ACURA ViewPoint: John Pepper: The Absence of Humility in US-Russia Policy Circles

The November-December 2001 issue of Foreign Affairs followed the 9/11 attack on the United States by only a couple of months.  How different the climate was then compared to today with regard to attitudes of Russian citizens and the relations between the Russian and the U.S. governments.

In an article written by Timothy Colton, Professor of Government and Director of the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard, and Michael McFaul, Associate Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and, a decade later, to be the Ambassador to Russia and viscerally opposed to Putin, we read this:  “If Putin returns to Cold War habits, he will be moving against the grain of Russian public opinion.  Russians’ empathetic response to the attacks on America sprang from something deeper than mere strategic concerns.  Russians aligned themselves with the United States in its hour of need—and have been more pro-American in their reactions and in their own government, because, in part, of a deep support for democracy.  Russian people today, despite a decade of unmet expectations since the fall of communism, strongly endorse core democratic values.  And they do, among other reasons, because of a sustained Western policy of engagement has encouraged democratic governance within Russia and the country’s integration into the Western community of nations.”

“Russia’s transition from authoritarianism is far from complete, however.  Inattention to the fragility of Russian democracy would be a huge mistake—and one that would have serious negative consequences for American security.”

We failed utterly to follow this line of reasoning. We paid almost no attention to the fragility of democratic governance in Russia. We read the situation through rose-colored glasses,  the way we wanted it to be. More importantly, we showed almost no respect for or awareness of Russia’s historic concern for security as we continued to expand NATO to the East to borders touching on Russia.

“In fact, Russia’s newly constructive approach to the West should not be surprising”, the article continued.  “Rather, the fact that a democratizing Russia seeks a positive, peaceful relationship with the democratic United Sates fits an established pattern in international relations.  Almost every democracy in the world now enjoys a cordial relationship with Washington, and no democracies number among its enemies.”

Here is an unbridled expression of America’s “exceptionalism”.

“As the United States embarks on a protracted conflict with a new worldwide foe (referring to terrorists), it is seeking to mobilize all countries, including Russia, into a new anti-terror coalition.  In building this alliance, the Bush administration may be tempted not to scrutinize the credentials of those who sign up to fight alongside it.”

And here we go as the article continues, sticking our nose into another country’s business.

The authors write.  “Democratic transgressions within Russia will, therefore, not rank very high among U.S. policy priorities, especially once Putin starts providing the military assistance he has promised to the new campaign.  That would be a mistake.  The United States must not forget how important it is to support democracy in Russia, since that country cannot become a complete partner of the Western alliance until it becomes fully democratic.”

This is a terrific example of how we extended our values to other countries and culture in a demanding and at least in hindsight to my eyes, presumptuous way.

The authors went on to say that “because Putin leans toward Europe, wants good relations with the United States and evidently values his personal relationship with Bush, American decision makers already enjoy some leverage in promoting democratic ideas through state channels.  Bush and his team should refrain from lecturing Putin about America’s superior political system and highlight instead the benefits of integration into the West—for which democratization is a pre-condition.

Continuing:  “In the decade-long transition of the former Soviet bloc, correlation has developed between levels of democracy and economic growth.  Washington must point this out to Moscow, while also explaining how democratization will facilitate Russia’s participation in European institutions.  Putin wants to make Russia a great European power once more.  Bush must remind him that today all European powers are democracies.”

Talk about lecturing and speaking down to another country.

The absence of any sense of humility in this essay, any sense that Russia might take a different approach to the future than ours, written by two very influential academics and one that would characterize future U.S. administrations proved to be a path which not only failed to achieve the goals we sought but has turned what had been the positive view of the Russian public toward the United States into a negative view. And vice versa.

We and Russia will not see the proper role of governance the same; we won’t hold the same values in all areas. In some, we may vigorously and will say so But let’s not forget.  We do have many common interests which demand we work together for our mutual interest and very survival. They include combatting the risk of nuclear disaster, the destruction of the environment and our planet as we know it and failed states and terrorism.

Moreover, it is a reality that almost all members of the Russian and American publics want the same thing: peace, safety and the opportunity for a decent life for our families. We must act on these truths, with the wisdom and stamina to resolve legitimate issues like Ukraine, Syria and cyber-security which today keep us apart. We owe that to both our nations and the world.

John Pepper, a former CEO of Procter and Gamble, is a member of the Board of ACURA. 

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