The Policy World Meets Academia: Designing U.S. Policy toward Russia

Chapter 2: Living in Alternate Universes: Divergent Narratives and the Challenge of U.S.-Russia Relations since the Cold War

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Timothy J. Colton, Timothy Frye, and Robert Legvold
U.S. Policy Toward Russia

Ronald R. Krebs

International relations theory provides several lenses through which to view the post-Cold War U.S.-Russia relationship. Realists focus on Russia’s absolute and relative decline, republican liberals on its flirtation with and subsequent retreat from democracy, and commercial liberals on its integration into the global trading and financial system. What these theoretical viewpoints overlook is the importance of identity and narrative to foreign policy. The difficulties in U.S.-Russia relations are compounded by conflicting American and Russian narratives of why Russia lost the Cold War, whether it is still a great power, and most important, whether its decline is irreversible.

In this essay, I introduce a narrative perspective on international politics; offer some observations about the content of the inconsistent narratives that underpin U.S. and Russian foreign policy; suggest which conditions contribute to the emergence and maintenance of divergent narratives in the context of power transitions; and trace the implications for future U.S. foreign policy.


The core realist insight into international politics, that the distribution of material power and changes in that distribution drive foreign policy, is a powerful one. In his classic The Twenty Years’ Crisis, E. H. Carr famously warned that the problem of effecting “peaceful change” lay at the center of international theory.1 Scholars of international relations have long argued that both declining dominant powers and rising challengers are often destabilizing forces on the global stage. The former might launch a preventive war to forestall the challenger from assuming its rightful place in the international hierarchy; the latter might (if for reasons that are hard to fathom) initiate war prematurely, before the distribution of power was clearly in its favor.2 Realist writing on such “power transitions” tends to focus on cases in which the distribution of power actually shifted: Wilhelmine Germany overtaking Britain, imperial Russia overtaking Germany (in some dimensions), and the United States overtaking all other major powers.

From a realist perspective, post–Cold War Russia is less disconcerting than the cases usually studied. It is a failed challenger, a state that declined before it surpassed its target and whose prospects for renewal and restoration to great power status seem meager.3 The dangers are correspondingly less severe. If Russia’s retreat to regional power from erstwhile great power is mismanaged, some unnecessary tension might result, but realists would not generally expect an abiding threat to international stability. On the one hand, Russia’s influence on the international stage cannot exceed its shrinking material power base. On the other hand, the United States cannot exert its will without constraint, given Russia’s substantial nuclear forces and wealth in natural resources. Both Russia and the United States must respect the limits of their power or bear the consequences.4

Many realist critics of post–Cold War U.S. policy toward Russia view that policy—specifically NATO expansion and support for Kosovar autonomy—as too provocative. But, despite realists’ pessimism about the competitive nature of international politics, their accounts also have a more optimistic edge: states, realists presume, generally perceive the distribution of power accurately and are compelled, at least over time, to play the game of international politics within that distribution’s limits.

But the traditional approach to power transitions understates the problems associated with managing a failed challenger’s decline. Those problems arise from the fact that leaders and elites in different states do not necessarily narrate—that is, tell the story of—their nations’ respective rises and declines in the same way. This observation goes beyond the insight that cognitive and motivational biases shape actors’ perceptions of the distribution of power, as even some realists have argued.5 If a state fails to acknowledge its own decline, does not see that decline as enduring, or attributes it to treacherous forces at home or abroad, the state has no reason to accept without contest its consignment to secondary status. In fact, it may promote just the opposite, especially if the state is aware that others narrate its past, present, and future in terms of a permanent decline. It may seek opportunities to demonstrate its continued relevance beyond its borders. It may be unusually sensitive to its exclusion from various forums, interpreting such exclusion as a slight, and it may undermine international collaboration to prove its exclusion to be in error. A state whose future is dim may fatalistically accept international cooperation that disproportionately benefits others in the short run, as long as it makes some gains. But a state convinced that renewal is possible may be more sensitive to unbalanced or relative gains, and international cooperation may suffer.

Put differently, how states react to their own decline (and for that matter their own rise) and how they interact with other states depends on how they tell their story: how they narrate what has happened, what is happening, and what is likely to happen. More than just creatures with a lust for power, in the classical realist idiom of the international relations theorist Hans Morgenthau, human beings are creatures with a lust for meaning. Scientists have documented how little the human mind tolerates disorder and how readily it imposes an interpretive framework on disparate pieces of data. Narratives are crucial in this process of imposing order on disordered experience.6 To the extent that a narrative is accepted, events seem meaningful, no longer random. As meaning making creatures, then, human beings are narrative-composing creatures—homo narrans, as one scholar puts it.7 Through narratives, human beings define reality and link thought to action. Narrative is the vehicle through which we formulate and articulate stories about self and other (identity) and about what self and other want (interest). In the absence of narrative, neither identity nor interest can be formulated, and thus political action is not possible.8 This notion is not merely an abstruse scholarly insight. Commentator David Brooks wrote not long ago in The New York Times that “unlike other animals, people do have a drive to seek coherence and meaning. We have a need to tell ourselves stories that explain it all. We use these stories to supply the metaphysics, without which life seems pointless and empty.”9 Narrative does not stand opposed to reason; rather, it makes rational deliberation possible. Policy alternatives must be embedded in, and justified with regard to, larger narrative constructs. Indeed, psychologists have found that narrative structures underpin decision-making.10

