U.S.-Russian ties: The silent embargo

Edward Goldberg

Published on June 2, 2000
© 2000- The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- U.S. relations with Russia during the past century can be described in three words: enmity, fear and misunderstanding.

It is as if a silent psychological embargo has been in place, blocking most of the paths to mutual understanding. Even during periods when mitigating circumstances could have allowed the formulation of a more enlighten policy, animosity prevailed. This embargo is so fraught with historical and cultural implications, that even the massive changes toward democracy and capitalism that have occurred in Russia over the past 10 years have not been able to totally tear down this wall. These changes have been what the United States has been longing for since Lenin first arrived back in Russia.

Yet if this is truly the case, why is our Russian policy still politicized? What is the historical cause for this? Why are we so deaf to the actual reality and needs of the situation?

America's negative perception of Russia during the last century, partly based on the realities of Soviet actions, has been allowed to run unchecked for several cultural and historic reasons.

Primary among these is the lack of a non-ideological Russian- American constituency within the United States. Theodore Roosevelt spoke of hyphenated Americans -- Irish-Americans, German-Americans, etc. -- having a major influence on U.S. foreign policy. There are, however, hardly any Russian-Americans.

From 1881 to 1914, 3.2 million people immigrated from the Russian Empire to the United States, of which only 65,000 were ethnically Russian. Thus, not only were the overwhelming majority of these immigrants not Russian, these émigrés viewed Russia and Russians with hostility.

Unlike Polish-Americans or Jewish-Americans, as an example, there was and is no domestic constituency to politically support Russia and create a Russian cultural identity within the American polyglot. No American presidential candidate ever has needed to worry about losing a big state because he did not support warmer relations with Russia.

The mass immigration from the Russian Empire, at a time of great social change in America and the beginning of radicalization within Russia, unwittingly created the first anti-Russian imprints on the American consciousness.

Although very few of the immigrants were political radicals of any type, the fear caused in America by this huge wave of immigrants from Russia (regardless of the fact that most of these immigrants were not Russian) helped lead to the post-World War I Red scares.

Stalin's aggression and the possibility of nuclear war during the Cold War only reinforced our negative perceptions of Russia to such an extent that it is difficult for us to grasp fully -- even today -- that Soviet Russia was totally defeated in the Cold War. A fear of Russia has almost become part of the American psyche. With no other former major adversary has the United States remained so distrustful after it has won the actual conflict.

Germany, with which we fought two wars, is an example. Even though Germany could be a major economic rival today, the United States and Germany are close friends.

Ninety years of rhetoric and misunderstanding has made it very easy and politically acceptable for America to turn away from Russia when things appear difficult. The problem, however, is that Russia is extremely important to our own security, both now and in the future.

Its geographical position, straddling Europe and Asia, its nuclear arsenal, its economy, which has enormous potential, its mineral wealth and its membership in the U.N. Security Council make Russia too important for America to quasi-isolate.

We must, therefore, through leadership overcome our historic fears and truly tear down the wall that inhibits our relationship with Russia.

Edward Goldberg is president of F.J. Elsner North America Ltd., which trades extensively with Russia and Eastern Europe. He has testified before the Senate on trade issues, has lectured on international trade at the Lubin Graduate School of Business, Pace University, and is working on a book about the history of Russian-U.S. relations.

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