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The American “Nation Building” Mission and Russia

by David S. Foglesong on Nov 2, 2000

During this political campaign, which has largely focused on the
eye-glazing details of domestic issues, the most eye-opening comments on
foreign policy have stemmed from Gov. George W. Bush's adamant opposition
to quixotic "nation-building" missions.

            While Bush's foreign affairs adviser Condoleezza Rice recently drew
headlines by announcing that Bush would end U.S. participation in
peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, much less attention has been paid
to Bush's equally striking repudiation of American efforts to transform

            In the second presidential debate, Bush not only charged that the Clinton
administration had "played like there was reform" in Russia while corrupt
Moscow officials pocketed Western aid; he also rejected the idea that
Americans should instruct other peoples to follow their example.

            Responding to Vice President Al Gore's declarations that Americans "have
to have a sense of mission in the world" and that people everywhere look to
the United States "as a kind of model for what their future could be," Bush
argued that the U.S. must be "humble in how we treat nations that are
figuring out how to chart their own course" and asserted "the only people
who are going to reform Russia are Russians."

            The stark differences between the two candidates' comments tend to obscure
the fact that Republicans, as well as Democrats, have championed misguided
missionary approaches to Russia, not only in the last decade but for more
than a century. Reorientation of U.S. policy will therefore require a clear
understanding of how Americans of both major parties have shared faulty
assumptions about Russia.

            The most striking recent example of a Republican missionary mentality is a
200-page report released in September 2000 by the Speaker's Advisory Group
on Russia, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-CA), titled, "Russia's Road
to Corruption: How the Clinton Administration Exported Government Instead
of Free Enterprise and Failed the Russian People." As the title suggests,
the Republican congressional leaders fault the Clinton administration not
for trying to remake Russia in the image of the United States but for
attempting to replicate liberal big government rather than a libertarian
free enterprise system.

            Republicans in fact have a long history of seeking to convert Russia to
capitalism. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan dreamed of taking Mikhail Gorbachev
up in a helicopter over southern California to show the Soviet leader the
homes, cars and swimming pools of American workers, and thus convert him to
the gospel of freedom.

            Thirty years earlier, President Dwight Eisenhower actually did take Nikita
Khrushchev up in a helicopter over Washington, hoping to persuade that true
believer in communism of the superiority of the American way of life. And
during the Second World War, the magazines of Republican Henry Luce (a
child of missionaries) widely promoted the notions that Russians were just
like Americans, and that a wartime rebirth of Christianity would lead to
the overthrow of Stalinism.

            Faith in the Americanization of Russia has not been a Republican quirk, of
course. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, for example, proclaimed that the
300-year-old Romanov autocracy overthrown in 1917 "was not in fact Russian
in origin, character, or purpose" and insisted six months before the
Bolsheviks seized power that Russia was "always in fact democratic at heart."

            A notion so deeply entrenched will not be easy to change, but in the new
century, a sound and bipartisan U.S. policy must move beyond simplistic
expectations of rapid Americanization.

            While mistakes were made by both Democratic and Republican administrations
in the 1990s — the Bush team was too slow to provide substantial financial
aid when it would have mattered most, for example, and Clinton officials
were too quick to equate Boris Yeltsin with reform and democracy — the
deeper problem stems from unrealistic expectations of an overnight
transformation of Russia.

            The wise alternative to an overly aggressive missionary approach is not to
condemn Russia as hopelessly mired in a tradition of autocratic
callousness, as some commentators did following the Russian mishandling of
the sinking of the submarine Kursk in August. Instead of oscillating
between the extremes of expecting a sudden transfiguration of Russia and
condemning Russians as irredeemable, Americans need to be patient and
understand that Russia has indeed become more like the United States,
though not to the extent Americans might wish and not without high social
costs (including increased crime, lower life expectancy, and more
widespread poverty) that foster anti-Americanism.

            While the U.S. should continue to provide advice and aid when it is
requested, Americans should not expect Russia to become a replica of the
United States, and they should not presume that Russian resistance to
Americanization is sinister and malignant. In a way, Gore and Bush are each
half right. Americans need to have a sense of mission, and they need to be

David S. Foglesong, is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., and a writer for the History News Service.