Russia and the United States on the world stage. Part I. From distant friendship to incipient rivalry
The article is a chapter from the book “Russia and the United States on the World Stage”, which is under writing. The editors plan to print other chapters as they become available. The text was written with sympathy for Russia, perhaps the greatest possible for a modern American political thinker. An attentive Russian reader, familiar with historical texture, will undoubtedly note a certain author's subjectivity in the selection of facts and in the preference for interpretations, and will find obvious “figures of silence” at critical points of presentation. But this subjectivity of the author's view seems to be the most valuable to the Editorial Board. This “optics of the Other”, focused on Russian-American relations, gives the Russian reader a chance to critically revise some of his own prejudices regarding the views and motivations of his American colleagues, which is so urgently needed today to restore a full-fledged dialogue. At least in order to suspend further slide into the abyss.
The period from the American War of Independence (1775-1783) to the sale of Alaska (1867) was the longest period of friendly relations in US-Russian history. This was hardly a period of close ties, however, or what we would now call partnership. Each country was of marginal concern to the other. The gulf in values was profound and unbridgeable, even if the two powers insulated relations from ideological disputes. Geopolitical tension was absent because the two countries largely operated in separate spheres. Where they did interact, friction did not erupt into serious conflict, because Russia was willing to accommodate American expansionism rather risk escalation in regions that were far from vital. The benefits that each country derived from the other were minimal and never arose from extensive collaboration. Rather they were the consequence of each country’s refusal to take sides against the other in conflicts with third powers, including the War for Independence, the Crimean War, and the American Civil War. If relations were friendly, it was because there was no compelling reason to be rivals. The situation changed dramatically in the last decades of the 19th century, as the United States experienced an unprecedented period of rapid growth in wealth and power while Russia entered a prolonged period of imperial crisis. American ideological and geopolitical ambition eventually turned distant friendship into an incipient rivalry.
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