The election year is disrupting the normally smooth, quiet summer in the United States. Newspapers replace Harry Potter books as beach reading, Republican and Democratic conventions dominate television, the two parties are finalizing platforms, the two candidates exchange mutual verbal abuse, voters watch and comment. Liberal-minded bookstores already display signs like “No more Texans,” although Al Gore also gets his share of poster criticism.
Foreign-policy issues are not at the center of debate by any means. Even the Balkans, the favorite topic of American newspapers for the last several years, are rarely mentioned. Americans generally almost never choose their president on his foreign-policy views. This time is no exception, especially because international relations are experiencing a lull. No new invasions, no sensational mass murders, no large-scale purges anywhere. Russia is quietly devouring Chechnya, China snarls at Taiwan, Serbia snaps at the democratic opposition. No obvious challenge for either Gore or Bush, no visible threat to the U.S.
But for foreign nations, the U.S. election is always sensational. True, it happens every four years, but whoever is elected president is the single most powerful person on Earth. Rest assured that various secret services are working hard on psychological profiles of Bush and Gore; spies, desperate for revelations, are shadowing the candidates’ staff members and frantically taping all sorts of casual conversations in restaurants and dark alleys. And all for nothing.
It is doubtful whether either Bush or Gore has a plan for the world. Even bilateral relations between Washington and this or that capital under the new administration will be heavily dependent on chance and accident.
Of course, one of the most eager observers of the U.S. presidential campaign is Russia. A former rival and now faltering partner of the U.S., Moscow remembers that relations between the two countries have traditionally been driven not so much by national interests as by the personalities of American and Russian leaders. Strong, opinionated and scheming U.S. presidents like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Richard Nixon could cast aside years of hostility in a wink and build a new partnership with Moscow from scratch. Outstanding individuals could also effect a shift in the opposite direction — from partnership back to hostility. Without Ronald Reagan, there would have been no reinforced Cold War from 1981-1986.
Now the Kremlin is painstakingly trying to figure out who would be the better partner: the liberal Gore or the conservative Bush. Traditionally, Moscow’s sympathies lie with the Democrats. They are perceived as less xenophobic, more tolerant and more sophisticated than the Republicans. By and large, Russians are also inclined to believe in big government, strong social security and welfare. On issues like abortion or even gun control, Gore’s position looks much more understandable as well. With the exception of a handful of religious fundamentalists, Russians do not question a woman’s exclusive right to decide on her pregnancy, and only mobsters lament the strict antigun laws in Russia.
Ironically enough, throughout the last 50 years the Kremlin was luckier with conservative and even fairly rightwing presidents. Quite often Democrats like John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter were too idealistic or too naive; they believed in benevolent U.S. intervention to promote human rights and could not avoid confrontations with the Kremlin.
JFK got trapped in the Cuban missile crisis; Carter promoted the cause of Russian dissidents as if they were his constituents. In contrast, the cynical and extremely conservative Nixon initiated detente, and the fiercely anticommunist Reagan strongly supported the communist Mikhail Gorbachev. President George Bush was friendly with both Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and handled the collapse of the Soviet Union with admirable patience and care.
Does all this suggest that his son would be a better partner for the Kremlin than Gore?
Right now, Russians regard Bush with suspicion and some aversion. It is common knowledge that Bush is not keen on foreign policy and from time to time demonstrates shocking ignorance about the outside world. Yet he aspires to be the leader of the West — making him, in Russian eyes, a perfect example of American arrogance. Also, he seems too aggressive, too impulsive and too tough.
The amorphous but good-willed Gore looks better to Moscow. Also, Gore has been President Bill Clinton’s personal envoy to the Russian business elite. He handled economic cooperation with Russia for several years, together with former Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin. Together they headed the “Gore-Chernomyrdin” commission. Chernomyrdin has lost his political prominence, and economic cooperation with Russia has all but failed, but Gore must have kept some warm feelings toward Moscow and can be regarded as a friendly Russia hand. Also, no matter what he thinks privately about Clinton and his numerous blunders, Gore is unlikely to revolutionize U.S. foreign policy. And by and large, Moscow has been happy with relations with Washington during the Clinton years. Even U.S. criticism of Russian atrocities in Chechnya and Russian criticism of U.S. involvement in the Balkans did not disrupt the relative harmony.
Bush could change all that. At the moment, it is hard to tell how he proposes to start building a reputation as the diplomatic leader of the Western world. But possible targets of aggressive diplomacy aren’t too numerous, and Russia is definitely one of them — along with China, Yugoslavia and Iraq. Some Russia experts on U.S. campuses are already exclaiming in horror, “Imagine — President Putin vs. President Bush!” Nothing less than another Cold War would result, they predict. Russians are nervous, too. Businessmen in Moscow think Bush will win, on the grounds that “big money is for Bush.”
But American conservatism is too complicated to be summed up with a single label. Nixon had his Russian debut in the heated, highly ideological and nasty “kitchen debate” with Nikita Khrushchev — and ended up amiably drinking vodka with Leonid Brezhnev, another Communist Party general secretary, several years later.
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