#14 - JRL 7209
June 4, 2003
US: A telling reflection in Russia
By Peter Lavelle
Peter Lavelle is a Moscow-based analyst and author of the weekly e-newsletter Untimely Thoughts.
MOSCOW - US President George W Bush visited St Petersburg over the weekend to help Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrate the city's tercentennial, as well as patch up the differences their countries had concerning the American-led war against Iraq. The obvious theme everybody expected would be at the center of the America-Russia mini-summit was to stress what the two countries have in common and reinvigorate the rapprochement the US and Russia experienced after the tragedy of September 11. We were not disappointed. However, regardless of whatever kind words were expressed in the city on the Neva river, the US and Russia (and Bush and President Vladimir Putin, for that matter) have much more in common than most would care to admit, or are even probably aware of.
During the Cold War, a number of Western Soviet experts claimed that the US and the Soviet Union were actually, ideological differences aside, starting to resemble each other. This theory was called "convergence". In a nutshell, this was the idea that, regardless of ideology, whether it be one of democracies with market economies or one-party states with central economic planning, the superpowers were being pushed closer together by the forces of modernization. Urbanization, higher levels of education, post-industrialization, consumerism and overall heightened social expectations, it was said, were lessening the ideological differences between the competing powers, as both had to deal with the same problems. Ideology, at the end of the day, was not enough to clearly differentiate the two supposedly different political systems.
Not surprisingly, the convergence theory caused a storm among many academics - including those who had escaped or were thrown out of the Soviet Union and refugees from Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe - as well as those in America's political establishment who defined their identity and even their very being as "anti-communist". The 20th century was an epoch about ideology, and the facts on the ground rarely moved those who had the power to determine the political fates of their own people and others across the globe.
This debate was at times heated, but, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, it became pointless. Many who were part of this academic and political debate have now fallen into a new ideological polarization into the categories of "globalization", led by changes in American society and the economy, and the belief that the adoption or forced acceptance of Western institutions and values destroys unique cultures that have little in common with the West. The latter ideological position is in effect a denial of the West's teleological definition of progress. This new debate will rage for a while as the world continues to adjust to the legacy bestowed by the end of the Cold War. However, I think the theory of convergence, with respect to the present American and Russian systems, may be a topic worth reviving. It may have not carried much currency at the time, but the theory of convergence may have been right after all - particularly in terms of how both the US and Russia have changed since the end of the Cold War.
The mini-summit in St Petersburg over the weekend demonstrated that the divisions separating the US and Russia are not nearly as deep as the media would have us believe. In the grand scheme of things, Iraq, Iran and weapons of mass destruction are not what separate the US and Russia; there is much more that they have in common.
There are similarities between the Bush and Putin regimes. Both are militaristic and are even involved against similar enemies in the same part of the world. Both Bush and Putin rely on an image as a "regular guy", to a degree obscuring Bush's lifelong financial privilege and recasting Putin as a romantic pragmatist whose KGB career brings Russia's Soviet past in contact with its future.
In both Bush's America and post-Soviet Russia, there is an increasing convergence of governmental and economic elites. Vice President Dick Cheney is in many ways like a post-Soviet Russian figure whose wealth is dependent on his government connections and oligarchic business lobbies. Few would probably contest that a privatization of American foreign policy has taken place when it comes to the restructuring of conquered lands like Afghanistan and Iraq. The deregulation of some American industries strongly appears to benefit those close to the Bush administration as well.
Foreign policy and business practices are not the only spheres in which Russia and the US are looking more and more similar. Even the issue of the level and quality of civil society can be compared. Certainly to judge by recent voting trends, there is a lack of interest in democracy (except as a slogan) in America. And, increasingly, the conventional media are being controlled by an oligarchy, some of the members of which (eg Rupert Murdoch) are close allies of the regime. Russia, for its part, makes little pretence to being a strong democracy, and that the electronic media follow the Kremlin's lead is obvious to all.
Obviously, there are also considerable differences. America is a rich and, still, economically dynamic country, while Russia is desperately trying to catch up with Portugal's standard of living. The US has the ability to carry out an aggressive, even imperialist, foreign policy, while Russia does not have complete control of its own territory. Corruption exists at the top in America, but at the level at which the average citizen interacts with the government - eg getting a driver's license - there is still relatively little, whereas Russia's corruption can be found from top to bottom.
The St Petersburg summit stressed what the US and Russia have in common irrespective of the strained relations over Iraq and other foreign policy issues. However, looking at the larger picture, both countries have much more in common in other ways. The Cold War is behind us, but the convergence theorists may be back in business.