The American “Nation Building” Mission and Russia

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 Russia.

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 humble.

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.