Russia past and present, from a historian in Cambridge
What happens when policymakers disagree about Russia? It’s surely a good thing — even if it doesn’t always head off disaster.
Take newly unified Germany in the decades before 1914. Wilhelm II, who would be the German Kaiser during the First World War, was born in 1859 into an imperial court that contained pro- and anti-Russian factions. His parents, Friedrich Wilhelm and Victoria, prided themselves on their progressive attitudes, which tilted them away from Russia and towards Britain. Meanwhile, his grandfather, Kaiser Wilhelm I, sympathized much more with Russia. ‘I do not care a straw for the good feeling of the Russian reactionary, pietistic set,’ wrote Victoria, ‘and I despise their way of thinking with all my heart and hope to goodness their day is over.’
As a young man, Wilhelm followed his grandfather’s example in many ways. In 1884, he was a smash hit during a twelve-day trip to Russia. Later, as Kaiser, he supported diplomatic overtures to the Russians, even when the post-Bismarck international constellation had pushed Russia towards Britain and France. Tsar and Kaiser famously met on board a boat off the Finnish coast in summer 1905 where they fruitlessly discussed rapprochement. In Wilhelmine Germany, there existed more than one way of thinking about Russia.
Similarly, late imperial Russia possessed more than one view of Germany. By the turn of the twentieth century, it was supposedly the old reactionaries who wanted an alliance with Germany. But moderate conservatives such as Baron Roman Rosen imagined a new foreign policy, in which Russia asserted its Eurasian identity and defended it through an alliance with Germany. Meanwhile, there were diplomats of intellectual range such as Grigory Trubetskoy whose even greater fear of Germany demanded a balance of power governed in part by a Russian alliance with France.
In 1914, war came despite the different voices that sought to influence decision makers. Today, the American people will elect a president who might not have the opportunity to listen to such a range of advice. Despite the differing presentation to voters of their attitudes to Russia (see my last post), Clinton or Trump will inherit a foreign policy establishment that seems to possess a much more limited imaginative scope when it comes to Russia. Russia is an ‘adversary’. Dissenters such as Stephen Cohen are labelled eccentrics or appeasers, even ‘sympathizers’. One can point to a similarly limited imaginative realm when it comes to analysis of America in Russia.
Is a two-dimensional imagination a healthy thing? A narrow policy consensus is surely more dangerous than the pluralism that existed among tough-minded men of international affairs in pre-1914 Germany and Russia. And yet they went to war. Russo-German relations were at the heart of the twentieth-century catastrophe. But that was not because of the pluralism of views and approaches of the previous decades. On the contrary. They went to war because each government’s policy options, and its view of its ‘adversary’, had narrowed so dangerously.