The past two weeks have been a virtual Cold War flashback. Russia invades Georgia. The U.S. condemns Russia. Like during the Cold War, the local particularities of the whole affair matter little. All that really matters is the grand game between the “superpowers.” Like in decades past, they didn’t disappoint. Rhetorical potshots between Moscow and Washington zipped back and forth. All of the familiar signs, codes, and tropes were back.
Still, even though it looked like a Cold War and quacked like a Cold War, there was a constant denial of the Cold War. Secretary Rice emphasized that in no way did the increase in tensions with Russia signal a “new Cold War.” The Russians were also reluctant to embrace the “new Cold War.” When Dmitrii Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, announced that Russia would freeze cooperation with the alliance, he assured reporters that “there won’t be any aggressive action from anyone on our side. We will behave in a pragmatic manner. … There will definitely not be a Cold War.”
Not a Cold War? Everyone is making arguments that the U.S. and Russia are not in a “new Cold War.” Why engage in the old psychological trick of repressing what you really desire? Especially when the truth is so blatantly clear: officials in Washington and Russia truly desire a new Cold War. There is just something comforting in that predictable, bipolar world, where two grand adversaries face each other in a real-life game of Risk. It’s like two arch enemies at battle. Neither can ultimately defeat the other, yet they seem to complement each other perfectly. As the Joker endearingly told Batman in the Dark Knight, “Kill you? I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? … You … you complete me.”
“Mirror, mirror on the wall …”
Russia’s and the United States’ fascination with each other goes back over a century and a half. When some Russian intellectuals looked at the United States they imagined it as the preeminent example of liberal democracy, a bastion of freedom where the individual could flourish. Others, however, viewed the U.S. as culturally vacuous and duplicitous. “[Americans] are polite and kind to us,” wrote A. Faresov in 1904, “but the devil knows what, among themselves, they think about us and what is in the heart of any of them. … I will never learn to read an American by face, to see if he is a swindler or if he considers me a swindler. It’s murder to live in such an environment.”
Americans also viewed Russia as a potential twin. Russia appeared so much like America as much as it did not. By the late 19th century, American Russia-watchers were split into two camps: Russophiles and Russophobes. Russophiles like William Walling envisioned a Russia that could become a “United States of Russia.” Russophobes, however, saw it as a threat to not only American interests, but freedom itself. Whatever their differences, pro- and anti-Russia sentiment was united in the almost messianic belief that Americans had a divine mission to free Russia.
Whatever the positive or negative views Russians and Americans held about each other, neither saw the true America or true Russia. In the words of historian David Foglesong, for Americans Russia served as a “dark double” or “imaginary twin.” What was reflected back to them said more about themselves than their admired adversary. “Treating Russia as both a whipping boy and a potential beneficiary of American philanthropy,” Foglesong writes in his excellent The American Mission and the “Evil Empire,” “fostered in many Americans a heady sense of their country’s unique blessings, and reaffirmed their special role in the world.” The interesting thing is that to some extent the same could be said for the Russians.