H-Diplo Article Review 822- Robert Jervis on “One Hundred Years of Russian-American Relations.”

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Article Review

No. 822

10 January 2019




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii



“One Hundred Years of Russian-American Relations.”  Diplomatic History 42:4 (September 2018):  513-589.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhy039.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR822


Review by Robert Jervis, Columbia University


As Melvyn Leffler and William Hitchcock explain in their introduction to this symposium, the “frustration, indeed exasperation,” about world affairs expressed by many members of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) at the spring 2017 meeting led them to convene a meeting to see what light the study of the history of Soviet and Russian relations with the U.S. might shed on the current conflict.[1] The result is the eighteen essays here, with a concluding one by Celeste A. Wallander, the National Security Council Senior Director for Russia/Eurasia during President Barack Obama’s second term.


All the essays are short, running no more than three pages and covering particular periods, relations between specific leaders, or, in the case of Odd Arne Westad’s essay, one leader (Vladimir Lenin).[2] Most of the authors are historians, with a few being political scientists. I could not infer the authors’ disciplinary affiliations from their contributions, and this is interesting for the discussions of the lessons that can be learned from the past. To overgeneralize, if not stereotype, the members of these tribes, it is less of an intellectual reach for political scientists to move from the results of their research to policy prescriptions because they seek generalizations (although often probabilistic ones), and these lend themselves to prescriptions for the current situation, even if they are sometimes facile or trivial. As I understand it as an interested outsider, the history discipline is more wary of generalizations. The farthest many would go would be to endorse Mark Twain’s maxim, ‘history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.’ Context, contingency, and, for many, personalities limit the possibility of lessons, at least specific ones, that can be drawn from the past and applied to the future. So the fact that the historians do not hold back here is in itself interesting.


Leffler and Hitchcock have assembled a first-rate cast, and I enjoyed and learned from each one of their essays. Rather than singling out individual essays, I will comment on some of the themes that emerge. One is obvious from the way the symposium is organized. Almost all the essays discuss relations between a pair of leaders, such as Joseph Stalin and Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton (the latter, written by Svetlana Savranskaya is paired by one on Clinton and Yeltsin by Strobe Talbott, who was Clinton’s leading Russia adviser).[3] This implies that central to Russian-American relations are the relations between the leaders of each state. This is a plausible if unusual perspective. It is more common to break up the history on the basis of the individual leaders on each side or by periods such as détente or the beginning of the Cold War.


This organizational scheme brings out one argument that runs through the essays, which is that the personal relations between leaders matter a great deal. Such a view is I think more congenial to historians than political scientists. The later discipline gives short shrift to personal relationships. Here historians are much more closely aligned with leaders and negotiators themselves. In my discussions with many of the latter, they very quickly bring up the importance of the personal chemistry between those sitting on opposite sides of the table. Many if not most leaders want to meet their opposite numbers because they believe that they are exceptionally skilled in sizing them up, influencing them, and establishing useful open (and perhaps manipulative) relations with them. One can look in vain through the political science literature to find even a mention of the personal relations that so often come up in these essays. A few examples will suffice. Barbara Keys says that “despite their reputation as hard-nosed realists, [Richard] Nixon and [Henry] Kissinger understood that humans conduct international relations….without being entirely conscious of it, they built the kind of empathy and respect on a personal level that allowed the two adversaries to trust each other enough to find common ground on key issues” (248).[4] Similarly, William Taubman argues that “you couldn’t tell that from the 1985 Geneva summit’s substantive exchanges between [Ronald] Reagan and [Mikhail] Gorbachev, but the way the two men clicked on a personal level seemed to both of them like a real ‘breakthrough’” (556).[5] Derek Chollet remarks on the easy way Barack Obama and Dmitri Medvedev could communicate (580).[6] Interestingly enough, some of the authors dissent, although whether the reason is that they are analyzing different pairs or that their general orientation towards world politics is different is hard to determine. Savranskaya downplays the importance of the personal relationship between Clinton and Yeltsin[7] and Eugene Rumer notes that the record of U.S.-Russia policy under presidents George W. Bush and Obama suggests that despite their political and policy differences, their approach to Russia was remarkably consistent (576).[8] Wallander too downplays the role of personal relations in something of an exception to what I think is generally true for how policy-makers see the world.[9]


A second theme is the importance of the respect American leaders accorded to (or withheld from) Soviet and Russian leaders, and, even more, to the interests of their country. Here there is some vagueness as it is hard to separate respect that gratifies the psychological needs of individuals, especially insecure ones like Nikita Khrushchev, and substantive concessions to the USSR/Russia.[10] Political scientists, especially those in the Realist school, have no trouble with the importance of respect in the latter sense, but tend to downplay it in the former sense, although this aspect has received increased attention in the past decade, in part thanks to the work of Deborah Larson,[11] who here contributes a chapter on John F. Kennedy and Khrushchev.


