The United States and Russia -- An Odd Couple of Friends

On the face of it, Russia and the United States of America appear to have little in common.

For almost all of its history, Russia has been an autocracy, a long series of systems in which political, economic and religious power have flowed from the top down. And the very name Russia carries with it an ethnic meaning.

From its beginning, the United States was deliberately decentralized, with each citizen enjoying fundamental and enforceable rights of political, economic and religious liberty. And rather than having an inherent ethnic content, American nationality encompasses a system of ideas consciously and rather successfully designed to be shared by all, regardless of ethnicity.

If these two giant countries are to be friends and allies, there must be some changes in one or both countries leading to a convergence.

As an American, I might be accused of partiality for saying that Russia must undertake most of the changes if our two countries are to have a lasting alliance. But I believe that most Russians would prefer to change to a system that brought them more health, wealth and happiness than they have previously enjoyed. And the evidence is strong that a decentralized, democratic system delivers those benefits.

Not that I suggest Russia should adopt everything American. Far from it. Political, economic and religious liberty, yes. MTV and professional wrestling, no.

That old, unrepentant Soviet propagandist Georgi Arbatov wrote in the U.S. publication Foreign Policy in June of 1994, "Americans and Russians need not love one another and they are unlikely to become allies anytime soon." I hope Arbatov is wrong in this estimate, as he has been wrong on so many other occasions.

This paper will discuss why change in Russia will be resisted, why it will be difficult, why change in Russia is possible and what should be done in Russia, the United States and other countries to create a long-lasting friendship between the former foes, a friendship which would benefit all nations of the world.

I see five main reasons why healthy changes in Russia will be resisted and difficult:

  1. The deeply-rooted Russian sense of ethnicity remains a powerful force. Ethnic hubris throughout history has led nations to act in uncivilized ways.

    Human nature includes an element of tribal loyalty in us all. But as travel and communications break the relative isolation of most nations, people with widely different heritages get to know each other personally. Understanding and friendships follow, which make ethnic and racial differences less troublesome to civilization.

    Communism, which systematically limited travel and communication, retarded this civilizing process in the Soviet Empire. I have a brilliant young friend, a student leader in the fight against the Ceausescu regime in Romania; he is outstanding in almost every way. But he burns with resentment at wrongs done Romanians by Hungarians five centuries ago.

    In the West, ethnic and cultural self-centeredness sometimes takes more amusing forms, such as the current French law which tries to require that conferences held in France be conducted in French and the French law which lists all the first names which French parents may give to their children. And while anyone may be a British subject, only people of the proper ethnicity are considered to be truly English.

    Because the United States is a nation peopled almost entirely by immigration from many countries, ethnic heritage, when thought of in America, tends now to manifest itself more and more in harmless activity such as St. Patrick's Day parades and Sons of Italy social events. In this respect I may be typical of Americans: It's difficult for me to become emotionally involved in wrongs my English, Scottish, Irish, French, German and Cherokee Indian ancestors may have done to each other centuries ago.

  2. The second major impediment to productive change in Russia is that generations of Communists have given wealth itself a bad reputation there.

    By their incessant, powerful propaganda, the Communists equated private wealth with evil. Once ingrained, such beliefs are hard to change.

    And by their example, the Communists further discredited the idea of wealth. The average Russian grew to resent his Communist masters as corrupt exploiters; he saw that those with the wealth in Russia, those who possessed significant personal property and who enjoyed all the luxuries in sight, were his oppressors.

    No wonder that the newly-rich, however they obtained their wealth, are targets of resentment for many Russians rather than objects of admiration whom they try vigorously to imitate.

  3. Russia gets and takes a lot of bad advice from the United States and other countries.

    In common with political and religious liberty, the productive market system developed as what the late Austrian economist F.A. Hayek called a spontaneous order. Governments in the West did not create these admirable, productive decentralized systems. At the cost of generations of sweat and blood, liberty was gradually wrested from governments. When Russians accept and implement advice about economics from Western governments, their reforms are often counter-productive.

    Russians who want an economic system which rapidly creates wealth should take great care to learn which Western political and intellectual leaders actually fostered prosperity. The Washington Post recently quoted Alexander Rutskoi as saying, "For me, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal is a great example, and John Maynard Keynes is a real economist."

    In fact, President Franklin Roosevelt's policies of unprecedented government intervention in the U.S. economy were utterly unsuccessful in ending the Great Depression in the United States in the long years before the Second World War came along. Roosevelt systematically attacked those who produced wealth, so they produced less wealth, which perpetuated the misery which kept him in power.

    And Russia's recent experience with terrible inflation of the ruble should make Lord Keynes the last economist Russians would admire. Keynes advocated inflation as a means to achieve economic growth; his greatest failing was that he never understood that the temporary economic gains caused by a little inflation could be sustained only by accelerating the rate of inflation, which inevitably leads to economic disaster.

  4. In periods of economic crisis, demagogues find a ready audience for promises of simple but false solutions through the use of government power.