Narratives would not be interesting if they simply reflected actors’ material power positions or flowed directly out of events. What makes narratives interesting is that neither international events nor material resources speak for themselves, that these stories often become the object of political contestation, and that these stories subsequently take on a life of their own. Multiple narratives may be fitted to observed events, and much of politics revolves around disputed meaning, over how to define a shared reality. Narratives are powerful because they structure, without determining, legitimate political contest. These story lines constitute the boundaries of what can or cannot be said or challenged; they define the zones of unquestioned agreement. Dominant narratives do not shut down political competition, they channel it. Narratives limit the policy stances that can be publicly justified and sustained (or legitimated) and thus the policies that can be pursued. Power is at work in successful efforts to dominate public narrative. This power is more subtle than the accumulation of wealth and military matériel or the exercise of naked coercion, but it is no less consequential, and perhaps more so. Narratives are a form of linguistic power that “define[s] what kinds of social beings actors are” and thereby affects the distribution of capabilities, actor identities, and their visions of the possible.11

This observation is as true of the international arena as it is of the domestic. Realists expect nations’ narratives on international affairs to converge. Realist pronouncements that states must obey the imperatives of the international system, or be punished for ignoring or misreading them, imply that there can be only one real story line consistent with the objective features of the international situation and that reasonable observers would agree on that story line. Social constructivists, however, are open to the possibility, even the probability, that nations’ narratives might diverge, and not just momentarily or episodically. From this perspective, both cross-national narrative convergence and divergence call for explanation; whether nations’ dominant narratives converge or diverge has real consequences for their interactions. This essay thus examines the following questions: How have Americans and Russians narrated the end of the Cold War and their nations’ subsequent roles in the drama of international affairs? How do they narrate their respective futures? Why have their national narratives converged or diverged, and with what consequences?


Since 1992, Russians and Americans have articulated rather different narratives about the Cold War’s end, the post–Cold War structure of international politics, and Russia’s future. For Americans, the end of the Cold War signified a clear victory for American power and principles. Among U.S. decision-makers, there was little dissent from Francis Fukuyama’s triumphalist (if wistful) commentary on how liberalism and democracy had emerged from the Cold War without ideological competitors.12 Those who bristled at the tone of the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy, whose opening sentence declared that “the great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom— and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” would do well to remember that Clinton’s national security adviser, Anthony Lake, delivered a much-publicized 1993 address proclaiming the “victory of freedom” and his confidence that “the idea of freedom has universal appeal.”13

Moreover, while Americans debated how their country should relate to the world in the 1990s, and while projections varied dramatically about how soon new competitors would arise, there was little disagreement that America stood alone after the Cold War, bestriding the world as few had done before.The world was “unipolar”; America was the reigning “hegemon.” As Lake put it in 1993, “[W]e are [this era’s] dominant power. Those who say otherwise sell America short.” Soon, few said otherwise. Fears of a challenge to U.S. primacy from Japan had abated, as the Japanese economy remained mired in the doldrums. With Japan no longer a likely “peer competitor,” analysts looked to China, but while its rise was unmistakable, many forecast U.S. dominance for the foreseeable future.14 Some, including U.S. foreign policy expert Strobe Talbott, feared a revanchist Russia and cautioned against prodding the bear as it nursed its wounds.15 Indeed, through the first years of the Clinton administration, officials tended to acknowledge Russia as a fellow great power. But as the 1990s wore on, “American supremacy in global affairs only grew larger and Russia’s status as a major power dropped precipitously.”16 Russia was more often seen by American elites as a source of economic opportunity or a nation of political instability and corruption than as a present and future competitor.17 The Clinton administration’s dismissal of Russian concerns over NATO enlargement (and then again over NATO’s air war over Kosovo) captures the dominant attitude that emerged in the 1990s toward the United States’ former Cold War rival.18 Russia’s sensitivities mattered less to U.S. policy than either domestic politics or the post–Cold War quest for a grand strategy. The limited extent to which U.S. administration officials took Russia’s concerns into account was driven by fears that NATO expansion would undermine Russia’s democratic transition and doom Boris Yeltsin’s leadership, not because Russia was a player on the global stage whose power and prestige required that its objections be heeded.19

Regarding the Russian post–Cold War narrative, I offer here only preliminary impressions. My sense is that the dominant narrative has shifted over time. In the immediate wake of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, some Russians reproduced the American narrative. They embraced the discourse of free-market capitalism, democracy, and, at least implicitly, Western triumph. They also accepted Russia’s subordinate role. But there were powerful voices of dissent, both nationalist and communist, that did not acquiesce to the narrative of liberalism’s triumph. Some dissenters blamed reformers for having hastened the Soviet Union’s downfall. Others refused to accept Russia’s permanent consignment to second-rank status on the international stage.

