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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finding Russia's True Friends and Foes

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In the run-up to the first Putin-Bush summit since George W. Bush's re-election, analysts, columnists, academics and unnamed "senior administration officials" have once again begun to frame the debate about U.S.-Russia relations as one between friends and foes of Russia. This polarization of the discussion about Russia is not only a lingering legacy of the Cold War, but also a contemporary weapon in the public relations campaign to reify division between East and West and subdue serious discussion about growing autocracy inside Russia. The sooner this tired and distorting framework is abandoned, both in Moscow and in Washington, the better.

The hegemonic paradigm that frames discussion about U.S.-Russia relations especially in Moscow, but also in Washington, divides the foreign policy debate into two camps. The alleged "white hats" are government officials, scholars and analysts who subscribe to realism or realpolitik as a theory for understanding international relations and as a philosophy for practicing diplomacy. Realists, so the argument goes, understand international politics as the interaction between states, and between great powers in particular. Realists care little about a state's regime type, but focus instead on the power of states and the balance of power between them. Realists in Washington and Moscow are considered friends of Russia because they seek to cooperate on issues of mutual interest in foreign affairs, such as the global war on terrorism or nonproliferation, rather than focus on so-called peripheral issues like the independence of media or the human rights of Chechens. The propagators of conventional wisdom contend that Republicans in Washington are realists, as is most of Russia's foreign policy elite.

The "black hats," so goes the conventional wisdom, are the Wilsonian liberals or idealists. Liberals understand international politics as the interaction not only of powerful states but also between regime types, ideas and international institutions. Liberals contend that democratic states interact with each other in more cooperative ways than do nondemocratic states. Their most famous dictum is that democracies do not go to war with each other. Liberals therefore believe that the promotion of democracy serves U.S. national interests, both because only autocratic states have threatened or attacked the United States and because democratic states have greater capacity and inclination to cooperate with the United States on other foreign issues such as the global war on terror or proliferation. Wilsonian liberals or Reaganite neocons are considered enemies of Russia because they criticize the current regime for its autocratic policies. The propagators of conventional wisdom contend that Democrats in Washington are the liberals, while few Russian foreign policy elites subscribe to this theory of the world or philosophy of making foreign policy.

Like all conventional wisdom, there is some truth to this two-camp characterization of the policy debate about U.S.-Russia relations. But this framing does not capture the entire debate, nor adequately describe the motivations and biases of these contending philosophies. Instead of two camps, there are really four, and none of them in the United States fits neatly into either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Among the realists, both in Moscow and Washington, there are indeed those who want to cooperate and engage with their counterparts to tackle security issues of mutual interest. These advocates of engagement see discussions about democracy and human rights as getting in the way of allegedly more important topics like arms control. These pro-cooperation realists want to accept Russia's regime type as is -- and the United States' regime flaws and arrogant ways in international affairs as is -- and presume that internal developments inside Russia do not influence the Kremlin's ability to be a useful, cooperative partner in fighting terrorism or preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

But, in addition to these engagement realists, there is another faction within the realist camp in both countries, which is suspicious of the intentions of the other and not at all eager to cooperate. True realists, after all, believe that the balance of power in the international system is all that matters and that this power is relative and finite. In other words, if Russia becomes stronger, then the United States becomes weaker. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon, the consummate realist, pursued detente with the Soviets not because he believed in the virtues of cooperation, but because the United States was weak at the time. His policies sought to slow the shifting balance of power, which was then moving in the Soviet Union's favor. Consequently, realists with this zero-sum understanding of power are constantly seeking to expand the power of their country and weaken the power of all other countries, be they democratic or not. Regarding the U.S.-Russian relationship, American realists want to preserve the current asymmetry of power and preserve Russia's current status as a peripheral, weak power. Russian realists want to weaken the American hegemon by any means necessary. U.S. advocates of this school of realism, no matter how many times they purport to be pursuing "pragmatism," can hardly be considered friends of Russia. Russian advocates of realism, no matter how many times they claim to be defending the national interest, are in fact perpetuating a status quo that locks Russia into a secondary status on the periphery of the world system.

Within the liberal camp, there are also two factions. It is true that some who focus only on the erosion of democracy and violation of human rights inside Russia do so in order to impede engagement and isolate Russia. While focused on different questions, these liberals in fact embrace the same objective as those realists who want to see Russia remain weak. But among the liberals, there are also friends of Russia. These engagement liberals see Russia's democratic erosion as an impediment to meaningful cooperation on security issues -- the perfect excuse rolled out by Russia's foes for why Russia can never be trusted. Engagement liberals, like me, do not accept the current Russian political system as is, but instead believe that Russians want and have the capacity to build democracy, and in doing so will make Russia a full, legitimate member of the international community of democratic states. We engagement liberals do not fear a strong Russia (as do the realists) but instead see a powerful, democratic Russia as potentially a real and serious ally in combating terrorism, preventing proliferation and, yes, even someday promoting democracy. Russian advocates of democracy and integration have the same vision. They are the one force inside Russia that has a real strategy for making Russia a great and respected power once again. We believe that the erosion of democracy has actually weakened the Russian state and eroded Russia's international standing. These outcomes are the permanent goals of some realists; for us, they are regrettable but hopefully only temporary consequences that can someday be reversed.

Perhaps Russia is destined to remain a quasiautocratic, quasi-democratic regime permanently entrenched on the periphery of the world capitalist system, forever labeled an "emerging" market or a "developing" economy, and capable only of gaining the world's attention through threats. If so, then we engagement liberals can be accused of idealism. But we cannot be accused of being Russia's enemies. Russia's real enemies, in Washington and Moscow, are those who have already accepted Russia's current status at home and in the world "as is." This so-called pragmatism is actually an alibi for authoritarianism in Moscow and an excuse for disengagement in Washington.

Michael McFaul is a Hoover fellow and professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. His book with James Goldgeier, "Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy toward Russia after the Cold War," won the 2004 Georgetown University Lepgold Book Prize for the best book on international relations.