US foreign policy towards the Russian Federation: The constrained Empire

Essay, 2006
20 Pages, Grade: 65 (UK system)


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Base Lines of U.S. – Russia Relations Since the End of the Cold War
II A. The Administration under George Herbert Walker Bush
II B. The Administration under William Jefferson Clinton
II C. The Administration under George Walker Bush

III. Russia becomes Autocratic (again): Waiting for the Liberal Empire
III A. Russia’s Setback Concerning Political and Economic Liberalism
III B. Current Underpinnings of U.S. Foreign Policy Towards Russia
III C. The Attention Deficit or: where is the Empire?
III D. The constrained Empire

IV. Conclusions

V. Notes

I. Introduction

The end of the cold war in 1989 and 1990 appeared without warning. The upheavals that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall were dramatic. Within less than one year since November 9, 1989 the three Baltic states declared their independence from the Soviet Union (S.U.) as did Uzbekistan, Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus. Finally, on October 3, 1990 Germany announced its reunification. At the beginning of 1992, the S.U. ceased to exist. In place of the Soviet empire, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) was established, bringing together eleven of the fifteen[i] constituent republics of the S.U. Having constituted the dominant republic of the S.U. and being regarded as its successor state, the Russian Federation had suddenly lost its status as a superpower and its role as a competitor, ideological and political, of the United States of America (USA/U.S.).

Practically over night, the USA was the only superpower left. Its foreign policy towards the new Russian state had to be reconsidered. Being formerly based on concepts like nuclear deterrence, containment and later détente, American foreign policy had to decide which path it was going to choose concerning its former foe that was considerably weakened.[ii]

At the beginning of the new USA-Russia relation, the American administration under George H. W. Bush tried to focus on minimizing the threats that emerged after the collapse of the S.U. Particularly, containing the potential threats of the large number of uncontrolled nuclear weapons was the focus of U.S. foreign policy towards Russia.[iii] Later during the 1990s, President Clinton formulated the U.S. objective to get involved in Russia’s domestic transformation as well as its integration into Western structures.[iv] It can generally be said that between the beginning of Clinton’s term and the events of September 11, 2001, U.S. foreign policy towards Russia was struggling between an approach based on realpolitik at the global stage and a strategy aimed at Russia’s domestic transformation – political as well as economic.[v]

However, since the events of September 11, 2001, U.S.-Russia relations have shifted significantly: The U.S. seems to have turned a blind eye on domestic developments in Russia. Since Russia joined the war on terrorism, the U.S. has compromised several of its principles concerning the spread of democracy and economic liberalism.

The development described above, contradicts arguments that urge the USA to use its capabilities, based on a set of soft and hard power more effectively. The USA therefore should use its superior position in global affairs to strengthen democratic regimes around the world. It is exactly this role, which the USA has to accept in order to underwrite the processes of economic globalisation with political liberalism.[vi]

Even official documents such as the U.S. ‘National Security Strategy” from September 2002 and March 2006 emphasise that “America must stand firmly for the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity: the rule of law; limits on the absolute power of the state; free speech; and respect for private property’.[vii]

However, this essay will argue that the USA is not in a position to influence Russia’s domestic behaviour in a way that is coherent with its liberal foreign policy doctrine. Strategic interests and internal as well as external constraints are the reasons why the U.S. has abandoned many of its foreign policy objectives in regard to Russia. In order to develop this argument, the first part of the paper will shortly outline U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the cold war. Then, the current underpinnings of U.S. policy towards Russia will be analysed. Particularly, the reasons for America’s non-engagement approach will be addressed. At the end of the paper, the main arguments will be summarised.

II. Base Lines of U.S. – Russia Relations Since the End of the Cold War

II A. The Administration under George Herbert Walker Bush

During the developments that preceded and followed the eventual break-up of the S.U., the administration under George H. W. Bush did not focus on Russia’s internal transformation. Rather, the focus was put on managing the end of the cold war in a way that was in line with American security interest.

