Russia and America Don’t Need Each Other as Enemies
Influential groups in the United States and in Russia argue that the other nation needs their own country as an enemy to justify its (the other nation’s) conduct. In America, advocates of this view generally argue that only with Washington as an enemy can Russian President Vladimir Putin maintain tight political controls necessary to sustain a corrupt authoritarian regime. Conversely, in Russia, proponents of this idea often assert that only with Moscow as its foe can the American political class continue massive defense expenditures and an interventionist foreign policy to pursue what they see as its boundless global ambitions. Both perspectives deserve more scrutiny than they receive—and are more dangerous than their advocates realize.
At a superficial level, the idea that Russia or America “needs” the other as an enemy is a convenient one: If Moscow needs Washington in this role, or vice versa, then governments and officials are relieved of any responsibility for past decisions that may have alienated the other party. They are likewise relieved of responsibility for current and future decisions: If it is inevitable that the other side will view one’s own as hostile, one has no options other than to give in or to fight. That’s a much easier call than the usual hard choices in policy-making, which often requires murky and unsatisfying compromises with unpleasant people.
The danger in this approach is that it hard-wires confrontation into the U.S.-Russia relationship without requiring a debate about whether or not the United States should consider Russia an enemy, whether Russia should consider America its foe, or what this could cost either party. After all, if the other side has already decided that one’s own is an enemy, what choice do you really have? The fact that any direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia might escalate to nuclear war receives relatively little serious public attention in either country (though for very different reasons). Short of that, Washington and Moscow can create huge and costly problems for one another in regions where both have important interests, including Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
The Need for a Foreign Foe
Politicians, authors and others have recognized the role that foreign enemies can play in domestic politics for quite some time. One well-known example from Russia’s past is the statement attributed to Vyacheslav von Plehve, minister of interior under Tsar Nicholas II, that “to avert a revolution, we need a small victorious war.” (As it happened, the war that von Plehve sought—the Russo-Japanese War of 1905—instead became a disaster that contributed to the revolution he aimed to avoid.) More recently, the 1997 Hollywood film “Wag the Dog” had a fictional American president pursing a Hollywood-produced fake war in Albania to overcome a sex scandal and win re-election, visibly paralleling the very real U.S. intervention in the former Yugoslavia as then-President Bill Clinton fought off allegations surrounding his relationship with a White House intern.
U.S.-Russian relations are also fraught with history that makes it easy to believe that the other side still considers one’s own to be a foe. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union explicitly defined one another as enemies, with President Ronald Reagan describing the U.S.S.R. as an “evil empire” and Soviet leaders regularly referring to America as the “main enemy.” This experience establishes an instantly available (and widely employed) narrative to frame today’s disputes. It is impossible to deny that each side openly described the other as an enemy in the past.
President Reagan appeared intuitively to grasp the problem of the enemy image in the U.S.-Soviet relationship and—after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power—used an unorthodox approach in looking for ways around it. As Gorbachev revealed in a 2009 interview, the former American president reached for an enemy that could unite Washington and Moscow, privately asking “What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?” Reagan attempted to create this ultimate foe to establish a relationship with Gorbachev—and to jointly envision a world in which neither government would consider the other an enemy—during their very first meeting, in Geneva in November 1985.
Do Washington and Moscow “Need” One Another as Enemies?
The core arguments underlying the assertion that either Washington or Moscow “needs” the other as an enemy are political. In brief, advocates of this view suggest that only with their own country as an enemy can the other country solve its own domestic political problems. There is little support for this argument in either case.
There are important differences between the U.S. and Russian political systems that may shape how each defines its “enemies” and how each perceives the other’s policy process. Perhaps most notably, the American political system is considerably more pluralistic than Russia’s, with two major political parties each divided into competing factions as well as a number of smaller and much less influential parties. As a result, post-Cold War America has witnessed an ongoing debate over America’s foreign “enemy” or “enemies,” which have variously included China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the Taliban and the Islamic State, as well as more intangible options like terrorism, illegal drugs, poverty, hunger, injustice and war. Consensus requires extraordinary circumstances, like the September 11 attacks, and even then is temporary.
In contrast, Russia’s semi-authoritarian political system can and does align internal groups much more easily against a common enemy, particularly in a state-dominated media environment that reduces the diversity of perspectives in Russia’s public debates. From a Russian perspective, one could argue that this difference might actually make a defined enemy more valuable for the U.S. political system, because an enemy can help leaders to achieve something otherwise quite difficult: consensus. However, this assumes that American leaders place a high priority on achieving national political unity, which they clearly do not—especially in comparison with Russia’s leaders.
