US-Russia Relations and Nationalism


Russia is in the headlines of the US media once again, this time regarding accusations of cyber attacks to disrupt and influence the course of the recent presidential election. This has prompted me to put together some thoughts about US-Russia relations, and how it relates to an understanding of national pride and rivalry, not only between the US and Russia, but around the world in general.

After the news broke I spoke with a Russian person about it, starting the conversation by simply restating the gist of what I had heard in the news.  Before I finished my utterance, I noticed that she already looked perturbed.  She sternly posed the question “Where’s the evidence that we hacked your computer systems?”  Then she noted that the CIA and FBI were in disagreement as to the veracity of the claims being made, and followed up with the well known accusations about American double standards and hypocrisy.  While not doubting her ability to approach this issue in a fair-minded way, it’s been clear to me in my latest conversations with Russians that speaking about the international affairs of the US and Russia with them is set against a backdrop influenced by Cold War legacies.

The United States has increased its’ presence and influence in lands once dominated by Russia, and this has been seen by Russians more as efforts of a maniacal superpower bent on world domination, rather than a nation acting naturally in favor of its’ own and its’ allies’ interests.  Both sides are predisposed to suspect each other’s motives and aims, with accusatory statements made ready at the helm when it appears as though one side is gaining leverage in a dispute or on moral ground.  The competitive and calculating game of thrones carries on between the two countries, but attempts to bridge divides and open up spaces for meaningful dialogue has also been on going for decades now.

So what should Americans consider when thinking about how to better our relations with Russia?  A November 2016 issue of The Economist depicts on its’ front cover Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump standing in stride to the drumbeat of a patriotic tune. Above them stands the title of that week’s issue: The New Nationalism.  A well-rounded understanding of patriotism and nationalism is definitely a good start for those who want to know what’s going on these days both within these countries, and in their relations with one another.

Let’s start with Russia and a young man by the name of Raman, whom I met while on a Fulbright grant in Russia from 2009-10.      

Raman comes from a family with several men who served in the Soviet military, some of who died on the battlefield.  It was clear to me that his patriotic feeling for Russia comes partially because he views that Russia has been a powerful player on the world scene for quite some time now, and that it must continue to do so.  He appreciates the honorable sacrifices made by the Russian military.  

Raman often paid homage to his fallen kin in my presence, yet he vowed not to follow in their footsteps as men of the military.  One day while out on a walk with him, we stopped by a large monument commemorating fallen soldiers of the 1980s war in Afghanistan that the Russians were involved in.  The monument had a beleaguered soldier on his knees, his face looking downward, holding a rifle on his thighs.  He led me to the immediate front of the statue, which included a large placard of names and dates commonly seen on war memorials.  He fell to his knees, shed a few tears, and asked why it is that humans have to kill each other in war.  Here Raman was, a patriot of Russia, while wearing a T-shirt with John Lennon on it, Imagine written on the bottom, the title of Lennon’s famous song, a plea to humanity to find common ground, rather than to stir up conflicts with each other based on their differences.

It fascinates me how we orient ourselves to the tendencies and impulses that pull us closer to directions of war and peace.  How do we respect every nation’s right to tap into a wellspring of sources unto which their reverence and loyalty to their homelands comes from, while also being able to admonish and stand up to nations whose prides and prejudices go too far?

Are we going too far, that is, too far to the right, in today’s world?  Here we are about to be ushering in 2017, and in countries like the US and the UK, world emblems of multiculturalism and democratic liberalism, we’ve been Brexited and Donald Trumped.

Some of us stand near the end of 2016 with growing wonderment as to whether a major rift in our societies is now near the point of irreparability.  We hear of Americans vowing to move to Canada and British expatriates applying for citizenship in member states of the European Union.  Beyond debates about multiculturalism vs. nationalism, there is a sense that this irreparable rift between the citizens of these countries is heightening authoritarian tendencies and aspirations among the public and political figures vying for power.

Will we recast ourselves to other eras of fervent nationalism, in which all nations view themselves as having the right to proclaim their ethno-national stock as supreme over others?  These recent trends are obviously not without their precedent, and we must strive to ensure that no country seeks to emulate the terrifying dreams of a country like Nazi Germany.

Even in less nationalistic times, Samuel Huntington reminds us that the human need for self-esteem leads people to believe that their group is better than other groups.  As he puts it, “their sense of self rises and falls with the fortunes of the groups with which they identify, and with the extent to which other people are excluded from their group…they prefer to be worse off absolutely but better off compared to someone they see as a rival, rather than better off absolutely but not as well off as that rival”.

If there’s one thing that my international experience has taught me, it’s to tread carefully on people’s sense of national pride. No matter how big or small, powerful or irrelevant on the international scene, every nation finds a way towards feeling a sense of pride about who they are and what they have achieved.

Certain brands of patriotism may appear puzzling, but basic insights about human psychology and history reveal why they become manifest.  Many Americans more politically to the left wonder how some of their fellow citizens can be so focused on their supremacy and reputation in world affairs, when we face so many problems here at home.  Eight years of relative retrenchment in world affairs during Obama’s time in office has the journalist Mark Landler wondering whether Americans are thirsting for a bit more muscle flexing, even as they remain weary of war and suspicious of foreign entanglements.  Landler cites evidence that Americans are dissatisfied with a portrait of their country “as a spent force, managing its’ decline amid a world of rising powers, resurgent empires, and lethal new forces such as the Islamic State”.  Donald Trump’s mantra, that “we’re going to win again, and we’re going to win big”, as silly as it may sound, resonates with Americans who feel that we just aren’t “winning” anymore, at home or abroad.      











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