They both seek to rule the world, but not together
I do not doubt that there are millions amongst President Trump’s most vocal supporters, and dozens amongst his political appointees, who find a kindred spirit with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia, as it survives today, is a society whose institutions are held together by an unchecked authoritarianism that is itself undergirded by a barely hidden ethno-nationalism that permeates state organs, much of civil society, and the official Russian Orthodox Church thoroughly. The Trump-Pence administration very well could see, therefore, some transactional alliances with Putin’s Russia on a few issues like Wahhabi-inspired terrorism in certain hotspots.
It is quite unlikely, however, that a transformational friendship of the United States and Russia will come into being in our lifetime. Those two countries have too much similarity in their self-perception regarding their place in the world, and equally abundant fundamental differences in their outlook on society. Writing in his seminal work “Democracy in America” in 1840, French philosopher, traveller, and political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville was very prescient in looking deep into the souls of two societies that sat on the peripheries of the then major world powers in Europe. Writing about what he saw in the future evolution of Russia and America, this is what the learned French sage put in words:
“All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these [Russia and America] are still in the act of growth. All the others have stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these alone are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which no limit can be perceived. The American struggles against the obstacles which nature opposes to him; the adversaries of the Russian are men. The former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilisation with all its arms. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
It is quite unlikely, however, that a transformational friendship of the United States and Russia will come into being in our lifetimes
Mind you, this was written more than a hundred years before the USA and USSR became the main protagonists in the Cold War. In fact, at the time of de Tocqueville’s writing, both the US and the Russian Empire were minor powers on a world stage dominated by Britain, France, Prussia, and other Central European entities. Between then and now, the Russians and the Americans have been uneasy allies a couple of times in particular wars, notably the Second World War.
Governments with different views can and do often become good allies; societies with diametrically opposed perspectives on the nature of humanity rarely do. The people and social edifice of what is now Russia have a historical pattern of development that is fundamentally at odds with the trajectory of the people and social structure of the US. Russia — be it in its feudal times or Czarist era or the Communist dictatorship — have never had any experience with pluralist liberal democracy, save for the brief time under Boris Yeltsin, which was an anomaly anyway.
The concept of an independent civil society, freedom of religion separate from any governmental sponsorship, and multicultural accommodation simply do not exist in the Russian psyche. The very idea of localised self-governance is anathema to the average Russian who looks to the strongman (or strongmen) in Moscow for guidance on every public policy, large or small.
That is a society with which the American one, at the basic and elite levels, has very little in common in outlook, despite the fact that many Americans — especially those hankering for a return to the 1950s of reconstructed memory — may feel a certain affinity to the certitude of an ethno-nationalist authoritarianism that countervails a hi-tech world where few things are certain.
At the working echelons of security and intelligence policy-making, the mistrust of Russia runs organic and deep amongst the professionals in America; even President Trump’s hand-picked director of the CIA has made no secret of his scepticism of Russian intentions. Similar feelings are strong in the career officer corps of the military and amidst the seasoned professionals in the foreign policy apparatus.
Russians and the US both seek leadership of the world, as predicted more than 170 years ago by a prescient French statesman. Notwithstanding the current fascination with Russia that holds the imagination of American populists in thrall, the two countries are simply too different to make a consortium out of that quest beyond the most basic and transient deals to tackle tactical situations, if that.
The soaring eagle and the slothful bear can hunt the same prey occasionally; and they are not meant to be bosom buddies.
Esam Sohail is an educational research analyst and college lecturer who writes from Kansas, USA.