Another difference in the American and Russian systems that may buttress the belief that Moscow needs Washington as its enemy is that Russian leaders derive much less political legitimacy from elections per se because Russians know that the Kremlin manages elections to obtain desired outcomes. This leads many Americans to assume that Putin does not enjoy popular legitimacy and, as a result, must define the United States as an enemy to rally Russian citizens to his leadership or, more ominously, to justify political repression.
This view of Russia’s elections ignores some fundamental realities of political legitimacy. Most notably, elections in Russia, America and other countries are a means rather than an end. The end for most people is in large part a comfortable life, meaning some combination of economic prosperity and personal freedom. In theory, elections are a means toward this end. In practice, the dramatic increase in most Russians’ economic well-being between 2000 and 2008—Putin’s two first terms in office—produced the greatest period of prosperity in Russia’s thousand-year history. The fact that Russia’s economy has largely stalled since then, primarily due to a failure to stimulate growth outside the energy sector and continuing dependence on energy exports, does not diminish this too much. For the time being, the Russian government still enjoys enough performance-based legitimacy to sustain it against existing public frustration over recent economic troubles or domestic political constraints. Perhaps ironically, claims of Washington’s hostility might be most useful to Moscow not in justifying tighter controls but in avoiding them: To the extent that Russian leaders can blame Western sanctions for poor economic results, they can avoid public pressure that might otherwise force tougher measures. Still, the fact that portraying the United States as an enemy is useful does not make it necessary or inevitable.
While Americans have greater trust in elections, for them, like for Russians, economic performance and personal freedom are key criteria in evaluating leaders; in fact, economic statistics are key components in many if not most models to predict U.S. voting behavior. Conversely, Americans generally vote on foreign policy only in extraordinary circumstances—as in the 2004 election (following the September 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) and the 2006 and 2008 elections (as many became frustrated with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Russia was not an “enemy” in 2004, when George W. Bush won reelection; by 2006 and 2008, anti-war campaigns contributed to Democratic victories. This suggests that growing tensions with Russia in Bush’s second term did not offer much political help in justifying the wars in Afghanistan (where Russia was assisting the United States) or Iraq (where Moscow was not opposing the United States) or in electing Republicans to Congress.
Are Trump and Putin Looking Elsewhere?
Perhaps most importantly for the U.S.-Russia relationship today, neither President Donald Trump nor President Putin appears to believe that his country needs the other as an enemy. On the contrary, each seems to desire a more cooperative relationship, though only on acceptable terms. More than that, each seems to think that for the United States and Russia to reestablish a functional bilateral relationship, Washington and Moscow must define a shared foe—ISIS and other extremists in Syria—against which they can work together. Each has argued regularly for this cooperation.
For his part, Vladimir Putin has sought U.S. cooperation in Syria for some time, though his terms and other Russian conduct—particularly Russia’s continued assistance to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in eastern Ukraine—have created significant obstacles. During the Obama administration, only Secretary of State John Kerry appeared genuinely interested in exploring this possibility, especially after Russia began airstrikes in Syria in the fall of 2015. In contrast, Donald Trump expressed his openness to working with Russia in Syria many times during the 2016 election campaign and discussed the issue with Putin in their first telephone call.
It is not yet clear whether or not the United States and Russia will find a way to resolve their differences in Syria that allows for coordination, much less cooperation there. U.S. officials have suggested that Russia may have known in advance about the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attacks. Since President Trump has said that the attacks “changed” his attitude toward Syria and Assad, the incident could have changed his view of Russia as well. Moscow reacted quite negatively to the Trump administration’s early April cruise missile strikes on a Syrian airbase, making Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s inaugural visit to Moscow appear somewhat tense.
Nevertheless, both sides still seem interested in finding some way to work cooperatively toward defeating ISIS and have a clear common interest in doing so despite also having divergent interests, objectives and priorities in Syria that have already prevented effective cooperation for six years. Beyond that, America’s domestic political climate is perhaps uniquely ill-suited to any form of cooperation with Russia until Congress, the FBI and the media work through their respective investigations of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Fortunately, just as cooperation does not preclude rivalry or even hostility, it takes more than an absence of cooperation to make enemies. Moreover, while any government’s “need” for an enemy is a complex proposition, it is hard to argue that Moscow or Washington specifically need one another in that role rather than some other nation or group. With that in mind, why assume irreconcilable hostility rather than looking for a way out?
Paul Saunders is the executive director of the Center for the National Interest.
Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Pfc. Nadia Stark.