Thomas Graham: We Overestimated Russia’s Ability to Transition to Liberal Democracy

Thomas Graham on Overcoming US-Russia Tensions and Deadlock

The expert does not believe that a new Cold War is going on between the United States and Russia

30 years ago, Thomas Graham worked at the US Embassy in Moscow and watched the fall of the Berlin Wall with that sides of the "iron curtain".

Graham later served as Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Senior Director of the U.S. National Security Council..

He is now Managing Director of the consulting firm Kissinger Associates and Senior Fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations. In an exclusive interview with the Voice of America Russian Service, Graham shared his vision of the reasons for the deterioration of US-Russian relations after the end of the Cold War..

Thomas Graham: When the Berlin Wall fell, I, in a strange way, was in Yerevan – the capital of Armenia, together with the then US Ambassador to the USSR, Jack Matlock. We then made one of our first visits to the union republics. We watched this startling turn of events in Europe from Moscow, and we never experienced the kind of euphoria that has swept the United States and probably Europe itself. This is partly due to our concerns about what will happen next in the Soviet Union itself, and what its disintegration will look like. We thought about what strategic challenges these events could pose for the United States. So we felt joy and hope, but we also tried to realistically assess the risks associated with the events that were unfolding so quickly in Europe at that time..

Mikhail Gutkin: Three American presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – hoped to improve relations with Russia at the beginning of their terms, and each of them was disappointed by the end of their term. Why, after the end of the Cold War, none of these presidents managed to improve relations with Russia?

T.G .: We overestimated Russia's ability to make the transition from the Soviet totalitarian system to liberal democracy. I think that by 1996-97 it became clear that this transition was happening much more slowly than we had hoped, due to, as the Marxist-Leninists say, "objective conditions" in Russia. But the Clinton administration convinced the American public of the need for a constructive relationship with Russia on the basis that such a transformation was taking place. And even when it became clear that reality was at odds with American rhetoric, the Clinton administration continued to insist on its use..

Interestingly, subsequent administrations continued to do the same: they needed to be told that Russia was moving towards democracy in order to justify what they did for geopolitical purposes, creating partnerships with Russia. But, in the end, the rhetoric completely diverged from reality, and this policy collapsed. This, I think, was an element of cynicism on our part, but this is the reality..

Moreover, we underestimated the power of Russia. Under George W. Bush and Obama, we have seen a recovery in Russian power. And while Russia's capabilities are still less than they were in the Soviet Union's heyday, today Russia is capable of projecting significant power beyond its borders..

M.G .: Many in the US believe that we are once again in a Cold War with Russia. Do you agree with this?

T.G .: I think this is a false analogy. It is obvious that relations between our countries are at a very low level. But this is not a new Cold War, in particular, because the situation in the world has changed and the nature of the rivalry between the United States and Russia has changed..

Thomas Graham: We Overestimated Russia's Ability to Transition to Liberal Democracy

First, the ideological component does not play such an important role now. We may have different value systems, but we are not talking about two diametrically opposed systems, the historical survival of one of which depends on the death of the other. The competition between the United States and Russia today is not as global as it was during the Cold War..

And finally – and this may be the most important – the US and Russia are no longer the only superpowers. There are China and other states that are playing an increasingly important role in the global arena. During the Cold War, the United States pursued a policy of containing Russia. But containment does not work in the 21st century, in a world where everything is interconnected and where Russia is much more integrated into the global economy than the Soviet Union was. We cannot contain or isolate Russia without the participation of China and India. And today none of these countries is ready to go for it. On the contrary, they are strengthening their trade and strategic ties with Russia..

So this is not the Cold War. We have complex relationships, different geopolitical interests, different ideas about how the world should work. And we are competing in the global arena. But this is not a global existential struggle. And, what I think, most importantly, there are points of intersection of our strategic interests that allow our countries to cooperate on some international issues, albeit on a limited scale..