After the fall of the Soviet Union, government policy makers and armchair academics became obsessed with predicting who would be the next great challenger to American preeminence. Virtually no one thought that our uncontested supremacy would last, but there was little agreement about who would play Muhammad Ali to our Sonny Liston. Strangely, in the discussion of the Clash of Civilizations versus the Yellow Peril, there was one idea that never received much attention: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
To this day, there is alarmingly little attention paid to the threat that Russia still poses to the United States. The military may have been ravaged by inadequate funding, but the Russians still have one million men-at-arms and seven thousand active nuclear warheads at their disposal. Their potential as a military force is tremendous, with 20 million citizens fit for service. Only finances and desire are preventing the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation from recapturing its status as the largest and most powerful on the planet.
There are persistent hints that this desiremay not have dissipated. Their rhetoric may have changed, but many of the elements of the USSR’s foreign policy that worried Washington are still on Moscow’s agenda. The Russians are still persistently meddling in the affairs of bordering states, are staunchly determined to be power-brokers in the Middle East, and have been accused of supplying nuclear material to “rogue states.” Furthermore, there are ways in which the end of communism may have made matters worse. Russia’s descent from glory has been a harsh one, replete with stunning poverty and a near-total failure of the promises of freedom. Today Russia is a democracy in name only, as its leadership only maintained the veneer for the lack of a proper excuse to legitimize dictatorship—a Reichstag Fire on the Volga. The comparison to Weimar Germany is an apt one. A defeated, humiliated, and starving people with no outlet for their anger is looking to restore their pride and return to the “good old days,” and violent hyper-nationalism could send them on a similar path to Germany’s.
The realization of these nightmares will take time, making much of this a problem for 2017 rather than 2007. Still, there is a course of action that would allow us to start heading it off today. We need to stop helping Russia move to the forefront of the world stage.
With the bulk of our conventional forces tied down in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other trouble spots across the globe, the Bush Administration has come to rely on a more multilateral approach. While addressing the crises in North Korea and Iran, we have pushed for Russia to lean on the leadership in Pyongyang and Tehran. Wherever we have refused to engage with a government we disapprove of, the Russians (and the Chinese) have rushed in to provide needed services and gain influence. Right now, our best option is to use that influence to prevent conflicts we don’t have the resources to fight. In the long run, we may well be doing nothing more than exchanging little wars in the present for larger ones in the future.
Every time we go to the Russians with hat in hand, we strengthen their position within the family of nations. We send the message to the rest of the world that a country that has seemingly slipped out of the spotlight is still a force to be reckoned with in foreign affairs. This message is self-reinforcing. Countries looking to avoid America’s wrath naturally turn to Moscow, and since the Russians have only grudgingly accepted their fall from major power status, Moscow will be happy to take them under their wing—making it more likely that countries will look their way for aid. Every concession we make continues to fuel this feedback loop.
This is a historic problem with American foreign policy strategists. Time and time again, we have turned to allies of convenience with values anathema to ours in times of crisis, and time and time again we have found ourselves staring at them through the crosshairs the next time around. Among countless other examples are the trades we made with Stalin to keep him in the fight against the Axis, many of which significantly worsened our position during the Cold War. If we cannot learn from this history, we are doomed yet again to repeat it.
It is likely that long-term economic factors will be the key to Russia’s future, but it is not yet necessary to take steps to eject Russia from the G8 or other similarly extreme measures. What we can do for now is cool the current foreign fires without spilling the gas that can be used to light new ones. If we accept a little more independence in foreign affairs from Australia, Canada, Japan, and our European allies, all would serve as perfectly acceptable intermediaries with rogue states and anti-American leaders without elevating an anti-democratic rival. Without the need to cotton their will to serve our own purposes, we can deny Russia the carte blanche it currently has to bully its neighbors, and we can more strongly support civil rights activists within its borders. We pressure Putin to stop the back-slide into tyranny without worrying that we will have the door slammed in our faces when the Venezuelans act up. It’s morally upstanding and politically adept.
We can keep the blinders on as long as we like, but the Bear is coming back. If we want to stop it, now is the time to stop laying out food and start laying out traps.