What are the sources of the American image around the world? How has it changed in recent years? And what, if anything, can the U.S. government do to shape that image? The American Interest posed these questions to a distinguished group of international observers. Their answers reflect diverse histories and circumstances, and offer some useful counsel.
Preoccupied with its geopolitical role and desperate to preserve the attributes of its former superpower status, Russia continues to view the outside world through the prism of its relations with the United States. America’s real or imagined flaws and misfortunes fuel the self-esteem of the Russian political class, simply by virtue of having been Russia’s rival. Most ordinary Russians view America with feelings of interest, envy, suspicion, respect, amazement and hostility, but the elite jumps at any pretext to criticize America’s grand absolutism and hyperpower status. The Russian elite claims to loathe America’s presumption of self-righteousness, its high-handed treatment of the outside world, its self-assuredness and desire to dominate. All these qualities are inherent as well in the mentality of the Russian ruling strata, only that elite now lacks the resources to indulge them. At the same time, Russia demonstrates a readiness for a permanent and exclusive dialogue with Washington that gives Moscow self-satisfaction and a feeling that it retains at least part of its former world impact and prestige.
In short, if you want to discuss the Russian view of America today, make sure a psychiatrist is in the room, because the Russian elite do not have an image of America, but rather an inverted image of themselves projected onto America.
Of course, this complex is natural for a former superpower ruling class that for so long fought America as the alternative civilization, but it nevertheless took time to develop. During the 1990s the Russian elite nursed a naive hope that Russia would remain a superpower, although this time not as an opponent but as an equal partner of the United States. This amounted to a belief in philanthropy in foreign relations. Instead, Moscow, had to accept the Clintonian policy of “symbolism in exchange for compromises”—in other words, getting some “deliverables” from America (like membership in the G-8) as compensation for relinquishing its global ambitions. By the end of the 1990s, the Kremlin’s suppressed bitterness reflected itself in Russia’s conflicts with Washington over Yugoslavia and Kosovo and NATO expansion, all of which greatly strengthened the Russian elite’s mistrust of the United States and its intentions.
And then, oddly enough, 9/11 seemed to restore the hope of the Russian elite that it could indeed be a proud, if not entirely equal, partner of the United States. America was wounded, and it needed Russia. Vladimir Putin sang the perfect chorus with his “America, we are with you!” and pundits hoped for a new chapter in Russian-American relations. The cooperation between Russian and American intelligence services in Afghanistan was a genuine breakthrough, and was momentarily viewed as a turning point in Russian and American mutual perceptions. That hope soon ended in mutual disappointment, however. American preoccupations left little energy for indulging Russian ventures, and Russia’s shift into a bureaucratic-authoritarian regime has brought its elite back to its favorite pastime, looking for an enemy. America has of course long been the first and favorite candidate for that role.
Not that the Russian elite is eager for a new cold war with America. Not at all. The Russian political class is aware of its limited resources and in its sober moments tries to find a pragmatic course in its relations with the United States: partnership in discussing common threats on the one hand, and deterring American involvement in the post-Soviet space and Russian domestic affairs on the other. This “partner-opponent” formula presupposes a virtually paranoid perception of America among the Russian elite, one that can hardly sustain any real confidence among the two governments. While this evolution in both policy and perceptions has been provoked mostly by Russian internal developments, U.S. international behavior has also played a role. Russia is unhappy with the same American behaviors that roil “old Europe.” The difference is that the unhappiness of old Europe is of a mature and sedate sort, while Russia has yet to grow fully into its own disappointments.
So much for the neuroses of the Russian ruling elite. As for Russian liberals, they are unhappy about America’s clumsy moves in the international arena and especially about the Iraqi drama. They believe that it is not only America’s “cowboy” foreign policy, but the deficiencies of American political life itself, that have caused Russia’s disenchantment with liberal democracy and the West. In Russia words like “Enron”, “Abu Ghraib”, “Guantánamo Bay” and “Katrina” have become definitions of America’s inability to manage not only the world but its own country, as well. All this has confused Russian society-at-large. Russians inclined to nihilism during seventy years of communism, but being defeated by a morally superior adversary worked as an antidote to this nihilism. But there is no saving grace in being defeated by a society that subsequently seems to reek of double standards, hypocrisy and injustice.
No wonder Vladimir Putin no longer uses the old trick of pointing to Russian “uniqueness” to justify his authoritarianism. On the contrary, he argues: “We are just like you, folks. Solve the problems with your democracy, and then you may teach us how to behave!” The disenchantment, even antipathy, with America among the Russian political class would be far less pronounced if America did not pretend to be an ideal country, but rather demonstrated a greater readiness for critical self-reflection.
Russian attitudes toward America are replete with Dostoyevskyan complexes that include—somehow—mutually incompatible emotions and attitudes. Among the most painful of these is the feeling of growing vulnerability that results from understanding that Russia cannot keep up with America yet at the same time cannot accept the role of being America’s junior partner. Hence, the Russian elite consoles itself with the hope that America might fail, and Russian liberals toy with the belief that Americans are not mature enough to comprehend Russian cultural subtleties, which they, of course, do. What these views have in common, however, is that they are both exceedingly self-regarding, which is why it galls all Russians that Americans seem not to particularly care about Russia, or about any of them.