    Writing in England in 1944, F.A. Hayek wrote, "It is the great merit of democracy that the demand for the cure of a widely felt evil can find expression in an organized movement. That popular pressure might become canalized in support of particular theories that sound plausible to the ordinary man is one of its dangers. But it was almost inevitable that some gifted man should see the opportunity and try to ride into political power on the wave of support that could be created for some such scheme."

    In 1996, even some Americans are proving quite susceptible to nostrums, the bad economics of populist opportunists. In the midst of awful economic conditions in Russia, with almost no experience in how to create the wealth a free market makes possible and with little experience as participants in democratic politics, Russians will inevitably make many mistakes of this nature.

  5. The organized political forces in Russia are splintered, which caused the communist and nationalist parties to be over-represented in the new duma.

    The Wall Street Journal March 20, 1996 quoted retired Gen. Alexander as saying that, after the election of an extremist president, "there would be full nationalization in the afternoon and civil war by evening." Lebed himself was a loser in the recent duma elections precisely because of that splintering. But there will not be 42 parties contesting the upcoming presidential election; the democratic reformers will be more united and almost certainly do better then than they did in the duma elections.

Despite these and other dangers and impediments, I believe change for the better is possible now in Russia.

Will the new and fragile liberties of the Russian people be preserved and strengthened? It depends on whether or not enough Russians have sufficient wisdom, courage and patience.

Will they have the wisdom to study both the massive evidence of the processes which have worked and those which haven't worked to create wealth elsewhere and their own rapidly accumulating experience in post-Communist Russia?

Will they have the courage to act on the results of careful study by participating vigorously in politics and the market to bring about the needed changes?

Will they have the patience to accept gradual changes for the better and setbacks from time to time?

It seems to me that a people who were patient enough to wait in vain for generations for the creation of a "workers paradise" have already demonstrated remarkable patience. And courage has long been amply demonstrated as a characteristic of the Russian people.

But sufficient wisdom? That's a question only time can answer. If they consider the matter, they should conclude that time is likely to improve conditions in Russia.

It takes time to learn new ways. Over time, those who succeed economically as entrepreneurs or as employees in a free market will serve as role models for others.

In time, even those who have gained wealth through less than legitimate means may see it in their interest to promote the process by which the economic freedom of everyone is protected.

A generation can produce very dramatic change. One of the worst demagogues in American history was Huey Long, Governor of the State of Louisiana and then a U. S. Senator. He was a major political rival of Franklin Roosevelt. Before he was assassinated in 1935, Huey Long used his political power to amass an illegitimate fortune. His son, Russell Long, inherited much of that wealth and was elected a U.S. Senator himself in 1948. For decades, Sen. Russell Long was a major, effective defender of the free market and property rights for all against the encroachments of big government.

In this regard, Russians should beware of people who favor private enterprise but not free enterprise.

Another positive factor in Russia is the rapid spread of religious faith. When I made lecture tour there in March of 1993, I noticed that every plane I flew on carried a number of Christian missionaries. In Saratov, on the Volga River, I had several conversations with a local college professor who was an avowed atheist. To my surprise, the professor told me he was delighted by the revival of religion in Russia, both of the Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations.

The professor said, "Without religion, there is no morality. Without morality, nothing works."

That reminded me of something by the second president of the United States, John Adams. In 1798, President Adams said, "Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other."

Political, economic and religious liberty fit well together. History demonstrates repeatedly that each liberty supports the others. And to the extent that a nation protects all three, that nation shines out among its neighbors.

I promised at the outset to answer Lenin's question: What is to be done? To the suggestions covered above, I would add that more general travel and communications between Russia and the United States would be helpful.

Since 1988, my Leadership Institute has hosted in Virginia 39 student interns from former Communist countries, including four young Russians, for three to four months each. In addition, I have led groups of pro-freedom Americans and like-minded leaders from other Western countries on extended tours to meet with pro-freedom activists in Russia and most of the other former Communist countries.

Exchanges of this nature should be greatly expanded by people in any country who have sufficient resources and an interest in lasting peace and prosperity for all. Student exchanges with Russia are relatively rare; they should be multiplied.

One far-sighted American industrialist, Dr. Robert Krieble organized the Krieble Institute, an educational project of Paul Weyrich's Free Congress Foundation in Washington, D.C. He has brought over and trained in the United States dozens of bright young activists from the former Soviet Empire, especially Russians. Dr. Krieble's institute now funds a spectacular program of forty fieldmen who conduct seminars, largely in Russia, on practical politics and the principles of entrepreneurship. Others should go and do likewise.

The people of the United States have no desire to be a threat to Russia. Right now, the Russian people constitute no immediate threat to the United States. Our opportunity to consolidate the gains for freedom in the world is too great to neglect.

Confident optimism is unwarranted. But it is reasonable to be hopeful.


By Morton C. Blackwell
Paris, France, March 25, 1996