By the end of the 1990s, and coinciding with Vladimir Putin’s ascent, nationalist dissent had become dominant. This did not entail a rejection of the discourse of democracy and the free market or promise a return to a Soviet political-economic model. Rather, the narrative offered by Putin and his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, is characterized by a discontinuity between the democratic and modernizing present and the stultified Soviet past. They have blamed the Soviet Union’s “closed society and totalitarian political regime” for making the country “an industrial and raw materials giant . . . [that] proved unable to compete against post-industrial societies.”20 Nor does this narrative reject existing international norms or organizations. Putin and Medvedev have regularly affirmed Moscow’s desire to integrate into the existing system, especially regional organizations and alliances (though they have also called for the democratization of international politics). But the Putin/Medvedev narrative has differed substantially from the post–Cold War U.S. narrative in its refusal to accept (1) America’s international dominance as a fact, as the natural or rightful structure of international politics after the Cold War; (2) Russia’s consignment to the rank of regional power and its concomitant exclusion from the rank of global or great power; and (3) the inevitability or permanence of Russia’s relative weakness. Moreover, although all agreed that the Cold War belonged to the past, Russia’s leaders have consistently accused their Western counterparts of having failed to escape the Cold War’s adversarial blinders: “the prejudices inherited from the era of global confrontation.”21

It is striking, when one reads through the public addresses of Russia’s last two presidents, how little rhetorical attention they have devoted in the last decade to narrating the past in general, specifically the Soviet past, as if it were best forgotten. They have emphasized Russia’s rich history and how Russian traditions inform the present and future. But the mythical Russia they summon belongs to no specific time or place.22 They invoke the Soviet Union only to mark a clear contrast to the present.23 They represent Russia as having undergone an irreversible transformation. It is, as Putin has said, “a new country, and at the same time a very ancient one.”24 Nevertheless, Russia’s leaders still

display a certain rhetorical ambivalence. Post-Soviet Russia is represented as having embraced democracy, freedom, and the rule of law, while the Soviet leadership is assailed for its “self-isolation,” “imperialism,” “totalitarian ideology,” and self-destructive militarism. Yet the collapse of the Soviet Union is also represented as a “tragedy” and “disaster.”25

Regarding the present structure of international politics, Russia’s leaders have since 2000 represented their country as a “great power” temporarily fallen on hard times—or, in Putin’s paradoxical formulation, “a rich country of poor people.”26 Putin has advanced from the start a vision of Russian renewal. It was the president’s task, he declared, “to restore the country’s prestige and leading role in the world” and to return Russia to “international respect.”27 Restoration was possible, Putin said, because Russia is far more than “just a reduced map of the Soviet Union; it is a confident power with a great future and a great people.”28 By the mid-2000s, Russia’s leaders were speaking more assertively. In 2003, Putin declared that Russia had returned to its rightful, “recognized place among the ranks of the truly strong, economically advanced and influential nations.”29 Russia had a special status and special responsibilities as one of “the world’s leading powers,” largely because of its immense stock of nuclear weapons, but also because of its swift economic and moral revival.30 Russia’s interests and foreign policy remained “global” (“of course,” Putin breezily stated), with an army and power-projection capabilities to match.31 Its relations with the world were “of great importance for us and for the entire international system”—hardly something that could be said of a second-rank power.32 What Russia demanded and deserved, Putin declared, was a “partnership” with the United States grounded in “equal rights and mutual respect.”33 Upon entering office, Medvedev credited Putin with “dramatically [changing] Russia’s international standing. . . . [T]o put it simply, the world once again has started to respect our country.”34

Regarding the future of international politics, Putin and Medvedev built on this narrative of Russia’s post–Cold War setback, its subsequent swift renewal, and its reclamation of its historical standing to offer a vision of an assertive Russia that would lead the world toward “a polycentric international system.” That system would be “a truly democratic model of international relations [that would] not [allow] any one country to dominate in any sphere.”35 If Russia were a great power, one could not characterize the world as unipolar, as the United States did after the Cold War. Indeed, Russian leaders denied the relevance of unipolarity, both as an alleged depiction of the international system’s structure and as an aspiration. Hegemony was not a fact, but an American pretension and an unwarranted arrogation. Putin’s language is revealing: “The unipolar world that had been proposed after the Cold War did not take place either.” Unipolarity was merely a proposed, and for Putin an unattractive, mode of organizing international politics. It could not be an accurate description of the international system because it was materially impossible, Putin declared, and thus had never been put into practice.36 “Emerging multi-polarity and [the] increasing role of multilateral diplomacy” was, he said, an “objective development,” a historical inevitability.37 Medvedev, too, put forward Russia as a leading architect of “a new global regime,” a true collective security system in which states forswear violence.38 More noteworthy than the substance of the vision was Russia’s self-assigned leading role in articulating it. Whereas American leaders either wrote Russia out of the story of great-power politics (often by omission) or narrated Russia as history’s latest loser, Russian leaders held out a vision of global politics in which Russia remained a leading power; in which Russia was central to the operation of the system; and in which the 1990s were a temporary setback, not the new normal.

These divergent narratives may have complicated post–Cold War U.S.Russia relations. Might this narrative divergence help explain Russia’s sensitivity to America’s relationship with countries in the former Soviet Union, specifically the United States’ establishment of military bases there after 2001? Russia has displayed this sensitivity even when those relationships and bases have served common ends, such as countering the spread of radical Islam in the region.39 Might it also explain America’s corresponding insensitivity to Russia’s fears of an American empire springing up along its borders—via NATO enlargement, support for Kosovo’s autonomy and independence, the establishment of U.S. military bases, and the provision of foreign aid? Or why Russia has been willing to court international disapproval and risk punitive measures over seemingly peripheral interests, such as the fate of breakaway regions like South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Or why Russia has spent tens of millions of dollars to buy others’ recognition of these breakaway regions as sovereign states —while Russia’s infrastructure crumbles and its suffering pensioners’ discontent grows? Or why Russia has expended blood and treasure and, more importantly, challenged international norms to teach Georgia (not coincidentally an American ally) a lesson in Summer 2008? And why the United States refused to accede when a major regional power sought to exert its will in bordering regions? Or why Russia has generally been reluctant to support European- and American-led efforts through the United Nations to counter Iran’s nuclear research and alleged nuclear weapons development programs?