My hunch is that America’s sheer lack of interest in the outside world sometimes triggers more dislike than does its formidable power. Much frustration among the Russian elite arises from the mere fact that America seems not to care whether it is liked or not, and that it has no time to coddle other nations and help them with their historio-psychological complexes. Russian politicians and intellectuals feel bitter when they are ignored by America, when Mexico matters more to Washington than Russia. Who likes to be brushed aside? So the Russian elite sometimes intentionally tries to break the china and demonstrate its cockiness, just to attract Washington’s attention, which, of course, only proves how vulnerable and uncertain the elite really is about Russia’s role.
Josef Joffe and Coral Bell are right to say that great powers are always resented and never loved. But the Russian elite has a specific reason to dislike America. It is not a values gap. It has nothing to do with economics. It is not about military power, geopolitical expansion or cultural globalization. No, Russian exceptionalists hate American exceptionalism, the presumption that America is an ideal nation, good and virtuous, and in possession of a global historical mission. Being children of a missionary nation itself, the Russian elite, liberal and otherwise, have difficulty surrendering this role to anyone else, even if they themselves have failed in it.
The mass of Russian society feels very positive toward America, on the other hand, which proves the existence of a great gap between them and the elite. Elite aside, Russia is no bastion of anti-Americanism. In 2005, 45 percent of respondents said that relations between Russia and the United States are “normal”, 19 percent that they are “friendly”, 22 percent “pretty cold”, 8 percent “hostile.” Regarding Russian attitudes about Americans, 82 percent had a “good” or “very good” attitude, with 12 percent having a “bad or very bad” attitude. President Bush, however, is not Russians’ favorite leader, with 55 percent having a negative and only 23 percent a positive attitude toward him.
Russians do hold critical views of what they consider to be key American characteristics. Asked to give their perceptions of America’s most important qualities, 61 percent agreed that it “interferes into the internal affairs of other countries” and 61 percent agreed that America “wants to control all world resources.” But only 17 percent described America as the major enemy of Russia. In 2006 about 50 percent of respondents in Russia have a positive (or very positive) attitude toward America, and about 37 percent have a negative attitude. Sixty-six percent of respondents have a positive view of Russian relations with the United States, and 17 percent have a negative view. Despite the legacy of the Cold War, then, Russians bear no hostility toward America as a nation. On the contrary, they tend to believe that Americans are the only ones in the world who are “just like” them.
Overall, then, America’s image in Russia is mostly negative among the elite and surprisingly friendly among the society. There are thus no formidable obstacles to the development of a sustainable, positive image of America in Russian society in the future. At the same time, Russians underestimate America’s complexity. They are generally unaware of its diversity and multiple identities, of ongoing American intellectual debates and of the degree of internal criticism over America’s “hyperpower” image. For the average person as well as the elite, America is often perceived through the prism of Russia’s own neuroses and traumas. So images of America that suggest a kind of nationalist messianism are widely presented in Russian media and are used by Russian conservatives to argue that Russia has to defend itself against U.S. aggressiveness. It seems that aging Cold War hawks on both sides of the ocean still mutually reinforce each other’s views.
The attempts by Russian conservatives to present post-9/11 America as a new global enemy have not succeeded in Russia so far. There are two reasons for this: the existence of pragmatists within the elite who understand that isolation from America or conflict with it will have disastrous consequences, and the popular rejection of the traditional pattern of mobilization through the search for an enemy. There is also a growing fear of American failure in fighting Islamic radicalism and counterbalancing a rising China, both of which could increase Russia’s geopolitical and internal vulnerability. In any case, even among those who resent the United States, there are many who understand that at this historic juncture, when the globe is just beginning to think about building a real new world order, American unipolarity is not the worst among available options.
The United States cannot modify the structural drivers that create America’s image in Russia. Russia’s system relies on personified power and needs an enemy as the basis for political consolidation. America can’t change that. Nor can the American government change its geopolitical agenda in order to make the Russian political class happy.
But the United States does have the capacity to eliminate at least some pretexts for the elite manipulation of its image in Russia. I would advise the U.S. government to contemplate a threefold policy. First, while pursuing its geopolitical interests in Eurasia, the United States may need to deliberate more carefully about how its actions will affect Russia, which still matters in this part of the world. Second, to promote democracy in Russia, the United States must address new constituencies beyond the narrow confines of the human rights lobby, and it must use more diverse and gentle means of communication. Third, add a larger social dimension to U.S.-Russian relations; emphasize society-to-society dialogue to reassure Russia as to America’s benign intentions.
The best way to improve America’s image in Russia is to improve American democracy and foreign policy. America today has a very difficult mission—to be the symbol of liberal democracy even as it has to make tough realpolitik choices in an obdurate world. That is what makes anti-Americanism much more than a mere bias. It is also a blow to liberal democracy itself and to the civilization America aspires to defend and expand.