Some time ago, frequent visitor, Karl from Germany, asked why it is that Americans view the Russians as a permanent adversary. This is something many Europeans find puzzling, given that the Cold War has been over for a generation now. Russia is no more of a threat to America than Sweden, but our leaders still want to wrestle the bear. China on the other hand, is a threat, but America’s foreign policy elite loves China.
From the outside, it probably confirms what most of the world thinks about America, which is the country is run by provincial bumpkins not equipped to conduct proper diplomacy. That’s certainly part of, but not the main reason for these inconsistencies. There’s a cultural aspect to it that is a product of the fact America is a very young country. When Europe was playing chess with Napoleon, America was still working out the basics of government.
For most of American history, there was one foreign policy item and that was how best to avoid having a foreign policy. In 1821 John Quincy Adams famously said that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause, by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.”
This mild form of isolationism was the core of American political thought into the 20th century. Most Americans at the dawn of the 20th century wanted nothing to do with Europe and the scheming of the Continental powers. Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives were the first to start talking about America having an active role in world affairs. The success of the Spanish-American War was too much for the Yankee missionaries to resist.
So, America’s first large scale foray into an activist foreign policy was the Great War. The fact that it was an unpopular war, largely confirmed that it was a mistake for American to let itself gett involved in European politics and chicanery. The result was a return of traditional American isolationism. By the 1930’s, the one thing the political class of America had in common was a deep desire to stay out of European affairs and thus world affairs.
Obviously, that all changed with the Second World War. Unlike the Great War, this one ended with a decisive result. Even better, from an American perspective, is that we won! Even better, we stood alone as the protector of the civilized world. For a country whose dominant region saw itself as a city upon a hill, the result of WW2 felt like confirmation, a fulfillment of the covenant, to the people running the country.
That last bit is the key to understanding Americans. We are, for the most part, a moralistic people. We believe in good guys and bad guys. Hitler and Tojo made great bad guys. The Soviets were near perfect bad guys. They were foreign enough to feel like the other and they were a bunch of God-hating commies. Every American over the age of 45 grew up thinking the Russians were evil.
The Cold War was the birth of the American foreign policy establishment. It was created in response to war and evolved afterward in the context of the competition with the Soviets. The period immediately after the war is what made American diplomacy. Our duty as the keeper of the flame was to stop the Bolsheviks from turning out the lights in Europe and by extension, civilization.
All of the old hands in the current American foreign policy establishment are former Cold Warriors. Similarly, their proteges grew up believing the Russians were the great adversary. There are other elements to this, but the main culture of the US foreign policy elite is an instinctive distrust of the Russians. Like a tribe bred for certain traits, it has been generations since anyone with warm feelings for the Russian has been in the club. Distrust of the Russians is baked into the DNA at this point.
This multi-generational competition with Russia is also the source of our blindness to China. In the Cold War, it became an article of faith that China could be brought over to our side. Nixon going to China was viewed at the time as a great triumph. A billion people were about to turn from godless communism and join us in opposition to the Soviets. The subsequent trade dealings with the Chinese feels like confirmation to our foreign policy elite.
What is happening in America today is sort of a delayed response to “winning” the Cold War. Close to three generations of Americans were trained to be Cold Warriors. Three generations of American voters were trained to be either “socialists” or “capitalists”, Blue Team or Red Team. Even though the rationale for this construct fell away a long time ago, there was too much invested to just toss it all away. But, it is now starting to crumble, like an abandon building.
Obama, for all his defects, started out trying to change the relationship with Russia. He failed, but that may have been timing, as much as his own incompetence. Trump is clearly ready to try a new approach to the Russians. The next generation of foreign policies thinkers are also rethinking American diplomacy, including the relationship with Russia. Even so, these things move slowly. Old men are never fond of seeing their life’s work abandoned by their proteges.