I tentatively suggest that the divergence between Russia’s and the United States’ post–Cold War narratives, and Russia’s consequent desire to demonstrate to Western powers that it remains a major player in global politics, sheds light on both Russian and American foreign policy over the last decade. There are of course other plausible explanations in each of these cases. Future research might clarify what, if anything, a narrative perspective contributes to understanding these specific cases and/or whether it can account for the larger sweep of U.S.-Russia relations. If divergent Russian and American narratives are a source of instability in the global politics of the present and the recent past (and the foreseeable future), then the question for policy is whether and how they might be brought into alignment. But what makes narrative divergence sustainable in the context of power transitions?


Under what conditions does narrative divergence take shape, complicating the emergence of a stable international order? This is not merely a theoretical question. It potentially has great import for policy. Understanding why American and Russian post–Cold War narratives have diverged may also help us understand the forces that hinder (or facilitate) their alignment.

Many great powers have accepted their own decline. Some, the Ottoman Empire or Austria-Hungary, for instance, ceased to be states, let alone great powers. Others, including Sweden, The Netherlands, Italy, and Great Britain, came to accept their demotions while remaining sovereign states.40 Why was post–Cold War Russia able to sustain the myth of its great power status and, even in its darkest days, faith in its renewal? One possible answer is that Russia (especially Putin’s Russia) lacks a competitive marketplace of ideas. Its leaders are free to engage in myth-making while those opponents—politicians, journalists, and activists—who are brave enough to speak out are subjected to harassment or even murder.41 However true, this answer projects an idealized view of the state of political discourse in liberal democracies. Certainly, political contestation is the norm in democracies, but existing configurations of material power and dominant discourses and narratives shape the terrain on which contestation takes place and limit the policy stances that can be articulated. The widely accepted claim that democracies have well-functioning marketplaces of ideas is itself a dominant myth. In fact, Britain, a liberal democracy with a healthy civil society, was extremely reluctant to accept its status downgrade after World War II, and it was insistent on its role as a global power despite clear evidence of its entrenched economic weakness and its dependence on the United States.

A simpler and more powerful explanation may be that the Soviet Union lost its empire and dissolved without the physical defeat of a “hot” war. War, as historian Geoffrey Blainey has argued, is often the great clarifier that puts myths to the test and sorts truth from pretension.42 Defeat in war is a tangible marker of decline, and for material and psychological reasons, great powersthat endure defeat in war cannot pretend that they retain a claim on their former status. Powers that avoid defeat in war can sustain myths of resurgence and preserve their national pride. Rather than fade away peacefully, they go to lengths to demonstrate to others that the narrative of their irrevocable fall does not hold. This may help explain why Putin’s Russia can espouse the narrative it does.43

The case of Britain has lessons for that of Russia. Although World War II left the British economy in tatters, Britain was among the victors. Indeed, it emerged from the War with its empire intact and with a renewed sense of imperial mission.44 Even though the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two great axes of global politics, and even though Britain’s industrial base was weak,45 Britain’s leaders and populace narrated their own experience as one of the “Big Three” both during and after the War. These pretensions, which seem so absurd in retrospect, hardly seemed absurd at the time, and the result was fateful for Britain. According to historian David Reynolds, in the decade after World War II, “Britain was exerting itself as a power more energetically than at any time outside the world wars, certainly far more than its supposed Victorian heyday.”46 British leaders were acutely aware of the widespread perception that Britain was in decline, and this frenetic activity was perhaps intended precisely to persuade the world that Britain remained a great power. Maintaining that status was an “unquestioned priority” of the postwar Attlee government.47

Britain’s failure in the postwar years to abandon its aspirations to be a great power (what one scholar has called its “great power complex”48) lasted until the mid-1960s, when it finally succumbed to economic realities. As a result, it legitimated the imperial overextension that contributed to its subsequent economic free fall. The unwarranted confidence in the British spirit may, moreover, have impeded the postwar economic reforms and investment that at least some historians believe might have reversed, or at least alleviated, Britain’s decline.49 It also contributed to Britain’s obsession with atomic weapons and the hydrogen bomb.50 All of this activity was facilitated by World War II, which muddied the waters as to where Britain stood in the postwar hierarchy of power and prestige. French diplomat Jean Monnet spoke of “the price of victory—the illusion” of British independence and great power that led British leaders to set themselves apart from Monnet’s European project.51

