Beyond Economics

By Matthew Yglesias

Over at Brad DeLong's site you can see a fascinating discussion of America's Russia policy in the 1990s between DeLong, Martin Wolf, and Lawrence Summers. One remark I would make is that to an extraordinary extent, all three participants are willing to accept the premise that the only goal of US policy toward Russia in the 1990s was a good-faith effort to induce Russian prosperity, with such efforts being hampered by political constraints, the objective difficulty of the task, and pure policy errors.

In the real world, though, this is clearly not the case. Foreign policymakers and presidents -- though perhaps not Treasury Department economists like Summers -- concern themselves with questions of power politics. A prosperous Russia was seen as good for the United States, but not nearly so good as a Russia that was disinclined to object too strenuously US policy at the UN Security Council and other regional fora and that was willing to concede to the United States an equal (or even greater than equal) share of influence in Russia's "near abroad." This is a big part of the story of the relatively uncritical backing the Clinton administration provided to Boris Yeltsin -- under his leadership, Russia didn't attempt to assert itself on the world stage the way that Vladimir Putin, bolstered by oil revenue -- has, and we wanted to keep it that way.

Naturally, this dynamic also tends to undercut political support for reforms. In a country like Poland that doesn't see itself as a potential geopolitical rival to the United States and that sees (distant) American power as a useful check on nearby Russian and German power, people are willing to accept the idea that American advisors are really there to help. Russians, though, had seen their country locked in a decades-long battle for supremacy with the United States. Now Americans show up, pushing economic reforms, and those who feel that the reforms have made them worse off naturally wonder if the Americans aren't deliberately trying to make Russia weak and poor.

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