of thought among both American conservatives or ‘neocons’ and neo-liberal ‘humanitarian interventionists’ and regime changers, making it the cornerstone of a new American idealist predominance in Washington and Brussels policymaking cricles. Lacking any and all introspection, the new American idealist consensus’s nationalism contained within itself no small dose of prometheanism. It is no accident that the peak of the new American nationalism coincided with the advent of an American administration, whose president had as his campaign slogan a riff on the old American ‘can do’ attitude: ‘Can-doism’ became ‘Yes we can.’ Non-Americans might complete the slogan: ‘Yes we can whether you like it or not.’

The neocons/neo-liberal consensus with its shining but “naïve super-optimism,” as an older and wiser Fukuyama noted, overshot—too overconfident in its ability to social engineer the world. The calamitous Arab ‘Spring’ has justified the Russian critique of American foreign policy to such an extent that some neocons and other conservatives as well as no small number of leftists have bought into it not only in the U.S. but also in Europe and globally, most starkly in the non-West. This risks a new ‘world split apart’, as the great Soviet dissident and Russian writer and philosopher Alexander Solzhenitsyn once described the Cold War and its likely aftermath. The coming of that world may well depend on the triumph in Moscow of the radical Eurasianist view; a triumph made more likely by the neocon-neolib hold on the American imagination, regardless of which ideological clan wins the upcoming exercise in the decaying American democracy.

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