The myth of Britain as a great power persisted even as the empire gradually dissolved. In a sense, this is surprising. Britain’s claim to greatness was closely tied to its imperial possessions. Indeed, as the historian Tony Judt recalls, in a personal observation, Britain’s imperial dominions were essential to its identity: “to anyone raised (like the present author) in post-war Britain, ‘England’, ‘Britain’, and ‘British Empire’ were near-synonymous terms. . . . The names of colonial and dominion cities, rivers, and political figures were as familiar as those of Great Britain itself.”52 To lose India, “the jewel in the crown of the British empire,” and to refer Palestine to the United Nations, and to end aid to Greece and Turkey—all fateful decisions made by the British cabinet in an atmosphere of crisis in February 1947—would have lifted, one might have thought, the scales from British eyes.53 Yet, as colony after colony peeled off, British leaders refused to let go of the dream; there was always another way for Britain to exert influence, another reason to have faith. In May 1947, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin declared to the Commons that “His Majesty’s Government do [sic] not accept the view . . . that we have ceased to be a Great Power.”54 After India gained independence, Britain doubled down its bets, sinking deeper into Africa and the Middle East. Even after Britain’s humiliation in the Suez Crisis and after the next wave of decolonization, in the early 1960s, Britain insisted that it still had a global role “east of Suez.” It expected to retain near-equivalent influence in Africa through economic ties and defense treaties.55 Later still, following the Cuban Missile Crisis, which “mocked the claims of successive British leaders that they were influential interlocutors in the Cold War,” Prime Minister Harold Wilson, in his first major foreign policy speech in office (and in a similar one the next month in the Commons), declared, “We are a world power, and a world influence, or we are nothing.”56 Only as the value of the pound collapsed in the second half of the 1960s did British leaders finally reconcile themselves to their country’s secondary status, at which point talk of decline became widespread.57 None of this was inevitable of course: British leaders might have embraced their ordinariness on the global stage. That they did not was a contingent matter, but one made possible by the circumstances surrounding Britain’s decline. 58

On material grounds alone, one might argue that, well before World War II, Britain deserved to fall from the ranks.59 Nations are great powers less because they have access to a sizable percentage of the globe’s material resources than because they see themselves and talk about themselves as great powers and, even more important, because others see them and talk about them as great powers. In part, great powers are in the eyes of the beholder: (with apologies to Potter Stewart) we know a great power when others see it. Whether states see themselves as party to the great-power game, and whether others see them as party to that game: that is as much, if not more, a part of the dynamics of great-power politics as is states’ material rise and fall.


The above analysis suggests a number of (often unasked) questions regarding U.S. policy toward Russia.

Does the United States have strong interests in Russia’s definitive fall from the ranks of the global powers—that is, in Russia’s assent to the American narrative?

If the two states’ divergent narratives have complicated U.S.-Russia relations, perhaps shaping the Russian narrative should become a U.S. priority, and the costs and benefits of specific policies should be examined through that prism. Treating Russia as a power of the first rank, massaging the Russian ego, and offering conciliatory measures in areas beyond Russia’s legitimate interests as a regional power—as Bill Clinton did at times, such as when he pressed the G7 to admit Russia to its ranks—might bring about temporary stability and cooperation, but it might also reinforce a problematic Russian narrative and create further difficulties down the road.60 Perhaps U.S. policy must walk a fine line between acknowledging Russia’s legitimate regional interests and putting Russia in its (second-rank) place.

Yet hawks should not take heart. Taking Russia down a notch might be destabilizing. Perhaps analogously, historian Paul Schroeder argues that the stability of Europe before World War I rested on a precarious balance and required maintaining both the reality and, more important, the façade of Austro-Hungarian great-power status. When its fellow great powers, especially Britain, were no longer willing to maintain that façade, the system crashed. Millions of Europeans perished as “Austria decided not to die quietly, and . . . [finally embraced a] long-postponed decision to recover her position by violence.” The point, Schroeder surmises from the European experience, is that “nothing is more likely to occasion a major war than a threat to the existence or great-power status of an essential actor.”61 Although the current international order does not appear to rest on myths of Russia’s great-power status, and no third world war is in the offing, Schroeder’s point should still be considered. The benefits of making Russia acknowledge its weakness may not be worth the costs. First, hard-nosed policies may prompt prohibitively costly recalcitrance from Russia in the short to medium run. Second, allowing Russia to maintain its global-power pretensions, even indefinitely, may not be especially costly. If it is not costly, the United States can weigh the costs and benefits of accession to Russian demands and concession to Russian sensitivities without taking into account the effects on both Russia’s self-image and others’ image of Russia.

However, the scholarly literature generally concludes that great-power status matters and implies therefore that permitting Russia to maintain its pretensions is by no means costless. Many see reputational considerations as a prime motivator of state behavior. The desire to be perceived as a legitimate and responsible international actor may explain in part why states comply (to the extent that they do) with international law.62 States have often expended substantial blood and treasure to defend their interests beyond narrowly construed strategic considerations precisely because they fear they will acquire a reputation for being weak-willed.63 To be a great power is to have a reputation for strength, resolve, and global influence. Beyond that, great-power status seems to confer benefits that exceed bilateral relationships. Great powers set “the rules of the game”: the international arena is populated with institutions and norms that reflect the desires of the great powers.64 States thus aspire to that status with good reason, and some may even invest substantial resources in developing nuclear weapons, despite international opprobrium, precisely because they believe those weapons are a prerequisite for international recognition as a great power.65 If states are willing to take on substantial costs to acquire that reputation, such status is presumably of value, and the United States, presumably, has an interest in denying that status to states whose interests conflict with its own and who will press for revisions to the international order.66

The key question is the extent to which the Russian vision of global politics and institutions differs from the American vision. The more these two nations’ visions and interests differ, the more costly it will be for the United States to allow Russia’s pretensions to take hold and to reinforce them through conciliatory measures beyond the zone of legitimate Russian concern. The extent to which U.S. and Russian interests and global visions are shared or are in conflict is best left for another essay and other writers (including in this volume).

