The U.S. in a Time of Change: Internal Transformations and Relations with Russia

15 april 2013

Andranik Migranyan is Director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York.

Resume: The U.S. is going through a painful process of shifting from unilateral global domination towards creating a balance of power in various regions of the world in order to preserve its presence and influence. This means that, as before, we can expect ups and downs in U.S.-Russian relations.

Ever since the beginning of the twenty-first century it has become increasingly evident that the United States, the only remaining global superpower today after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, is undergoing essential transformations in all aspects of its domestic political life. The country is enduring a torturous adaptation to new global realities, especially in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the rise of new centers of power – China, India, Russia, Brazil, and others.


The global financial crisis has had serious consequences for the U.S. Firstly, doubts emerged about the efficiency and attractiveness of the American economic model for other countries. Secondly, the crisis exposed the weakness of the U.S institutional system which prevented the government from taking quick and effective measures to stop the crisis from spreading. The crisis also highlighted socioeconomic problems that had been festering for decades. In general, the country realized that it is facing new domestic and international challenges.

Although the reasons for and outcome of this grandiose transformation are not fully understood, many political scientists have attempted to scrutinize what is happening to the world’s economic and military colossus. Are the present-day problems temporary or do they herald the beginning of a consistent decline for the U.S.? Patrick J. Buchanan, in his book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?, argues that the U.S. is definitely in decline. By contrast, Fareed Zacharia, in his book, The Post-American World, has a more moderate opinion, while Zbigniew Brzezinski, in Strategic Vision, claims that the U.S. will remain pre-eminent in economic and military terms for a long time; although it will have to adapt to new realities, in which the country’s global economic and military power will gradually decrease.

The U.S. economic model has undergone profound changes over the past century. While the first half of the 20th century saw a tumultuous U.S. industrial revolution, which helped propel the middle class upwards, starting with the 1970s, the U.S. economy has been marked by de-industrialization. When it started sending production offshore to developing countries to take advantage of cheap labor, the U.S. began a definite move towards a service-oriented economy. The rise in corporate profits coincided with an increase in the U.S. trade deficit. De-industrialization has caused structural unemployment: on the one hand, there are fewer jobs for unskilled labor and blue-collar workers; on the other, restrictions on human capital have made it difficult for employers to find highly-skilled workers for jobs in the high-tech, research, and financial sectors. The latter has forced Americans to turn to educational opportunities, but even prestigious higher education degrees have not solved structural economic challenges.

Political scientist Michael Lind maintains that the present situation with the U.S. economy is similar to that of Britain a century ago, when it stood at the pinnacle of its power. The change in the economic paradigm played a cruel joke on the British Empire, which eventually lost its geopolitical dominance. By emulating Britain and encouraging free international trade, the U.S. has opened its markets to cheaper production from less developed countries that are experiencing an industrial boom. And again, like Britain a century ago, the U.S. has become an international financial center with the blessing of its corporate leaders.

This change resulted in the loss of highly paid sectors of the economy that made up the backbone of the U.S. middle class. As a result, starting with the 1970s, the middle class and income have stagnated.

A shift in emphasis in the financial industry to derivative instruments mandates both immediate regulation of the sector and continued globalization. Globalization favors the financial cosmopolitan elite. This group is loosely tied to geographic location, easily controls financial flows, and works for its own interests rather than for the national interests of their countries. In case of the U.S., this means that there will be a further widening in the gap between those who work, pay taxes, and receive and repay loans, and those who employ complex financial schemes to evade taxes, thereby optimizing incomes and lobbying the government for favorable legislation. This economic model obstructs the accumulation of wealth by the middle class and pushes it deeper into stagnation.

The emergence of the information society has brought with it unforeseen consequences. Currently, immigrants in the U.S. have no need to be fully integrated into American society since they have TVs, the Internet, and Skype to stay in constant contact with their families and friends. They no longer need to fully master the English language either, as Spanish has, for all intents and purposes, largely displaced English, especially in the southwestern U.S. Immigrant communities today live in their own cultural surroundings, which increasingly resemble their native countries.

