To Russia with love: a plea for normalcy.

Author:Shapiro, Isaac

Dear Mr. President, allow me to congratulate you on your historic victory. As a fellow alumnus of Honolulu's Punahou School (1948) and New York's Columbia College (1954), I share the pride of all your fellow alumni.

You have promised the American people "hope" and "change." One change which should be high on your agenda is a radical shift in our policy towards Russia, transforming it from one of confrontation to one of cooperation. We need Russia's help if we are successfully to meet the many important challenges which face the world: an economic crisis unlike any since the Great Depression, global warming, radical Islam, poverty, and many others. I urge you to distance yourself from the older generation of Cold Warriors and Kremlinologists who still inhabit Washington and who have so poisoned our relations with Russia during the past eight years. I call on you to rethink the fundamentals of America's relations with a post-Communist, twenty-first century Russia, keeping in mind not only our national self-interest, but also the legitimate interests of Russia and its people.

It is vital at this point in world history to pause and take note that, despite all the anti-Russian rhetoric that has recently been emerging from Washington, and despite the antagonisms which marked Russo-American relations during the Cold War, our two countries have been at peace since the creation of the United States more than 200 years ago. That can hardly be said of our relations with other great countries around the world.

Russia, like the United States and indeed much of the world, is entering distinctly perilous economic times. This is the very moment that the most delicate diplomacy and understanding of those with whom you will be interacting is of paramount importance if we are not to blunder into another Cold War with potentially catastrophic consequences.

Of course, it takes two to tango, and Moscow will have to tone down its harsh anti-American rhetoric if we are to really embark on a new era of detente and cooperation. President Dmitri Medvedev's harsh criticism of America in his recent state of the nation speech was not a promising beginning, especially coming the very morning after the euphoria of your victory, It took him only a few days, however, to think better of it and acknowledge that your election has created a "very good chance" to build "good cooperative relations" between our two countries. We now look to you, Mr. President, and to President Medvedev, to move forward free of the enmities and prejudices of your predecessors and bring a new attitude to the table.

Indeed, this is my effort, as well--based on seven decades (and multiple generations) of intimate contacts with countless Russians across a broad political, social, and economic spectrum: to make sense out of what has become one of the most misunderstood countries and to offer some suggestions as to how we can come to a profitable understanding with a nation that all too many Americans still see as an enemy rather than as a friend. I write to you as someone who has spent five months of each of the last 20 years outside the United States, listening to the opinions of non-Americans of all types, both directly and through their mass media.

Two Centuries of Peaceful Coexistence

Since its founding, America has gone to war against many of the world's great powers--nations with which we are now on friendly terms. During World War I, we were allied with Russia against Germany, Austria Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria; in World War II, we were allied with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan. Indeed, when the people of Russia and America have been at war together, it has been as allies, not as enemies.

As Thomas Jefferson once said, America and Russia (then the Romanov Empire, which included Poland, Ukraine, all of the now-independent Central Asian Republics, even Georgia) had a common cause in upholding the rights of all peaceable nations. Throughout the nineteenth century, despite its different political structure and philosophy, Russia was America's closest friend among all the European powers. It stood with the North during our Civil War and went so far as to send warships to our coastal areas to help prevent England and France from interfering on the side of the Confederacy. American gratitude for Russia's steadfast sympathy for the Union lived on for many years. In 1867, on the occasion of America's purchase of Alaska from Russia, the Senate's vote ratifying the treaty was made unanimous as a gesture of cordiality toward Russia, "the old and faithful friend of the United States."

There followed a period of almost 30 years of continuing friendly relations between our two countries. However, a marked change in our relationship took place at the turn of the century. While the tsar approved our acquisition of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, differences began to appear when America undertook to expand its influence on the Asian mainland. When, in 1904, Japan suddenly and unexpectedly struck the Russian fleet at Port Arthur (Pearl Harbor style), President Theodore Roosevelt (no fan of Russia and personally in favor of intervention on the Japanese side) declared America neutral. He thought that American interests favored a balance of power between Russia and Japan. In the end, at Japan's invitation, Roosevelt mediated an end to the Russo-Japanese War (winning him the Nobel Peace Prize), bringing to a close the conflict of interests between Russia and America in the Far East.

Relations between our two countries continued to be strained throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century because of the growth of absolutism in Russia and its persecution of the Jews, and it was not out of any friendship for Russia that America eventually joined the Allies to fight Germany during World War I. The March 1917 revolution changed our attitude. We naively hailed this event as the realization of the type of democratic government we had championed, based on the consent of the governed, much the way we did in 1991 when the Soviet Union imploded and Yeltsin came to power.

America was, therefore, stunned, surprised and horrified when Lenin and the Bolsheviks seized control and we ultimately sent troops to fight on the Tsarist side in the Russian civil war, an intervention which ended in disaster and a refusal to recognize the new Bolshevik government for the next 25 years. It was only after Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as president in 1933 that we finally recognized the Soviet Union and resumed friendly relations with that country. On that occasion, when Roosevelt greeted the first Soviet ambassador, he observed, somewhat disingenuously, "a deep love of peace is the common heritage of the peoples of both our countries."

None of this is to say that we have not had differences with Russia over the past two centuries--indeed, at times we came to the brink of war, particularly during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a bit of Cold War history that should, perhaps, be revisited, particularly as it relates to Ukraine and Georgia. After all, both these nations are as much a part of Russia's neighborhood as is Cuba a close neighbor of the United States. It is now clear, based on American historical archives, that in 1962 the United States was seriously considering a full-scale...

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