The Tensions Between Russia and the US Are Not a Historical By-Product

The Tensions Between Russia and the US Are Not a Historical By-Product

It is argued that the more conflicts nations have had with one another in the past («historical traumas»), the more difficult it becomes to establish normal relations in the present. The opposite is also true - a previous alliance formed between nationalities while fighting critical battles smooths the path to building a close partnership. In this sense, the confrontation between the US and Russia seems like a departure from this pattern. Donald Trump has been open about his intention to normalize relations with Moscow, but it is wrong to accuse him of making a naive attempt to change this objective course of events.

There is nothing preordained about the current state of affairs between the Kremlin and the White House. Even a brief glance over the key events from our shared history shows that during the crucial moments of that history, Russians and Americans have always been allies and never opponents. The hostility of the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first century was to a great extent the exception to this rule and not the norm. It is interesting that Lawrence Solomon of the National Post wrote that «[c]ontrary to the common perception that Russia is a natural enemy of the U.S., Russia is a natural friend». He claims that, with the exception of a few decades, no other country in the history of the US has been «a more faithful friend, particularly in times of need».

At the birth of the American state in the 1770s, Catherine II supported the young commonwealth. When the 13 colonies rebelled against the British crown in 1775, King George III asked the Russian empress to assist the efforts of British troops to suppress that insurrection. He was firmly refused. In 1780, at the height of the Revolutionary War, Russia’s announcement of armed neutrality actually translated into support for the rebellious colonies. Russia also reserved the right to attack British warships that were attempting to establish a blockade that would have prevented other countries’ merchant ships from reaching the American coast. Russia even founded the League of Armed Neutrality. This would seem an apt moment to refresh our memories about Russia’s fight to lift those sanctions against the US. The first US president, George Washington, emphasized that the Russian government was guided by principles of «respect for the rights of humanity».

In 1809, Russia and the United States established full diplomatic relations. The first US ambassador to Russia was John Quincy Adams, who later became the sixth US president. A famous warning to the future leaders of America is attributed to him, in which he urged them to ensure that the US «goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy», for in fact there were none. It is possible that he came to this conclusion during the time he spent in St. Petersburg. In his correspondence with Alexander I, the then-US president, Thomas Jefferson, described the Russian Empire as «the most cordially friendly to us of any power on earth» and expressed the hope that his friendly feelings towards Russia «should become those of the nation».

The years of the American Civil War (1861-1865) were also noteworthy in this regard. It is interesting that Abraham Lincoln, who was extolled for abolishing slavery, was inaugurated as US president on March 4, 1861, the day after Alexander II outlawed serfdom in Russia. The fates of these two statesmen were closely linked, as they were both were killed by assassins. In his correspondence with Lincoln, Alexander II signed his letters, «Your good friend», and the American president used the same closing in his replies. Both the American abolitionists as well as Lincoln himself considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to be their indispensable companion, and this book was also found in the personal library of Alexander II at his palace in Tsarskoye Selo. To foil the actions of the British fleet that was supporting the South, Rear Admiral Stepan Lesovsky arrived in New York with his Atlantic Squadron in 1863, while Alexander Popov sailed into in San Francisco with a squadron from Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Once stationed in the US, the Russian sailors were prepared to bring British maritime trade to standstill in the event of war.

In 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his assistance in negotiating the Portsmouth Peace Treaty that ended the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). It is believed that his involvement allowed Russia to obtain more favorable peace terms than would otherwise have been possible. The US thus established itself as a new world power, with which the Concert of Europe now had to contend.

In World War I, Russia and the US were allies. In 1917, the US was the first to recognize the February Revolution, given the similarity of many of that revolution’s principles with American philosophies, and later Washington made no secret of its sympathy for the republican faction of the White movement.

Nor was there any threat of serious conflicts even during the early days of the Soviet Union. Although the US waited quite a while, until 1933, to recognize the USSR, she provided significant assistance to the starving Volga region in the 1920s through the American Relief Administration (ARA). US manufacturers took an active role in supplying equipment to help the Soviet Union fulfill its initial five-year plans. Many American engineers were directly involved in establishing new industrial plants, such as the GAZ automotive factory, which was built with the help of Henry Ford.

The mutual respect and even trust between Stalin and FDR is well known, and without it the anti-Nazi coalition could never have taken materialized. As early as 1934, Stalin spoke of Roosevelt as «one of the strongest figures among all the captains of the contemporary capitalist world», noting his «initiative, courage, and determination». At the end of their first personal meeting in Tehran in 1943, the American president stated, ««We have proved here at Tehran that the varying ideals of our nations can come together in a harmonious whole, moving unitedly for the common good of ourselves and of the world». As Stalin put it, «the need to create an alliance between the USSR, Great Britain, and the US came not from accidental or transitory motives, but vitally important and long lasting interests». Back in 1946 the well-known journalist and historian Alexander Werth asked Stalin whether he believed that friendly and long-term cooperation between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies was possible, despite their ideological differences, and the Soviet leader replied, «I certainly do». On April 2, 1946 the newspaper Pravda marked the anniversary of Roosevelt’s death with an article commemorating him. Pravda emphasized that «the Soviet people saw in Roosevelt a friend to the USSR». Around the same time, Anthony Eden stated, «had Roosevelt lived and retained his health he would never have permitted the present situation to develop ... his death, therefore, was a calamity of immeasurable proportions».

Given such a historical legacy, the Cold War was in a certain sense an aberration in the two countries’ relations. With the exception of some «proxy wars», the two superpowers never directly clashed during that time. The emergence of nuclear weapons was only one of the explanations for why this did not happen - in truth, both sides had sufficient common sense to avoid it. Clearly psychological factors, such as the benign historical background and the absence of any mutual hostility in the past, also played a role. In any event, all reasons to perpetuate the tension between the two countries would seem to have disappeared by 1991, and that perpetuation only continued as the result of a choice made by a small group of people who were then in power in the United States. For reasons that have still not been made clear, the powers that be in the US thought it best that Russia continue to be kept «down and out» when it came to Europe. So when Donald Trump once again questions the extent to which the enmity between Russia and the United States is preordained, he is not challenging historical precedent. He is, in fact, only casting doubt upon the validity of some arbitrary and shortsighted political decisions from the past.

And one can to a certain extent agree with Edward Lozansky and Gilbert Doctorow, who wrote in the Washington Times that Trump is being forced to work with politicians who are «trapped by an image of Russia burned into their thinking... which requires them to view Moscow’s every action as aggressive, hostile and aimed at undermining U.S. interests». According to these authors, «it is time to think seriously about including Russia as a possible ally and friend rather than an eternal adversary and enemy».

Russia’s occasional disagreements with some US actions on the international stage, including those that Washington itself has now realized were misguided, is used as a supporting argument, bolstered by references to Russia’s «anti-American agenda». This is especially noticeable when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea that Russia is «interfering» with Washington’s policies in these two countries has been held up by some as an example of Moscow’s «hostility» to the United States. This is absolutely not the case – so long as Washington’s policy there is truly aimed at peacemaking and not fanning the flames of war.


* Interview, Aug. 22, 1946, Diplomatic History 32, Nov. 2008., Costigliola, Broken Circle

Tags: Russia  US  USSR  Jefferson  Stalin