One potential threat for America’s security was constituted by the nuclear weapons that were from 1992 on going to be located in four independent states: Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. Then Secretary of State, James A. Baker III, based his policy towards Russia on the assumption that it would serve America’s interests best, if there was only one nuclear power among the former republics of the S.U. A ‘Yugoslavia with nukes’ was not a desirable option for the Bush administration.[viii] Baker successfully convinced Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine to sign the START protocol[ix] on May 23/24, 1992 in Lisbon. The protocol stated that the non-Russian states would become non-nuclear ‘in the shortest possible time’. This led to the destruction of nuclear warheads in the non-Russian states and to the transfer of weapons to Russian soil respectively.[x]

Internal transformation processes in Russia were not considered as being a priority in US foreign policy. Although it was welcomed that the Soviet/Russia leadership wanted to integrate Russia into the Western community of states, the US government did actually little to become actively involved in internal Russian developments.[xi] In general it can be said that the USA left the door open for Russia to join ‘the West’. It however, made it clear that change and transformation have to come from within the post-Soviet societies rather than form the US.[xii]

II B. The Administration under William Jefferson Clinton

In contrast to Bush, the Clinton administration focused largely on Russia’s internal transformation – at least during Clinton’s first term. Clinton, who described himself as a ‘liberal internationalist’,[xiii] identified the promotion of democracy and Western-like markets in Russia as an American national interest. Underpinning reason for the engagement in Russian affairs was the belief to increase America’s security by leading Russia towards democracy and market institutions.

Whereas the Bush administration showed reluctance in getting involved in Russia’s transformation, Clinton promised to assist Russian reforms in virtually every sphere of public life.[xiv] This new approach was underlined by a considerable increase of American aid for Russia. The budget of 1993, which was passed during the Bush presidency, provided $417 million to the New Independent States (NIS) – Russia alone received $86 million in U.S. bilateral aid.[xv] Bilateral assistance to Russia increased in next year, the first of the Clinton administration, to $1,6 billion.[xvi] Even though the scale of bilateral assistance to Russia decreased in the following years, levelling off at around $150 million annually[xvii], the 1994 assistance package illustrates the engagement approach of the Clinton administration,

The largest part of the assistance was intended for economic development in Russia, whereas the item ‘democratic reform’ was provided with only 2,3% of the overall amount of assistance between 1992 and 1998.[xviii] This ‘economy first’ approach was based on the assumption that Russia had to stabilize itself economically before a democracy could develop.

Clinton’s two-pronged strategy, integrating Russia into the West and getting actively involved in Russian domestic developments, was also reflected by Russia’s accession to the ‘Group of 7’. Since the Birmingham summit in 1997, Russia is a member of the now G8.

However committed the Clinton administration was in promoting market institutions and democracy in Russia, it gradually retreated from its course of interference – particularly in Clinton’s second term. The continuing war in Chechnya, Russian-Iranian weapons trade, Russia’s financial breakdown in 1998, endemic corruption and Russia’s dubious democratic record left Clinton disillusioned with Russia’s development. But this does not change the fact that the Clinton team has been the only administration that tried to use American power to shape development in Russia.


[i] The three Baltic States and Georgia refused to join the CIS

[ii] Compared to the S.U., the Russian Federation had significantly shrunken in territory (76 percent of the S.U.), population (50 percent of the S.U.), economy (45 percent of the S.U.) and military personnel (33 percent of the S.U.). Figures are from: J. S. Nye Jr., The Paradox of American Power – Why the World’s Only Superpower can’t Go it Alone (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.27.[Personal copy of the book]

[iii] A. E. Stent, „America and Russia – Paradoxes of a Partnership“, in Russia’s Engagement with the West, ed. A. Motyl et al. (New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2005), p. 263.[Location: ULB-Library: 4 NIV 327.47 MOTY]

[iv] Ibid., p. 264.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] National Security Strategy of the USA (September 2002), p. 3.

This document can be found at: (last access: 30.03.06);

National Security Strategy of the USA (March 2006), p. 4.

This document can be found at: (last access: 30.03.06)

[viii] J. M. Goldgeier/M. McFaul, Power and Purpose: U.S. Policy Toward Russia After the Cold War (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2003), p. 42.[Personal copy of the book]

[ix] The START protocol can be found at: (last access: 30.06.03)

[x] The transfer was completed in 1996

[xi] Goldgeier/McFaul (2003), p. 11.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] William J. Clinton, „Liberal Internationalism: America and the Global Economy“, speech at American University, February, 26, 1993, in Rubinstein, et al, eds., The Clinton Foreign Policy Reader: Presidential Speeches with Commentary, p. 8-13. Referred to in: Goldgeier/McFaul (2003), 89.

[xiv] Goldgeier/McFaul (2003), p. 92.

[xv] Figures for 1994 are from Goldgeier/McFaul (2003), p. 94.

[xvi] Figures for 1995 are from:

(last access: 30.03.06)

[xvii] Figures from 1996-1999 and can be found at:

(last access: 30.03.06).

[xviii] Goldgeier/McFaul (2003), p. 114.

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US foreign policy towards the Russian Federation: The constrained Empire
University of Kent
65 (UK system)
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Russian, Federation, Empire
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Michael Hofmann (Author), 2006, US foreign policy towards the Russian Federation: The constrained Empire, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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