The options available appear to be either trying to compel Russia to accept the American narrative or persisting in a destabilizing state of narrative divergence. But there is an alternative, if provocative, option that is worthy of a hearing. Americans themselves might consider telling a different story of global politics since the Cold War’s end. This alternative might cast America’s Cold War victory in less grand ideological terms (no end of history in sight), recognize the limits of American power, depict global politics as multipolar or even nonpolar (rather than unipolar), and vivisect post–Cold War American discourse that characterizes the United States as “the last remaining superpower” and “the indispensable nation”; it might depict the imperative of maintaining U.S. hegemony or primacy as yet another instance of what Senator J. William Fulbright called “the arrogance of power.” This reframing might bring Russian and American narratives into alignment, and it is a more achievable end. Americans have greater control over the stories they tell themselves than over the stories Russians tell. Unfortunately, despite the United States’ recent travails in Iraq and Afghanistan, this story line does not seem to be one that either the American body politic or President Barack Obama is ready to embrace.

Even if reshaping the Russian narrative is in U.S. interests, does the United States have policy tools at its disposal to shape how Russians narrate their nation’s past, present, and future? Are there less costly ways of influencing Russia’s narrative than “getting tough” on Russia? Is “getting tough” even likely to work?

There are profound limits to public diplomacy.67 As the United States has discovered since September 2001, it has little control over how it is perceived by foreigners, how the events of 9/11 are understood abroad, how the “War on Terror” is interpreted, and how the invasion of Iraq and the operation in Afghanistan are narrated elsewhere. To think that any consistent U.S. public diplomacy effort would have much impact on how Russia narrates its own past, present, and likely future is beyond arrogant. It is quixotic at best, delusional at worst. In this, as in other areas of U.S. foreign policy, there is reason for humility.68 Perhaps actions, especially if costly, do speak louder than words. Hawks might argue that if the United States acted more consistently, Russia would get the message: it would realize that others do not see the country as a leading power, and it would accept its subordinate status. But entrenched narratives are resilient. They can accommodate a large amount of discrepant evidence before they are abandoned. Because individuals crave order and stability, mental and discursive, they are resistant to jettisoning these constructs before they must. This means not only that the United States would have to be extremely consistent for a very long period of time—a costly strategy—but also that the United States, to drive the point home, might have to exaggerate its lack of respect, to the point of even denying Russia’s status as a regional power. Otherwise, Russian observers might misinterpret American respect for legitimate Russian aims (that is, those the United States saw as befitting a regional power) as deference to a fellow global power. Even more important, it means that other countries would have to follow suit—an exceedingly unlikely proposition— or the signal would be swamped by noise. There is no reason to think that, in assessing others’ views, Russia looks only to the United States. Finally, this perspective sees the Russians themselves as too passive. Certainly Russians might, in response to the American signal, revise their narrative. But they would seem equally likely to redouble their efforts to alter the American narrative—and this, too, should give hawks pause.


1. E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919–1939: An Introduction to the Study of
International Relations
, 2nd ed. (London: Macmillan, 1951), 208–209.

2. Dale C. Copeland, The Origins of Major War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000); Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981);A. F. K. Organski and Jacek Kugler, The War Ledger (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

3. One might debate the latter point, but I am not aware of many analysts, realist in orientation or otherwise, who argue that Russia’s prospects are bright.

4. See Sherman Garnett, “Russia’s Illusory Ambitions,” Foreign Affairs 76 (2) (1997): 61–76; Michael McFaul, “Getting Russia Right,” Foreign Policy (117) (1999–2000): 58–73. On the constraints imposed by Russian regionalism, see Sam Nunn and Adam N. Stulberg, “The Many Faces of Modern Russia,” Foreign Affairs 79 (2) (2000): 45–62.

5. William C. Wohlforth, The Elusive Balance: Power and Perceptions During the Cold War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993).

6. On the human need for order and stability, see Jennifer Mitzen, “Ontological Security in World Politics: State Identity and the Security Dilemma,” European Journal of International Relations 12 (3) (2006): 341–370.

7. Walter R. Fisher, “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm,” Communication Monographs 51 (1984): 1–22. On man as a “story-telling animal,” see Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 201.

8. Erik Ringmar, Identity, Interest and Action: A Cultural Explanation of Sweden’s Intervention in the Thirty Years War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), chap. 3. On narrative and identity, see Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, trans. Thomas McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), 136; Janice Bially Mattern, Ordering International Politics: Identity, Crisis, and Representational Force (New York: Routledge, 2005) 12; Maurice Charland, “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the ‘Peuple Québécois,’” Quarterly Journal of Speech 73 (2) (1987): 133–150. The observation that the construction of the self hinges on narration goes back at least to George Herbert Mead’s “Self as Social Object,” in Mind, Self, and Society, ed. George Herbert Mead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934). On the nature of narrative, see Celeste M. Condit, “The Functions of Epideictic: The Boston Massacre Orations as Exemplar,” Communication Quarterly 33 (4) (1985): 284–299; Molly Patterson and Kristen Renwick Monroe, “Narrative in Political Science,” Annual Review of Political Science 1 (1998): 315–331.

9. David Brooks, “The Rush to Therapy,” The New York Times, November 10, 2009. See also George Lakoff, The Political Mind (New York: Viking, 2008).

