08 Jan

What Russia wants from America

Posted By polity_admin_user

By Andrei P Tsygankov

I am grateful for the opportunity to blog about my new book Russia and America published by Polity Press in September. When the publisher approached me about writing the book, I responded enthusiastically because the topic has interested me for years and because I have not been persuaded by some conventional interpretations of Russia relations with the United States. Among these interpretations is the idea of the contemporary world as a new Cold War between Russia and America. The idea has always stroke me as an imposition of an old and outdated metaphor on new global realities. 

The contemporary world differs from both the Cold War and the post Cold-War in some principal ways. Instead of essentially bipolar and unipolar structures of the international system, as in the two mentioned historical periods, the current system is increasingly multipolar with various meaningful actors including China, India, Turkey, and others shaping global and regional political realities. The current system is also post-Western as Western states – either European nations or America – are no longer in a position to dominate the world and order its rules. As a result, the system is quite unstable with new rules yet to be identified and firmly established. Donald Trump’s election as the U.S. President in 2016 became an important turning point in the international system but it had began to change even before – since the U.S. demonstrable inability to stabilize Iraq following the invasion of the country in 2003, Russia’s show of military force in Georgia in 2008 in defiance of the United States and Europe, intervention in Ukraine in 2014, an active use of cyber operations, and other actions. In short, international relations have entered the state of transition and are currently in flux.

What does motivate Russia in its rivalry with the United States? As in my other books – Russia’s Foreign Policy (2006) and Russia and the West from Alexander to Putin (2012) – I stress national identity and perception of national interests such as security from potential threats, prestige of a great power, and opportunities for economic development. But I also argue global and contemporary origins of Russia’s behavior that have to do with the structure of the international system and world order. 

It is this complicated global transition along with Russia’s historical self-perception as a great power with distinct values and interests that define the country’s difficult relations with America, the formerly defining power of the international system, and dictates the necessarily long and tense period of Russian-American relations ahead. During this transition, Russia is acting on several global directions. Its relations with America are marked by major disagreements – over regional issues from the Middle East to Ukraine and Asia to global ones including nuclear, cyber, and energy security. Until a new global balance of power is established, these relations will likely remain competitive with some elements of tactical cooperation. However, Russia has also built important relations with European, Asian, and Middle Eastern countries. Moscow will exploit these relations in order to check the United States’ global ambitions and – no less importantly – to gradually build a new complex world with a greater room for itself. In this new and unstable environment, Russia competes, adjusts, and creates, as do others actors including America. A new global order with new international rules will take time to establish.

These conclusions may seem pessimistic to those nostalgic about a West-centered world. They may be uncomfortable to those who tend to view Russia, China and other non-western nations as revisionist and/or destabilizing actors. However, the world order transition affects all major actors and their international preferences. All great powers have now became revisionist. Russia is no more revisionist or destabilizing than America or China. If there is a silver lining in this story, it is that no major power will succeed in imposing its preferences on others and a new world order, as difficult as its birth may be, will be necessarily collective and multilateral.

Andrei P. Tsygankov is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at San Francisco State University.

His new book Russia and America is now available from Polity.

Also available from Amazon and Wordery, or check with your local bookstore.