Friday, February 17, 2017

Russia and America: Destined to Conflict

Nearly 200 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America and wrote one of the most important books on America and American politics ever written: Democracy in America. In its nearly 1,000 wonderful pages is Tocqueville's assertion that conflict between America and Russia would dominate the 20th Century. It is not the point of the book at all, but a very French grand prediction about the future, that turned out to be right.

Tocqueville wrote this when America was just 24 states, when Mexico included the territory from Texas to northern California including what is now many of the states of the southwest.  A that time, Russian owned Alaska and a big chuck of western Canada.

In 1831, when Tocqueville visited America, Andrew Jackson was President. America and Russia were both big and crude and isolated when compared with the major European countries, especially as regards slavery.  America enslaved millions of Africans under terms and conditions harsher than any of the Ancient empires.  Russia enslaved more than half of its population. The Russians freed the serfs a year before America freed the slaves, but both countries oppressed the newly freed people in a way that made their lives poor and wretched, but not entirely hopeless.

And in that hope is the permanent conflict that makes America so different than Russia: over the past 240 years, America has steadily moved to give equality to more and more people.  Over the same period, Russia enslaved the majority of its population, granted limited freedom for the years between 1863 and 1917, but then crushed its own people more harshly than most of the worst dictators in history until the communist government fell in 1991. Freedom lasted from 1991 to 2012 when Vladimir Putin returned to power after ruling from 2000 to 2008.  Now press freedom is gone, elections are rigged and political oppression is widespread.

I believe the growing oppression in Russia means that Russia and America cannot be close allies. America makes alliances with oppressive governments, but our closest allies like Great Britain, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Korea and many NATO states is based on our shared commitment to real democracy and freedom.  For the US to be a close ally of Russia would mean either the US would have to become authoritarian or Russia would have to be as free as America, Britain and Europe.

One strong indicator of the oppression in Russia is the rate at which scientists, artists, writers and journalists have left Russia since 2012. When a regime becomes authoritarian, the smart and creative people leave.  They are always the targets of authoritarian leaders. Many Russians come to America to escape Putin's increasingly oppressive regime. If the Russians stop coming here and go elsewhere in Europe, it will be because they perceive America as tending toward authoritarian government.

We have never been at war with Russia despite nearly a century of open hostility. Until now, the leaders on both sides have managed to keep a lid on the conflict between our nations. But America is not in any way the natural friend of Russia. Our Constitution and government were built on Enlightenment ideals and the best of the governments of Rome and Athens.  Russia by contrast has a history that is a millennium of tyranny with just a few years of freedom. Russia is part of Europe, but never had a Reformation, never had a Renaissance and never had an Enlightenment.

America should keep its democratic allies close and keep Russia at arms length.


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