Elite Perceptions of the US

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The disappearance of the Soviet menace convinced many that there was no merit in leftist ideas

RUSSIA ACADEMIA AND THINK-TANK 01

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My perception of the US is mixed, just as I perceive the country itself to be sending mixed signals. On the one hand, the US is a country of many great universities, entrepreneurs, and a culture that is both welcoming to new arrivals and accessible to the rest of the world. One cannot help but admire these achievements. On the other hand, the country’s enormous wealth is distributed increasingly unevenly, which causes problems both domestically and internationally.

The wealth accumulated by a tiny fraction of the US population has generated the global spread of US interests but the country’s elite seem to think that these interests are no business of the American people. A recently adopted law lifts the limits on private funding of electoral campaigns in the US, which in effect means that the country will have very little control of its elections. The US government engages in wars for reasons not generally understood by the American public but still widely supported by them because of fear and jingoism stirred up by mainstream US media.

In the 1950s, the average American worker was better off than his European counterpart. He worked shorter hours, could afford a large family, his wife did not have to work, and he could live comfortably. These days both parents have to work, often extra hours, to make ends meet. Labour unions were destroyed long ago. Many people have no medical insurance. As a result of grotesquely uneven distribution of wealth, the comparison with Europe is now the reverse of what it used to be and the average European is now better off than the average American. And yet conservative US ideologues claim that European welfare states, such as Sweden, are failing because of ‘socialist’ values.

My generation of Russians wanted to integrate with the West. Their bitter disappointment with the US has reversed public opinion in favour of a confrontation

I imagine the decline and subsequent collapse of the USSR has been an important factor in the global conservative shift since the times of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The disappearance of the Soviet menace convinced many people, especially in the US, that there was no merit in leftist ideas and there was no reason for concessions to the masses. This attitude reminds me of the situation in the Roman republic in the wake of the Punic wars when the Patricians, no longer threatened by Carthage, thought they were the real masters of the republic and that the plebeians should have no real stake in it and could be appeased by bread and circus.

The period of civic strife that followed ended with the establishment of the Roman Empire. However, while Rome lacked a worthy rival following the destruction of Carthage (with the possible exception of Persia), we are today witnessing the rapid rise of many nations. The exceptional economic status the US enjoyed in the 1950s has now been replaced by global economic competition, and it is not yet certain what the outcome will be.

From this perspective, the current position of the US is perhaps more similar to that of Athens just before the Peloponnesian War than to that of Rome after Carthage. Athens could have become the Mediterranean empire if not for that war. It was the most potent military power of the Greek world and had created a mini-empire of vassal states known as ‘allies’ where it imposed its democratic system and collected tribute, purportedly for the common good. But the more remote Greek states had no taste for Athenian domination; the Doric tribes wanted to curb the power of the Ionians; the Spartans secured financial assistance from the Persians who wanted no empire but their own; the ‘allies’ gladly left Athens whenever possible; and the Athenian treasury was eventually exhausted. Finally, Athens was destroyed and Sparta weakened.

I certainly have no crystal ball, yet my sense is that we are on the brink of a similar engagement between Russia and the US. Russia, fully deserving of defeat in the Cold War, have tried to be a US partner but was excluded by the US in its would-be Pax Americana. The tiny post-Soviet NATO states whose elites in some cases have a genuine fear of Russia add very little to US security. The larger European allies have little taste for war with Russia. China, threatened by the US ‘pivot to Asia’, will probably behave similarly with respect to Russia as did Persia with respect to Sparta.

I find these developments very unfortunate. Twenty-five years ago, my generation of Russians wanted to integrate with the West. Their bitter disappointment with the US has reversed public opinion in favour of a confrontation, whose outcome will probably benefit a third party.