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Trading places: How America and Russia flipped roles after the Cold War
One is a revolutionary power, the other a redoubt of conservative nationalism
Still chilly.
Still chilly. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
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funny thing has happened since the end of the Cold War: The U.S. and Russia have switched their roles on the global stage.

Well, at least in part. It used to be that Russia was the worldwide sponsor of revolutionary movements and the herald of secularism, anxious to impose a new world order. The United States was a deeply religious, conservative protector of nation states.

The international Left saw the U.S. as a reactionary power, willing to crush left-wing dissent at home. In its proxy battles, the U.S. tended toward realpolitik, preferring to protect existing governments — even distasteful and authoritarian ones — against globalizing left-wing revolutions that had any connection to the Soviet Union.

My, how times have changed.

In its post-Cold War incarnation, the United States' largest foreign policy efforts have been in the Middle East, where regime change and revolution have been the dominant themes. In the headiest days of the Bush years, America's rhetoric of revolutionary transformation sounded eerily like that of communists a generation earlier. Consider this passage from George W. Bush's second inaugural.

Because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it. By our efforts we have lit a fire as well, a fire in the minds of men. It warms those who feel its power; it burns those who fight its progress. And one day this untamed fire of freedom will reach the darkest corners of our world.

One could easily imagine these words in the mouth of a Soviet premier upon the invasion of Hungary or Afghanistan. In fact, Bush's phrase "fire in the minds of men" comes from Russian novelist Fydor Dostoyevsky's classic Demons, though he might not have been aware that it is a deeply counter-revolutionary novel.

There has occasionally been a left-wing undercurrent to America's revolutionary efforts. Third-rate intellectuals, misinterpreting Francis Fukyama's book The End of History and the Last Man, posited that history itself is pulling the entire world to liberal democracy, a kind of final and stable state in the politics of humankind. One might call this vision that of a "New Democratic Man," a funhouse mirror of the "New Soviet Man," the supposed product of a worker's revolution.

And what of Russia? After a free-for-all that saw its state-controlled industries devolve to a group of oligarchs, Russia under Vladimir Putin has charted a new course.

Russia is establishing a conservative-nationalist authoritarianism at home. Russia's laws against propaganda and dissent are used to suppress homosexuality, which is cast as an explicitly left-wing and "foreign" threat to the homeland. The heart of a formerly atheistic state has embraced the Russian Orthodox Church, even prosecuting dissenters like Pussy Riot for blasphemy.

In foreign affairs, Russia lags far behind the U.S. in raw power. But like the U.S. during the Cold War, Russia seems to side with existing nation states — especially unseemly ones. The U.S. lent rhetorical support to Iran's Green Revolution, while Russia sided with the theocracy. The U.S. has tried to intervene on behalf of revolutionaries in Syria, while Russia continues to trade and work closely with the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad. And of course, the U.S. and Russia have traded roles as liberating occupiers of Afghanistan.

The flip has been so obvious that conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, an ideological veteran of the Cold War, used his syndicated column last year to ask: "Is Putin one of us?" For this, Buchanan was flagellated by the partisans of America's revolution-friendly foreign policy. Both Buchanan and his critics are right on one narrow point: When Putin laments "the destruction of traditional values" by the elites of Western societies, his rhetoric mirrors exactly that of anti-communist Catholics during the Cold War.

No analogy is perfect. Russia is a far more authoritarian, more narrowly nationalist, and more unequal society today than America ever was during the Cold War. The Red Scares in the U.S., bad as they were, do not really compare to the way Russia has treated curious journalists and social dissenters.

Further, the U.S. in the 1980s supported democratic movements in the Eastern Bloc, while Bush bolstered authoritarian regimes like Hosni Mubarak's. Both Russia and the U.S. maintain many of their historic alliances, with the U.S. staying close to the major liberal and democratic powers worldwide. Since the high lunacy of 2004 and 2005, the United States has slightly becalmed its more revolutionary tendencies.

But at some point the world will notice that, after 1989, even conservative U.S. presidents began to wax with revolutionary fervor. And that Russia's authoritarian ruler occasionally booms like members of the Cold War-era group Tradition, Family, Property.

To the chagrin of ideologues everywhere, History is not ending anytime soon. But she has revealed herself to have a flair for the ironic.

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.

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