The rise of new centers of power (China, India, Brazil, Indonesia) also increases desire among immigrants to maintain closer links with their native countries. With China’s increasing prestige, a Chinese immigrant is not inclined to give up his Chinese identity for an American one. It is hard to predict the loyalties and preferences of the new immigrant electorate in the U.S., and, consequently, to meet its social and economic demands. This creates resentment among the older population in the U.S.; after all, a ‘real’ American puts America first. Thus, a new society is emerging, where new immigrant communities could grow exponentially and complicate U.S. relations with their native countries. This process further fragments U.S. society.

Amid globalization, excessive checks and balances in the U.S. government, and the country’s fragmented society, it is increasingly difficult to compromise with the interests of newly emerging groups. The situation is further complicated by the fact that U.S. politicians tend to think in two-year election cycles. In general, politicians are not focused on solving the problems facing U.S. society; rather, they concentrate on those issues relevant for certain social and ethnic groups that make up their core electorate. As a result, diversity and pluralism, which used to be viewed as the foundation of American democracy and its main achievement, today merely fosters the growing dysfunction in the U.S. political system.


Among American experts, there are many realists who have called on the government to limit U.S. participation in global affairs and focus on ensuring the country’s national security. They maintain that, in its foreign policy, the government should divide the world into several regions, determine which of them are critical to U.S. security (according to John Mearsheimer, these are Europe, the Middle East, and northeast Asia), and control the internal situation in those regions with the help of U.S. regional allies. Relations between the allies should be conducted on the basis of mutually advantageous cooperation; that is, the U.S. should not dictate the parameters of the sociopolitical or economic development of its allies.

Stewart Patrick, one of the leaders of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, holds that in the 21st century the normative foundations for multilateral cooperation will weaken. Global cooperation today might follow a logic similar to that of the Concert of Europe in the early 1800s. That arrangement “leavened the traditional balance of power with a balance of rights, which helped bridge differences between the Western powers (France and the United Kingdom) and the authoritarian monarchies (Austria, Prussia, and Russia) of the Holy Alliance… The United States may need to pay less attention to regime type and tolerate nations in which democracy is lacking or absent.”

If this point of view prevails in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, it would be the most beneficial for the country’s interests. Firstly, this reasoning would make international relations more predictable and peaceful. There would be a sharp decline in the number of crises that are provoked or aggravated by clumsy and insufficient U.S. intervention in the affairs of other countries or entire regions under messianic slogans. Secondly, if the U.S. government begins to judge international relations rationally, it would be hugely interested in cooperation with Russia.

Some well-known pundits in the U.S. are calling for deeper cooperation with Russia. Zbigniew Brzezinski would like the U.S. to become the leader and driving force behind an “Expanded West” that includes Russia. With Russia incorporated into the West, this new “Expanded West” would balance China’s global influence.

In the past decade, the U.S. has frequently tried to counteract Russian foreign policy on issues deemed essential by the Russian leadership. Such moves have concerned ideological considerations unrelated to the safeguarding of U.S. national interests abroad. One example is U.S. attempts to secure alternative energy import routes for the European Union, mainly from Central Asian countries, which has understandably riled Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama’s balanced energy policy, which avoids clashing with Russian interests, has helped to ease tensions between the two countries. Apparently, the U.S. finally realized that seeking European energy imports bypassing Russia is not particularly viable and that the U.S. vociferous support for such routes serves only to irritate Russia. Similarly, the U.S. seems to have grasped that Russian energy policy on the international arena is dictated by economic interests and not by providing a smokescreen for nefarious political expansion, as many paranoid U.S. authors write. The anti-Russian position of the U.S. in the energy sector hardly serves U.S. business interests; especially after oil giants ExxonMobil and Rosneft signed a contract in 2012. In spite of calls by some American foreign policy experts that the U.S. support any projects bypassing Russia in bringing energy to Europe, the Obama administration has de facto abandoned active attempts to secure alternative energy routes, which can potentially herald improvements in cooperation with Russia.

The U.S. and Russia have common geopolitical interests in the long run. They include: a stable government in Afghanistan; nuclear non-proliferation by the Iranian and North Korean regimes; the defeat of international Islamist terrorism; and the stable development of the European economy (the EU is Russia’s principal trading partner). Lastly, Brzezinski is not the only voice calling for Russian-U.S. cooperation as a plausible tool to keep China’s growing power in check.