10. Michael Calvin McGee and John S. Nelson, “Narrative Reason in Public Argument,” Journal of Communication 35 (4) (1985): 139–155; Theodore R. Sarbin, Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct (New York: Praeger, 1986).

11. Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, “Power in International Politics,” International Organization 59 (1) (2005): 52–53.

12. Implicit agreement with Fukuyama held even as U.S. officials shied away from his unfortunate phrase, “the end of history,” as did Anthony Lake in the 1993 speech cited below. This was also true even among those on the left and the right who, for different reasons, believed Cold War competition could have been avoided if the United States had pursued a different policy (whether more conciliatory or more hard-nosed) early on. Even intellectual critics who assailed the “errors of endism” questioned Fukuyama’s presumption of the permanence of liberalism’s triumph, not the fact of that triumph.


14. Fareed Zakaria, “China: Appease . . . Or Contain?” The New York Times Magazine, February 18, 1996; Thomas J. Christensen, “Posing Problems without Catching Up: China’s Rise and Challenges for U.S. Security Policy,” International Security 25 (4) (2001): 5–40; William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security 24 (2) (1999): 5–41.

15. After his 1995 conversion to support of NATO enlargement, however, Strobe Talbott cited the prospect of Russian revanchism as a reason for, not against, enlargement. See James M. Goldgeier, Not Whether but When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1999), 36–37, 93–95.

16. James M. Goldgeier and Michael McFaul, Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy toward Russia after the Cold War (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), 15, 359–361, quote at 3.

17. See, among others, Robert Legvold, “Russia’s Unformed Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 80 (5) (2001): 62–75; Jack F. Matlock, Jr., “Dealing with a Russia in Turmoil,” Foreign Affairs 75 (3) (1996): 38–51; David Remnick, “Can Russia Change?” Foreign Affairs 76 (1) (1997): 35–49. For an exception, see Richard Pipes, “Is Russia Still an Enemy?” Foreign Affairs 76 (5) (1997): 65–78.

18. While the administration worked to bring Russia along in both cases (as Goldgeier and McFaul emphasize in Power and Purpose), it made very few adjustments to accommodate Russian objections.?

19. For many examples, see Goldgeier, Not Whether but When, 36–37, 93–95.

20. Dmitry Medvedev, Presidential Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, November 12, 2009.

21. Vladimir Putin, Annual Address to the Federal Assembly, May 10, 2006. For other examples, see Putin’s speeches and related comments at the following: a meeting of top commanders of the Russian Armed Forces, November 20, 2000; a meeting of top members of the Russian Diplomatic Service, January 26, 2001; the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany, September 25, 2001; a meeting with the ambassadors and permanent representatives of the Russian Federation, June 27, 2006; the Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 10, 2007. See also Dmitry Medvedev’s speech at a meeting with German political, parliamentary, and civic leaders, June 5, 2008.

22. Putin’s remarks on the following occasions are illustrative in this regard: inauguration ceremony, May 7, 2000; Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, May 16, 2003; inauguration ceremony, May 7, 2004; Annual Address, April 25, 2005; Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 10, 2007.

23. An important exception comes occasionally in the context of the regular annual events in honor of veterans of World War II, whom Putin has hailed for having “fought for our great Soviet motherland”; address at a parade dedicated to the 55th Anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War, May 9, 2000. See, similarly, Putin’s address on the 60th Anniversary of the Beginning of the Great Patriotic War, June 22, 2001.

24. Putin expressed this sentiment in an address to the Millenium Summit, September 6, 2000. Related comments were made at Putin’s Annual Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, April 3, 2001 and May 26, 2004; Putin’s speech in the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany, September 25, 2001; and Medvedev’s speech at a meeting with German political, parliamentary, and civic leaders, June 5, 2008. See also Andrew Osborn, “Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev Condemns Stalin,” Telegraph, October 30, 2009; Ellen Barry, “Don’t Gloss Over Stalin’s Crimes, Medvedev Says,” The New York Times, October 30, 2009.

25. Putin made this comment in speeches on a number of occasions, including: a meeting of top commanders of the Russian Armed Forces, November 20, 2000; in the Bundestag of the Federal Republic of Germany, September 25, 2001; Annual Address to the Federal Assembly, April 25, 2005 and May 10, 2006.

26. Vladimir Putin, Open Letter to Voters, February 25, 2000. Putin also made similar remarks in a television address to the citizens of Russia, March 24, 2000.

27. Putin, television address to the citizens of Russia, March 24, 2000; Putin, speech at the presidential inauguration ceremony, May 7, 2000.

28. Putin, Open Letter to Voters.

29. Putin made this declaration at his Annual Address to the Federal Assembly, May 16, 2003. See also Putin’s speech at the 58th session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 25, 2003.

30. Putin referred to Russia in this capacity in his Annual Address to the Federal Assembly, May 10, 2006. See also Putin’s Annual Address, April 18, 2002, May 26, 2004, and April 25, 2005; speech to an enlarged conference at the foreign ministry attended by the heads of Russian diplomatic missions abroad, July 12, 2002; press statement on Iraq, April 3, 2003.

31. See Putin’s speech to the foreign ministry, July 12, 2002; Annual Address to the Federal Assembly, May 10, 2006.

32. Putin, Annual Address to the Federal Assembly, May 10, 2006.

33. Putin made this appeal during a speech at a meeting with the ambassadors and permanent representatives of the Russian Federation, June 27, 2006.

