Elite Perceptions of the US

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Although the official rhetoric has not changed, US actions remind me a lot of those of the Soviet Union


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  • Inconsistent foreign policy
  • Perceived arrogance
  • American policy process

My perception of the United States is divided between my perception of the country and the American people, and of American policy, mainly foreign policy.

I have always liked the US - its nature, cities, way of life, its history - and the American people. We seem to share an understanding of basic human values. However, my perception of US policy has changed dramatically. Living in the USSR, I did not like living in a communist regime as I saw an obvious lack of many important freedoms and a discrepancy between the official ideology of the Communist Party and reality. Conversely, I viewed the United States as a country which implements the notions of freedom and human rights I believe so strongly in, and who aims to spread these principles to other countries.

Today, although the official rhetoric of the United States has not changed, US actions remind me a lot of those of the Soviet Union. As a mathematician, I try to analyse based on pre-established criteria, rather than on the basis of who is involved. Unfortunately, the United States has in recent years showed the world that its relationship with different parties is not based on shared principles and common values but rather based on the readiness of these parties to support the United States. This attitude causes people to talk about American double standards.

When I first read George Orwell’s 1984, I saw it as a portrayal of the Soviet Union and a prediction of its future. Today, I am surprised to observe in Western societies - including the US - much of what was described in the book: the rewriting of history; the transfer of the parenting function to the state; and, most shocking to me, the concept of “thought crime”.

Until recently, who could have imagined that in a liberal Western democracy you could be declared a criminal, not because you have committed some illegal act but because you have a different view on certain issues? Of course, today’s Russia also displays some characteristics described by Orwell. Certainly, there is a Big Brother watching its citizens. But US intelligence agencies seem to do this on a much larger scale. In Soviet times, if it was revealed that the personal correspondence or conversations of a well-known figure had been intercepted, most people, including myself, would have pointed their fingers at the KGB. Today, most people suspect US intelligence agencies.

The actions of the United States and its Western allies in former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria and other countries, makes it hard to understand the criteria and decision-making processes behind interventions. Justifications such as putting an end to violence, lawlessness or poverty hold little ground when these problems increase and spread to other countries and regions, complicating and exacerbating existing challenges.

Today’s Russia displays some characteristics described by Orwell. Certainly, there is a Big Brother watching its citizens. But US intelligence agencies seem to do this on a much larger scale

Ironically, the US tends to stress the need to follow international law and democratic procedures. Was that what happened in the case of Bin Laden? In principle, I believe that in certain cases, such as when a delay may lead to civilian casualties, such extrajudicial actions are permissible. But the country in question should not then try to enforce unconditional compliance with international law by others. This is a manifestation of US hypocrisy. Another such example is the issue of NATO non-enlargement to the east. Many recognize that a promise not to expand eastward was made, although the agreement was not recorded in writing during negotiations. But today's leaders say that if there is no written document, there is no obligation. This is clearly not fair play.

I also strongly oppose statements by President Obama about US exceptionalism, as the definition of this is the belief that a country has certain qualities that gives it the right to play by its own rules. Hitler appealed to the notion of German exceptionalism, while Soviet propaganda used the concept of the superiority of the Soviet way of life. Such statements of US exceptionalism contribute to increasing negative attitudes towards the US around the world.

For me and for the majority of Russians, US policy is personified, above all, by the president and the secretary of state, along with key foreign policy players. US media plays a large role in shaping perceptions of the US as, in contrast to the Soviet era, inhabitants of Russia have no problem getting information from the internet and foreign TV channels. It amazes me how US and Western commentators often have very negative assessments of the quality of their own media content.

Current US actions against Russia such as sanctions and the Magnitsky Act cause negative attitudes towards the US among the Russian population. The Russian authorities also tend to highlight ‘unfriendly’ actions by the United States, primarily through the media. However, I doubt it is worse than American attitudes towards Russia and the Russian people. I am convinced that films, to a certain extent, reflect existing views in society and help shape the views of ordinary people. And if you go for Russian villains, then sooner or later people will perceive them as just that.

The US government, just as any other country, must prioritize the interests of its citizens and, with limited resources, we have to make difficult decisions and clear space for ourselves. But such a narrow defence of one’s own interests, without considering other leading players in the international arena, may bring negative consequences for the international community, including the US. An American journalist once said at a Russian talk show, ‘America does, because it can’. But others may feel that they can too.