One of the lessons that most of the authors draw is the importance of mutual respect, although since the U.S. was the stronger state throughout this period and remains so, the focus is on the U.S. respecting Russia, a negative example being Obama’s dismissive reference to Russia as a “regional power with a big military” (581). But this does not fully engage with the question of what substantive concession the U.S should be prepared to make. Here the authors are largely in agreement on one point, however; the importance of the American willingness or lack thereof to grant the USSR/Russia a sphere of influence in its backyard (see, for example, 526-527, 538-539, 541, 566, 575, and 578). This is a large and hotly contested question, both for the early years of the Cold War and for the current situation, and all I would say here is that in both periods it seems to me that the difficulty was in granting the USSR/Russia the security it craved and deserved without allowing it to dominate the neighbors and determine their fates. This balance was struck with the status of Finland during the Cold War, but the necessary condition for such an arrangement is that the country in question has a fairly unified and strong domestic social and political system.


An additional thread that runs through the essays, one that is thin because of their brevity, is the need for American presidents to maintain domestic support, which is particularly difficult for a sustained policy that does not yield immediate benefits or that clashes with the American self-image as the Nixon/Kissinger policy did. Domestic politics did not and cannot stop at the water’s edge.[12] From her perspective as a former policy-maker, Wallander stresses that it is all well and good to think of things the U.S. might have done to have improved relations, but these speculations are indeed academic if they fail to take into account whether they could have been supported by domestic opinion.


As is to be expected and welcomed in any scholarly collection, there are disagreements. Taubman and Kate Geoghegan are more critical of George H.W. Bush than is Robert Zoellick. Savranskaya and Geoghegan are more critical of Clinton than is Talbott.

Although readers will have their own favorites, none are likely to come away from the collection disappointed.


Robert Jervis is Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics at Columbia University and Founding Editor of ISSF. His most recent book is How Statesmen Think (Princeton University Press, 2017). He was President of the American Political Science Association in 2000-01 and is the founding editor of the International Security Studies Forum. He has received career achievement awards from the International Society of Political Psychology and ISA's Security Studies Section, the Grawemeyer Award for the book with the Best Ideas for Improving World Order, and the National Academy of Science’s tri-annual award for behavioral sciences contributions to avoiding nuclear war.


© 2019 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License



[1] Melvyn P Leffler, William I Hitchcock, “One Hundred Years of Russian-American Relations,” Diplomatic History 42:4 (September 2018) [hereafter DH]: 513-516.

[2] Odd Arne Westad, “Lenin,” DH, 517-520.

[3] Svetlana Savranskaya, “Yeltsin and Clinton,” DH, 564-567; Strobe Talbott “Clinton and Yeltsin,” DH, 568-571. The other paired essays are Erez Manela, “Wilson and Lenin,” DH, 521-524; Serhii Plokhy, “Stalin and Roosevelt,” DH, 525-527; Frank Costigliola, “Roosevelt/Kennan and Stalin,” DH, 528-531; Vladislav Zubok, “Brezhnev and Putin,” DH, 540-543; Jeremi Suri, “Nixon and Brezhnev,” DH, 544-547; James Graham Wilson, “Reagan and Gorbachev,” DH, 552-555; Robert B Zoellick, “Bush 41 and Gorbachev,” DH, 560-563; Geoghegan, “Bush 41/Clinton and Yeltsin,” DH, 572-575; and Allen C Lynch, “Putin and Trump,” DH, 583-585.

[4] Barbara Keys, “Nixon/Kissinger and Brezhnev, DH, 548-551.

[5] William Taubman, “Gorbachev and Reagan / Bush 41,” DH, 556-559.

[6] Derek Chollet, “Obama and Putin,” DH, 579-582.

[7] For the fascinating transcripts of the meetings and telephone conversations between the two leaders see https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/russia-programs/2018-10-02/clinton-yeltsin-relationship-their-own-words.

[8] Eugene B Rumer, “Putin and Bush 43/Obama,” DH, 576-578.

[9] Celeste Wallander, “Reflections,” DH, 586-589.

[10] Deborah Welch Larson, “Kennedy and Khrushchev,” DH, 536-539; Timothy Naftali, “Khrushchev and Kennedy,” DH, 532-535.

[11] T.V. Paul, Deborah Larson, and William Wohlforth, eds., Status in World Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2014); Larson and Alexi Shevchenko, The Quest for Status (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming).

[12] For a recent political science discussion of this, see Helen Milner and Dustin Tingley, Sailing the Water’s Edge: The Domestic Politics of American Foreign Policy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).