34. Medvedev’s comments are from a speech made in the State Duma of Vladimir Putin, May 8, 2008.

35. Medvedev, Address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, November 5, 2008.

36. Putin, speech and the following discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, February 10, 2007.

37. Putin, speech at a reception for the heads of diplomatic missions, November 28, 2007.

38. Medvedev, speech at a meeting with Russian ambassadors and permanent representatives to international organizations, July 15, 2008.

39. Russia’s posture changed strikingly in Summer 2009, when the United States and Russia reached an agreement to permit U.S. overflights to Afghanistan, and continued in December 2009 with Medvedev’s support for the expansion of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

40. France, at least in the Gaullist narrative, never really came to accept its second-tier status.

41. For further explanation of regime type and myth-making, see Jack Snyder and Karen Ballentine, “Nationalism and the Marketplace of Ideas,” International Security 21 (2) (1996): 5–40.

42. Geoffrey Blainey, The Causes of War, 3rd ed. (New York: Free Press, 1988).

43. A similar argument is suggested briefly in Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 3–4, 15.

44. L. J. Butler, Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a Post-Imperial World (London: I.B.Tauris, >2002), 28, 36; David Reynolds, Brittania Overruled: British Policy and World Power in the Twentieth Century, 2nd ed. (Harlow, U.K.: Longman, 2000), 154–155.

45. Correlli Barnett, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation (London: Macmillan, 1986).

46. Reynolds, Brittania Overruled, 186; see also David Sanders, Losing an Empire, Finding a Role: An Introduction to British Foreign Policy since 1945 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989).

47. Butler, Britain and Empire, 63.

48. John Callaghan, Great Power Complex: British Imperialism, International Crises and National Decline (London: Pluto Press, 1997), esp. 88–109.v

49. For further discussion on postwar missed opportunities, see Reynolds, Brittania Overruled. For a more polemical account, see Correlli Barnett, The Lost Victory: British Dreams, British Realities, 1945–1950 (London: Macmillan, 1995).

50. See Ritchie Ovendale, “The End of Empire,” in Rethinking British Decline, ed. Richard English and Michael Kenny (London: Macmillan, 2000), 264; Reynolds, Brittania Overruled, 171.

51. Quoted in Reynolds, Brittania Overruled, 309.

52. Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (New York: Penguin, 2005), 278–283, quote at 278–279. See also Butler, Britain and Empire, 98; Reynolds, Brittania Overruled, 23, 174.

53. February 1947 is represented as a key turning point in nearly all historians’ accounts.

54. Quoted in Reynolds, Brittania Overruled, 309. See also Butler, Britain and Empire, 65–66.

55. Suez is often seen as a turning point both toward a more pessimistic British popular temper and away from the nation’s aspirations to be a global power. The former may be true (see Judt, Postwar, 298–302), but not the latter (see Reynolds, Brittania Overruled, 208–214).

56. Reynolds, Brittania Overruled, 201, 213.

57. Ibid., 219.

58. It would also be interesting to trace how Britain’s view of itself resonated, or not, with other key actors, notably American and Soviet decision-makers. I suspect there was narrative divergence in this case as well, and it would be useful to explore if and how this divergence complicated Britain’s relations with the superpowers.

59. This point is argued most powerfully in Barnett, The Audit of War.

60. On the negative consequences of treating Russia as a great power, see Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 360.

61. Paul W. Schroeder, “World War I as Galloping Gertie: A Reply to Joachim Remak,” The Journal of Modern History 44 (3) (1972): 334–345, quotes at 345, 335; emphasis added. I would like to thank Tim Crawford for bringing Schroeder’s observation to my attention.

62. From a large body of literature, see especially Andrew T. Guzman, How International Law Works: A Rational Choice Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Beth A. Simmons, “International Law and State Behavior: Commitment and Compliance in International Monetary Affairs,” American Political Science Review 94 (4) (2000): 819–835. On the limits of this mechanism, see Beth A. Simmons, Mobilizing for Human Rights: International Law in Domestic Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 117–118. For skepticism on reputation and compliance, see Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, World Out of Balance: International Relations and the Challenge of American Primacy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2008), 158–169; George Downs and Michael Jones, “Reputation, Compliance, and International Law,” Journal of Legal Studies 31 (2002): S95–S114.

63. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966).

64. For this strand of realist thought, see Brooks and Wohlforth, World Out of Balance, 150–151, 180–182; Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics; Randall L. Schweller and David Priess, “A Tale of Two Realisms: Expanding the Institutions Debate,” Mershon International Studies Review 41 (supp. 2) (1997): 1–32.

65. Scott D. Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb,” International Security 21 (3) (1996/1997): 73–80.

66. Some scholars have questioned whether states can in fact shape their reputations for resolve through actions or whether those reputations matter in crisis situations; see Jonathan Mercer, Reputation and International Politics (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996); Daryl G. Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2005). However, those findings are not necessarily portable to the question of great-power status. Moreover, this scholarship generates its own puzzle: if reputations matter so little or are impossible to acquire, why would states bother expending resources to that end, which no one denies that they do? Why would states believe, and act upon, such foolish ideas?

67. David M. Edelstein and Ronald R. Krebs, “The Quest for the Holy Sale: Washington’s Troubling Obsession with Public Diplomacy,” Survival 47 (1) (2005): 89–104.

68. On the demonstrated limits of U.S. power to promote domestic change in Russia, see Goldgeier and McFaul, Power and Purpose, 335–354.