There are now two great nations in the world which, starting from different points, seem to be advancing toward the same goal: the Russians and the Anglo-Americans. Both have grown in obscurity, and while the world’s attention was occupied elsewhere, they have suddenly taken their place among the leading nations, making the world take note of their birth and of their greatness almost at the same instant. All other peoples seem to have nearly reached their natural limits and to need nothing but to preserve them; but these two are growing…. The American fights against natural obstacles; the Russian is at grips with men. The former combats the wilderness and barbarism; the latter, civilization with all its arms. America’s conquests are made with the plowshare, Russia’s with the sword. To attain their aims, the former relies on personal interest and gives free scope to the unguided strength and common sense of individuals. The latter in a sense concentrates the whole power of society in one man. One has freedom as the principal means of action; the other has servitude. Their point of departure is different and their paths diverse; nevertheless, each seems called by some secret desire of Providence one day to hold in its hands the destinies of half the world.
While the particular paths both the US and Russia forged from the mid-19th century until now don’t neatly fit de Tocqueville’s parameters—the US has not necessarily been shy in using military force—it’s as good a starting point for discussion as any.
Any cursory examination of the histories of both nations easily leads to the conclusion that both the US and Russia have had a sense of mission. That of the US is to spread democracy and self-determination across the globe. (Again, I’m speaking of self-conception, not reality on the ground.) Russia’s mission has been to see itself as defender of the Slavic peoples, and of Slavic Christianity; essentially, as the inheritor of Rome and Constantinople. It is a mission wrapped in mysticism and destiny. Even its 70 year sojourn under Communism was imbued with this mission, this time to make the world one large soviet. But at heart, Russia has seen itself as a natural great power, perhaps the greatest.
The idea that a thousand years of Russian culture would be eradicated by the fall of the Soviet empire was, at best, a fool’s dream. And I admit, I participated in it. I looked at summits between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin with relief and pride: two great enemies becoming partners, ushering the world into a new age free of great power conflicts.
And, truthfully, Russia was no longer a great power. Yes, it still had nuclear weapons; but the entire society was caving in on itself, of no threat to the West, dependent, in fact, on Western largesse. Bit by bit it became entrenched in the global economy, enmeshed in webs of finance and trade which are difficult to break.