The Russian military intervention in Syria has raised, in some quarters, talk of WW III – a direct confrontation between the two nuclear superpowers. Others have spoken – in connection with the Ukraine situation – of a return to the Cold War.
Beyond the immediate risks and potential consequences a fundamental question arises: Are the U.S. and Russia “born enemies” destined for unending struggle, or complementary powers having more to gain from cooperation than from enmity and possible war?
A complete answer to the question would have three parts. First, the historical development of both nations and the resulting national characters; second, how the traits formed by this heritage meshed or collided in the more recent past; third, what course – adversarial or cooperative – is most likely to shape their future.
First comes the shared experience.
Both nations are continental-scale powers, grown through the expansion of small states (the Thirteen Colonies, the Duchy of Muscovy) into a huge, rich and diverse continent (the American “West”, the Eurasian landmass). In both cases this expansion was done primarily by private interests and citizen initiative rather than by organized conquest.
Both also are young nations. Even though Russia has a history going back to the eighth and ninth centuries, the continuity was broken by the Mongol invasion of 1230. The modern Russian state starts with the election of Tsar Mikhail Romanov in 1612 – close to the dates of the first colonist landings on the U.S. East Coast.
The vast expansion of both states gave their citizens a “can do” attitude and a sense that they were somehow special. But whereas America – safely tucked between two vast oceans – never feared foreign attack, Russia had no defensible borders. Invasion was a constant threat: Vikings (8th century), Mongols (1230), Germans (1242), Poles (1605), Swedes (ca. 1700), French (1812), and again Germans (1941). Each invasion involved war, death and destruction – such as the U.S. has never known. If America is the Land of the Free, Russia is a nation of survivors.
This historical experience has shaped the Russian attitude towards government: unlike Americans, Russians will readily accept an authoritarian government because such is needed when national survival is at stake – which, in Russia’s case, has been a recurring situation.
But Russian acceptance of powerful central authority also includes a check on it. This is the concept of “Pravda”. The literal translation of this word is “truth”, but it has a deeper and wider significance – something like “justice” or “the right order of things”. This means that while accepting authority and its demands, Russians nevertheless require that such authority be guided by a moral principle. If authority fails to demonstrate this they will, in time, rise against it or remove it.
The Russian concept of Pravda mirrors the American love of liberty and individual rights. Both peoples see, at their core, a moral imperative and a form of national mission. Should this be lost they will cease to be themselves, and lose the internal motivation from which they derive their greatness.
This may well be what Alexis de Tocqueville perceived when he wrote, in Democracy in America: “There are now two great nations in the world, which starting from different points, seem to be advancing towards the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans… Each seems called by some secret design of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.”
Surprisingly for countries of such “high destiny” both nations, since their founding, lived in long peace with one another – being content with the arrangement and exploitation of their vast domains. The one possible cause of territorial rivalry – Russia’s addition of Alaska to its Siberian possessions – was eliminated by the Alaska Purchase of 1867, which completed U.S. domination of North America and relieved Russia of a distant and indefensible province.
Relations remained good for the next half-century, punctuated by Teddy Roosevelt’s mediation of the end of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905. In 1917 Russia and America were on the same side in WW I. But here their destinies diverged. The U.S. was on its way to victory and global influence, while Russia was a defeated power headed for revolution and civil war. A third party was about to step in between de Tocqueville’s two great nations, one not indigenous to Russia, but imported from Western Europe on the winds of war.
This party was Marxism, better commonly known as Communism. It’s rise in Russia is the next episode that needs to be addressed.
Born in Poland, Jacek Popiel was educated in Africa, Canada, and the United States. He speaks five languages. His career spans military and international business development in the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, North America, and Japan. He is currently a freelance writer and political consultant. His book “Viable Energy Now,” grew out of his military and international business experience and his professional involvement with energy issues.