RUSSIA AND AMERICA: A NEW TWIST IN THE CONFRONTATION?
Publication: Prism Volume: 8 Issue: 3
Ever since the recent war in Yugoslavia (though that now seems to belong to a different era), almost every public opinion poll in Russia has shown increasing numbers of Russians taking a generally negative view of the United States. The proportion of respondents expressing this opinion fluctuates between 30 percent and 40 percent, approximately the same as those holding a generally positive view. Not what might have been expected after ten years of reforms, carried out in a generally pro-American spirit and under the leadership of generally pro-American presidents and governments.
The attitude of the media towards the United States has been somewhat more correct, though it remains preoccupied with the issue of Russia’s (former? expected?) national and geopolitical greatness. Normally, there doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem. But, as the experience of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City demonstrated, it doesn’t take much for Russian patriotism and anti-American sentiment to become heated almost to boiling point.
What are the reasons for this?
Amongst the more obvious are, first, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss not only of Russia’s national status as a superpower, but also of Russia’s standing as a country whose geopolitical interests need to be given some consideration by today’s world leaders (meaning, above all, the United States). Second, the sharp fall in production, the drop in income for most workers, de-industrialization, unemployment, increasing poverty and other adverse consequences of the reforms for a substantial part of the population, are all associated with the pro-American line taken by the Russian authorities. (The reformers have never hidden the fact that they have been conducting an economic policy in the spirit of American neo-liberal standards). Third, the reforms have been accompanied by an Americanization not only of the economy, but also of culture and even language, the latter being the cruelest blow to the Russian people, who are extremely sensitive in this respect.
These reasons are familiar and seem to be with us for the long term. Until recently, they were for the most part counterbalanced by positive changes in public life across the social spectrum. For the top 30 percent of the population (politically and economically the most active group), the economic crisis and the fall in production brought no visible drop in living standards, and for 15 percent it made a radical rise in income possible. The shift to a market economy and the elimination of the budget deficit gave consumer-oriented elements of society (the overwhelming majority of Russians) potential access to foreign goods (and even though in most instances they come in via Turkey or China, for most people this is still a benefit of Westernization and even Americanization). For most young people, being part of the westernized and Americanized world of popular culture is an essential aspect of life. For the oligarchs and a significant proportion of medium-sized businesses (though Russia does also have patriotically inclined entrepreneurs, of course) the openness of the economy (which is evidently one aspect of this Americanization) and the freedom to take capital out of the country are factors conducive to the accelerated accumulation of wealth. The list goes on.
As a result, almost the only active criticism of Russia’s Americanization has come from the patriotic opposition, with no more than lukewarm support from the majority of the population, who are not prepared to take any decisive steps that might threaten their conformist existence. Periodically (usually in connection with some economic downturn) the situation has become tense, but has remained–over all–under control.
SOMETHING HAS CHANGED: PATRIOTS VERSUS LIBERALS
There has, over the last few years, been a subtle change in the situation. Against a background of greater stability in the economy and in the consumer sector, the geoeconomic, geopolitical and spiritual contradictions in the modern world have become more sharply focused. The phenomenon of globalization, which has already become the world’s focus, has become even more prominent. We have come to feel that it is part of our lives, that it isn’t just about an open economy and an open society, but signifies the real economic, political and spiritual power of the global players.
In this context, the ideology of Russia’s derzhavniki of both the left and the center (who want to restore the country’s great power status) has proved to be more relevant than ever before. Indeed, the derzhavniki have begun to reduce the objective problem of finding alternatives to globalization to a confrontation between Russia, as a more or less self-sufficient economic and sociocultural system, and the United States, as the home of the majority of the most powerful multinational corporations, and the main partner (or big brother) in all the most powerful international organizations (from the World Bank to NATO).
This thinking has not evolved and developed without reason, and does have some basis in fact. It is true that the American establishment itself makes no great effort to conceal the fact that the new world order is in reality a U.S. hegemony. In a March interview on the “Post Scriptum” program on the TVTs channel, Zbigniew Brzezinski said quite frankly that the United States is an empire, but a new type of empire, where membership is voluntary, leaving other countries with just one choice–either become a U.S. partner, on equal terms, or be numbered amongst the states that make up the so-called axis of evil. What will happen if they go for the latter option is clear; what might result from opting for the former is becoming increasingly apparent to Russia.