At present, considering the country’s dearth of allies, partnership with Russia would be beneficial for the U.S. and could solve many problems. Russia enjoys a historically good relationship not only with China, but also with Islamic and African countries. Furthermore, Russia has influence over Europe, even if it is determined by energy exports. As U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden said, in the case of a major crisis in the Middle East or a war with Iran, the U.S. is counting on Russia to guarantee Europe’s energy security.

The Russian leadership is well aware of the position and role the U.S. enjoys in the world, understands the importance of a constructive partnership with it, and has a good idea of the country’s available resources. Simultaneously, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s team is trying to build relationships with all partners in such a way so as to ensure the independence of Russian foreign policy and build alliances with various countries in order to achieve its various objectives. The U.S. should understand this pragmatic approach by Russia if U.S. foreign policy would also be pragmatic.

At this point, however, there is staunch opposition in the U.S. to normal partnership with Russia. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, there is inertia left over from the Cold War era, with Cold Warriors holding prominence among experts. Secondly, Russian positions do not fall in line with those of the U.S. on a number of issues. This has aroused the displeasure of U.S. politicians who believe in their country’s exceptional role and global dominance. This annoyance mounted as Russia criticized the U.S. unilateral intervention in Iraq and Libya, its violation of the Security Council’s mandate, and its position on Syria. Considering Russia’s special place in the international arena and its right to veto Security Council decisions, it is not surprising that many in the U.S. chafe at Russian actions.

There is hope, however, that if U.S. foreign policymakers assume a realistic view of the world and their country’s resources, cooperation with Russia would be helpful in implementing U.S. foreign policy goals – containing Iranian nuclear ambitions, fighting piracy, working on nuclear non-proliferation, ensuring global energy security, stabilizing Afghanistan, and exploring Arctic resources.


A number of articles were published in the U.S. and Russian media both before and after Obama’s second inauguration that forecast U.S.-Russian relations over the next four years. The most interesting viewpoint, in my opinion, was professed by one of the best experts on Russia, Tom Graham, in an article he co-authored with Dmitry Trenin (The New York Times, December 12, 2012). In it, the authors discussed problems in U.S.-Russian relations: the Magnitsky Act; a Russian decision to cease cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program; and the Russian ban on adoptions by U.S. citizens. The authors maintain that these problems arise from a lack of understanding over the two countries’ strategic interests by politicians and political experts alike. If those problems were placed in a strategic context, Russian-U.S. relations would develop better. As examples of areas for potential strategic dialogue Graham and Trenin mention the strategic interests of both countries concerning China, cooperation in developing the Arctic, and the fight against Islamist terrorism. 

There are two factors relevant for strategic partnership worth mentioning here.

Firstly, I think it is a misconception to expect large, fully sovereign countries to have compatible strategic interests if those interests are not temporarily focused against a third country. A good example is the strategic dialogue between the U.S. and China in the 1970s initiated by Henry Kissinger. The success of this dialogue was rooted in the perception, by both the U.S. and China, of the Soviet Union as a threat. The two countries were ready to join forces against a common enemy.

Secondly, two countries may have converging vital interests only if they are equal in terms of resources. If one country has a smaller economic and military-political potential, it will likely lose part of its sovereignty to the other.

In the 1990s and the early twenty-first century, discussions took place about the possibility of a strategic dialogue between Russia and the U.S. Unfortunately, the U.S. felt it was so strong and self-sufficient that dialogue on any strategic cooperation came down to the American expectation that Russia should bend its own vital interests to submit to U.S. foreign policy. Only then could peaceful, constructive and effective cooperation ensue. For instance, authors discuss concurrent U.S. and Russian strategic interests with regard to China. But it is patently obvious that, at present, it is more plausible to speak of a coincidence between Russian and Chinese interests in their attempt to contain an arrogant and unilateral U.S. foreign policy.

As concerns the development of resources in the Arctic, the U.S. confidence in its own power obviated the need to sign the Convention on the Law of the Sea and betrayed a lack of interest in a division of Arctic resources based on international law. This unties the Americans’ hands in the Arctic.

