In 1831, Alexis de Toqueville was sent by the French government to study the American prison system but used his trip to examine the United States more broadly and published two volumes entitled Democracy In America in 1835 and 1840. This work is used today in American history classes as it provides a perspective on why representative democracy worked in the United States and failed elsewhere. One of the most interesting parts of Democracy In America contrasts the United States with Russia:
“The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of the people; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm. The principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter, servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
This prescient passage seemed timely when read by the author over 25 years ago as the United States and the Soviet Union were in the middle of the Cold War and jockeying for increased global political influence. It put forward the idea that the United States and Russia would forever be rival nations. The demise of the Soviet Union and 9-11 shifted American national security activities away from Russia and towards Middle Eastern terrorism. However, recent events surrounding interference in the 2016 American election have brought Russia back into focus as our nation debates whether or not there is an opportunity to reframe our dealings with a Moscow government led by Vladimir Putin. The lead proponent of a thawing “reset” with Russia is President Donald Trump who has stated on multiple occasions that Putin could be an ally of the United States in fighting Middle Eastern terrorism.
However, the words of De Toqueville are worth heeding today. The wellspring of American democracy begins with Magna Carta, the seminal document from the year 1215 in which the English King agreed to a limitation of powers in dealing with his nobility. There is a direct link from this document to the Enlightenment and its thinkers such as Rousseau, Adam Smith and John Locke who posited that human rights are God granted and universal. Government exists by the consent of the governed and its powers are limited. Our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are two of the most enduring and influential products of the Enlightenment era. Russia, on the other hand, was not greatly influenced during the Enlightenment as De Toqueville suggested. The political life of the Russian people has been marked by absolutism from the Tsars to the Soviet state to Putin.
It is impossible for a democratic United States to embrace a dictator led absolutist Russia without surrendering a portion of its values in the process. This is an essential idea that President Trump needs to keep in mind. If we allow our country to embrace Russian objectives and tactics, the United States loses its claim as the standard bearer for freedom as Putin gains in legitimacy. De Toqueville believed that the United States and Russia are polar opposites politically and culturally. Alliances, like friendships, are built on mutual interests and values neither of which the United States shares with Russia. Despots like Putin are easy bedfellows with other dictatorial leaders like Assad of Syria. Our natural allies are democracies around the world that share our commitment to basic human rights. President Trump would be well advised to support these nations now as some of them are facing Russian hacks into their electoral processes. “Fake” news and a weaponized Wikileaks undermine democratic processes today and are accomplishing stealthily what Russian arms during the Cold War could not. The only prospect for true detente with Russia is the demise of the Putin government and the institution of democratic reforms that would have Russia match our system of government.