So the geopolitical games of recent years have shown that the United States sees its interests coinciding with Russia’s in only one sense: That what’s good for the United States must be good for Russia too. The reverse does not apply. It is only in mathematics that if A = B, then B = A. Things are more complicated in geopolitics. Thus, for example, “creating the conditions for peace and democracy” through the use of American military forces based in CIS countries is deemed a good thing, in the general interests of the United States and its allies (including Russia). But, unsurprisingly, a hypothetical effort on Russia’s part to support the United States in its struggle against the enemies of democracy in Latin America, by deploying a Russian “limited contingent,” would be seen by the American establishment as a monstrous infringement of U.S. national interests. In reality, the United States is perfectly well aware of all the advantages of its position at the head of the current geoeconomic and geopolitical hegemony, and makes full use of them, never forgetting, in so doing, to put a good face on it. Thus they and their partners disguise this hegemony (and so the fact of subordination to it) behind a facade of egalitarian cooperation in the defense of human rights, the development of free international economic relations, the collective struggle against world terrorism and the countries on the “axis of evil” that support it, and so on.
In Russia an increasing number of people believe that there is no real mutual benefit or equality of status for partners of this kind (especially as concerns Russia and the United States). This belief is being exploited to the full, with some grounds, by the derzhavniki. It derives in large measure from the continuing dissatisfaction of most Russians with both the negative effects of neo-liberal reform and the real infringement of Russia’s interests in internationally and internally.
The neo-liberal response to this sentiment is not just tired, but positively outdated: The Russian Right has nothing new to offer, apart from a repetition of ideas, already discredited in Russia, about moving towards a “world civilization,” where success is measured by U.S. standards. And so the right is losing the argument. It is no coincidence that by the beginning of 2002 the Union of Right Forces (which holds 9 percent of the seats in the Duma) saw its rating fall to 4 percent.
For its part, the rhetoric of the derzhavniki, for all its populist appeal, now looks unrealistic: Russia has almost no scope for adopting an independent geoeconomic and geopolitical strategy, and the limited potential it still has is of no use to anyone: The pro-liberal elements running the country take the corresponding line on joining the civilized world (joining the WTO, support for NATO operations–including its wars–and so on). Moreover, a strategy of self-sufficient development in today’s truly global world, even for a relatively major country such as Russia, has absolutely no prospect of success.
GLOBAL HEGEMONY, THE ALTER EGO OF GREAT POWER AMBITIONS AND ANTI-AMERICANISM
Both sides have valid points. The derzhavniki are essentially correct when they stress that, hidden behind the facade of free trade, financial assistance and the struggle against world terrorism, lurks a global hegemony run chiefly by the multinational corporations and the U.S. government. The liberals are right to criticize the isolationist and anti-Western ambitions of the derzhavniki and to characterize their real position as protectionist, patriarchal and essentially conservative.
The question, therefore–as always–is whether there is any alternative, or any scope to choose other models for an open economy and society. And for us the most important issue of all is the future of our country in the world order.
Before suggesting some possible answers, I will stress that, in the confrontation referred to above, the paradigms of the global players (and the United States as the biggest of them) and of Russia’s derzhavniki largely coincide, but in antithesis. The position of the U.S. establishment and the multinationals consists of a thinly disguised and basically rather cynical exploitation of the advantages they possess as leaders of the hegemony (that is, economic, political and other modes of domination) in today’s monopolar world. The position of Russia’s derzhavniki involves resisting this hegemony by whatever methods are available–namely by trying, wherever possible, (the North Caucasus, the CIS, Iraq) to counter the U.S. hegemony with their own mini-hegemonism and, where that is not possible, by screening us off behind as solid a “curtain” as possible.
Moreover, it seems that, in this confrontation, the United States knows it is in the winning position and the Russian derzhavniki know they must be the losers. However, in practice (and, incidentally, in theory) things are not quite so simple. In reality, the countries that aspire to take an independent geopolitical line are powerless before the U.S. hegemony. The unification of these countries into some sort of alliance is unrealistic for the foreseeable future. The peaceful life of the United States is therefore threatened neither by the governments nor by the business activities of third countries (such as Russia). The real threat (not only to the United States, but also to those countries, including ourselves) is from the effects of the hegemony of the global players: powerful social and economic contradictions, cultural degradation and the growth of nationalism in its most primitive forms, an intensification of conflicts between classes and civilizations, the growing role and influence of informal institutions (ranging from bribery and corruption to organized crime and international drugs syndicates) and a lessening of the role of legal and moral restraints.
The danger from the global problems of poverty and the increasing polarization of the world, and the threat of a “clash of civilizations” are by now familiar, so I will concentrate on the last factor: The persistent application of double standards and unilateral use of force in big politics–which even the apolitical cannot ignore–are making it extremely tempting for the broad mass of the people to resort to amoral and illegitimate behaviour, and this is fueling the wave of crime and violence which is such a serious threat to the world.
This is why the quest for alternatives to Russia’s growing anti-Americanism, which is so dangerous for everyone (especially for we Russians), needs to be pursued in the context of looking at alternatives to the current model of globalization. It must not be reduced to denunciations of conservative derzhavniki or asocial, cosmopolitan neo-liberals.
Aleksandr Buzgalin is a doctor of economics and a professor at Moscow State University. He is a leader of Russia’s Democratic Socialist Movement.