A strategic dialogue requires a certain level of trust between the parties. However, talks between the two countries on missile defense in Europe testify to the lack of such trust. The U.S. is trying hard to convince Russia that it targets hypothetical Iranian missiles. Meanwhile, U.S. administrations have repeatedly said since the very beginning of the Iranian nuclear program that the idea of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that, should Iran continue to advance towards a nuclear weapon, the U.S. or Israel will destroy the program’s infrastructure.

In today’s multipolar world, countries that have genuine sovereignty and that seek to protect their national interests tend to form ad hoc coalitions rather than longstanding alliances. Some even claim that the time for the latter has passed. Hence, even if it is desirable, strategic dialogue is becoming useless, since it is difficult to tell which issues are tactical and which are strategic. For Russia, the strategically essential issue in its argument with the U.S. is the latter’s interference in Russia’s internal affairs and relations with post-Soviet countries. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine any U.S. administration engaging in such discussions openly without being blamed for betraying the national and geopolitical interests of the U.S., as many politicians and experts in Washington currently perceive them. This makes it impossible to have total cooperative relations between two large countries with intersecting and conflicting interests.

Such a black and white approach can only exist between states engaged in total and open confrontation, as the Soviet Union was against countries in the West during the Cold War, or in the case of palpable weakness of countries in an alliance, which are de facto obliged to yield their interests to the will of a stronger partner on whom they are utterly dependent in economic or military-political terms. The latter case is characteristic of relations within NATO, as the military security of all of its members depends to a large degree on the U.S. Yet even within this framework, clashes arise, as in the case of the Iraq war, when Germany and France went against the wishes of the U.S.

The second illusion shared by both Russian and U.S. experts is that Russia is no longer at the center of American foreign policy, since the U.S. is now focused on Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, the Arab world, and the Asia-Pacific region. Russia allegedly plays no significant role in those regions.

In my opinion, this claim is incompetent. There is hardly a problem in these regions that the U.S. can solve without Russian participation. This concerns both Afghanistan, where Russia’s role is well known, and Iran. The significant role Russia plays in the Iranian nuclear question is obvious, just like it is obvious in the solution of the situation in Syria.

As for Syria, one often hears that Russia is playing the role of a spoiler; that it is obsessed with preserving the Assad regime and is trying to prevent the democratization of the country in any way possible. Only a blind man would not see that Russia and its diplomats are fixated not on preserving the dictatorship, but on observing principles. Russia is aware that a regime change could result in chaos and anarchy, as was the case in Iraq and Libya. More often than not, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The third widespread illusion is that Russia and the U.S. experience political conflicts in bilateral relations because there are no solid economic ties between them. There is some truth to these allegations. Of course, it would be good for Russia to have more extensive trade and economic relations with the U.S. Yet it is clear that even strong economic ties do not insure against conflicts when the geopolitical interests of large sovereign countries are at stake. Despite their strong economic ties, Germany and Great Britain fought each other in World War I. Current trade of almost $500 billion between China and the U.S. does not interfere with the fact that China has even more conflict and tension points with the U.S. than Russia. In all of China’s disputes with Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and, in part, with Japan, the U.S. supports China’s adversaries.

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Both Russia and the U.S. have entered a new phase of international relations. Russia has ensured its sovereignty and independence in policy making and is building its relationships with all countries proceeding from its own priorities. On this basis, Russia is trying to establish a balance of power that would most effectively protect its interests in the post-Soviet space and the world at large, and ensure its own economic and military-political security. It is naХve to allege that Russia is separating itself from the culture of the West because it does not share the Western value system, or that it is becoming closer to China, almost to the point of being its junior partner. These allegations are politically motivated wishful thinking. In reality, in each given situation, Russia is working towards its own interests in order to gain advantageous bargaining positions.

The U.S. is going through a painful process of shifting from unilateral global domination towards creating balances of power in various regions of the world in order to preserve its presence and influence. This means that, as before, we can expect ups and downs in U.S.-Russian relations. The two countries will work together on issues that are beneficial for both, and compete over other issues where the vital interests of each country are concerned. Therefore, there is little chance that U.S.-Russian relations will ease considerably in the future.

The economic and military political resources of the U.S. and Europe are continually shrinking as other centers of power grow outside of the West. This means that there is more room for less powerful countries to form alliances and coalitions in order to prevent one center of power from dictating to weaker countries seeking to preserve their sovereignty in international relations.

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