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America And Russia, Americans And Russians
The Cold War was an anomaly: more often than not the world’s two greatest states have lived together in uneasy amity. And what now?
February/March 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 1
Will Americans rejoice in the humiliation of the once great Russian state? I doubt it; neither American idealism nor American generosity is extinct.
As in the relations of the two states, so in the relations of the two peoples a new phase has now come about, with consequences that are incalculable. Will the American people rejoice in the humiliation of the once-great Russian state? I doubt it; neither American idealism nor American generosity is extinct—to wit, the early and almost instantaneous positive American reaction to Mikhail Gorbachev and his reforms. Will American governments feel compelled, in part because of ethnic pressures, in part because of the dubious principle of “national self-determination,” to recognize the independent sovereignty of portions of the erstwhile Soviet Union’s new nationalist republics that contain millions of ethnie Russians and that were never even remotely “independent” or “sovereign” in the past? To see a vast portion of the globe torn by protracted civil wars cannot be in the interest of the United States—not of its government and not of its people either.
In this respect it may behoove us to turn once more to the past—to the beginning of a now-closed chapter of it—and contemplate its then two principal personages, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. For a short time, near and after the end of World War I, they seemed not only to preside over two of the greatest powers of the globe but also to incarnate the two major ideas of the century, one standing for global democracy, the other for international communism. The two men died thirteen days apart, in 1924, but years before their deaths they were broken men, and not only physically; Wilson, for one, had been repudiated by the majority of his countrymen. Yet—for such is the irony of history—the ideas of this pale Presbyterian professor-President turned out to be more revolutionary than those of the halfTatar Bolshevik radical from the middle Volga region. Wilson’s propagation of the idea of self-determination helped bring about the destruction of entire empires in 1918, and now, seventy-odd years later, that idea is about to destroy not only some of the very states created by Wilson—Yugoslavia and perhaps even Czechoslovakia, for instance—but possibly the Russian Empire itself. That is still an open question, as indeed is Wilson’s place in American history (although he has been admired not only by liberals but by Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan), while Lenin’s embalmed body will soon be removed from his mausoleum in Red Square, surely for good. Thus not only Wilson’s reputation but his ideas seem to have triumphed over Lenin’s. But that semblance is false. The ideas, indeed the personalities, of these ephemeral protagonists of the early twentieth century belonged to the nineteenth. Lenin believed that history was nothing but the warfare of classes, and that the Bolshevik revolution would soon be repeated all over Europe. It did not happen. Wilson believed that World War I was a democratic crusade culminating in a League of Nations, the war to end all wars; it led to World War II instead. Both men’s views of the world were outdated, and wrong. To think that the United States could—or should—make the world safe for democracy (or, more precisely, that American democracy could make the world safe) was—and remains—a shortsighted and self-serving idea, as was that of international communism.
One hundred years before 1917 Napoleon, at St. Helena, mused about the prospect of Russia and the United States replacing France and Britain as the greatest powers in the world. Others, seeing the expansion of the United States and Russia into vast empty spaces, inhabited, if at all, by primitive tribes, saw the same prospect. Alexis de Tocqueville, after his visit to the United States, concluded the first volume of his Democracy in America with a sudden speculation about America and Russia: “There are at the present time  two great nations in the world, which started from different points, but seem to tend toward the same end. I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and while the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly placed themselves in the front rank among the nations, and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.
“All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and they have only to maintain their power; but these are still in the acts of growth.… The principal instrument of [the Anglo-American] is freedom; of the [Russian], 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.”
These words of this great visionary were not only prophetic but especially apposite during the Cold War. But they no longer are. I am not alluding only to the present movement in Russia from political servitude to democracy. That may, or may not, last. I am alluding to the fact that the territorial expansion of the American and of the Russian empires is now over. New tides of barbarian invaders, internal and/or external, as well as new kinds of servitude, imposed by technology and bureaucracy, may threaten both, but that is another story, the problem of the future, of the twentyfirst century.