Book Review: "Containing History: How Cold War History Explains US-Russia Relations"

By: Raymond S. Pfeiffer

Volume 19, Issue 3, March 2024

As two terrible wars stir the socio-political cauldron of anxieties and turmoil in our world today, a full understanding of current realities requires us to give full credit to the lessons of history. Stephen Friot’s detailed, authoritative, and fascinating study of the history of relations between Russia and the USA broadens and deepens our grasp of the story of the last hundred years, and current realities.

The decline and fall of the USSR was one of the most momentous world-political events of the twentieth century. We are still struggling with its aftermath, which has come back to bite us in the Russia-Ukraine war. Friot focuses on the roots of our present conflict, revealing the diplomatic rationale for the policies and maneuvering that shaped the Cold War and beyond. The study is based on extensive research into historical documents that have recently come to light in the West and in Russia. Friot illuminates the careful and dedicated work, and the inner trials, of distinguished leaders in both the West and the USSR, who managed carefully to keep us out of war throughout the Cold War Years.

Containing History: How Cold War History Explains US-Russia Relations‌ ‌By Stephen P. Friot; Norman, OK; University of Oklahoma Press, 2023. Available on in Kindle and Hardcover

Friot’s aim is not to sympathize with Russian views, but rather to grasp firmly what they are, and the Russian experience at their core. Friot is a Thousand Islander, a distinguished jurist, and legal scholar who lectured on the law to students in Russia for many years. He explains that he was motivated, through his personal contact, with a basic rift in his discussions with Russians. On the one hand, their views of world events seem so very much like Friot’s law students in the USA. But, on the other hand, the Russians seem to have a perspective which is completely different from that of US students. Although their attitudes are far from hostile toward the USA and its culture of democracy, they view the history and tradition of US policies as imperialistic and calculated to contain or hold back any natural or normal development of Russian interests. They recognize as legitimate the fact that Russia has been an empire for most of the past three hundred years.

Friot recounts the collapse and disappearance of the USSR, along with the temporary encouragement provided by the West to its successor, the Russian Federation. This took the form of assistance from the West, which provided cultural, political, and economic advisors to Russia and its former republics in their early movement toward capitalism, parliamentary democracy, and the rule of law. Friot was part of this effort, bringing to bear his extensive in-depth, legal and juridical experience. He came to understand Russian points of view and also the failure of the West in shaping Russian developments after 1991.

Friot points out that no less than the last five US presidents, along with the European powers, had a policy of non-interference with Russian military aggression to regain control of its former republics to its south and west. The Putin regime interpreted this long-standing policy as implying military forbearance. Only after Putin acted on this interpretation in Ukraine did the fifth president, Biden, together with NATO, reverse course and provide essential support to oppose Russia’s effort to reconstruct the empire of the former USSR.

Friot acknowledges the failure of US policy after the Soviet dissolution, but stops short of labeling it what it clearly was: appeasement. It was appeasement on the order of that which handed Hitler the Sudetenland in 1938. Putin, correspondingly, marched unopposed into eastern Ukraine and the Crimea in 2014. Only the aggression of 2022, after years of the Chechen war, and other military moves in Russia’s southern flank, led the West to reformulate its policy and support the defense of Ukraine. Now, as at the time that the book was published, the Western world, including the US and NATO, is in the midst of political turmoil leading to an uncertain outcome.

Whatever that outcome may be, Friot reveals some of the powerful viewpoints at the core of Putin’s regime. Although that regime does not have a complete, coherent ideology in any way comparable to that of the USSR, its basic nationalist political support is often and broadly based on appeals to Russian history. Such appeals are common among nationalist despots everywhere, and sound shallow and ill-founded to many citizens of the West. Friot seeks to explain the ways in which these appeals to Russian history resonate with the Russian people.

It is through a lengthy account of Russian and Western interaction that emerges the depth of Russia’s widespread cultural and historical grasp of itself as a great, imperial power, and its need for room to its west, shielding it from European aggression. Over three quarters of the book is devoted to this historical review, based on extensive and carefully-noted research, and many relatively new revelations of the thinking of those most influencing the momentous events of the conclusion of World War Two, and the Cold War.

The title of the book seems to be derived, in part, from the thinking of Karl Marx, who envisioned history as the progress of the common people, over millennia, from their status of near-slavery in traditional and then early capitalist societies, to the ideal social and political order Marx thought would liberate all people. Accordingly, history would some day end when socialism triumphed, producing justice, peace, and freedom for all. The West has rejected this view, holding that economic prosperity in a capitalist order, governed by representative democracy, is the primary force that will bring well-being.  The West thus sought to contain what was known as communism, whether of a Soviet or Chinese variety, thus, in one sense, containing history.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought what Francis Fukuyama has famously called “the end of history.” That is, the Marxist march toward socialism was over for Russia and Eastern Europe. The Western policies of containment had been successful, and the world seemed to turn toward various forms of capitalist, representative democracy.  It appeared that a peaceful, inter-related world would flourish.

In reality, the supposed end of history brought forth or strengthened development, over time, of autocratic regimes in Russia, North Korea, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and more.  Some other nations turned or continued toward Western-style representative capitalist democracies, while many wobbled back and forth as their populations swung in the cross-currents. The fall of the USSR has brought with it instability on a broad scale, as Russia reeled toward dictatorship and war, the Middle East and North Africa boiled over, and now Israel wages war in Gaza, reacting to the savage attack by Hamas.

The book went to press months before the Hamas attack of October 7, 2023. As such, the relevance of Putin’s war to that attack and the subsequent, continuing war, is far from obvious.  In this vein, a recent op-ed piece by the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman sheds interesting light on one way to think of the relationship of the two current wars.

Friedman describes the current world division as one network of nations set against another. In the West are a group of nations that seek to include all others in their network of trade and peaceful interaction. Friedman labels this the “network of inclusion.” It is opposed by a group of nations that are barely related, but do share autocratic resistance to the model of inclusive, representative, liberal democratic capitalism. Friedman refers to this as the “network of resistance.”  Russia, under Putin, lines up with this latter group, and is among the most powerful of its members. It now appears that whether it can find success in its current political course depends in large part upon the degree of military force that is projected by the two competing networks of nations.

Friot presents a serious list of lessons to be gleaned from the history of Russian interactions with the West. Overall, they point to the likelihood of a very intense and long-term conflict in Ukraine, with little hope for a compromise solution, as both nations develop full-time war economies. Western efforts to contain Russian expansion over the centuries have had mixed results, at best. Friot argues that what Russia does, and how it changes, must inevitably come from within Russia itself. Western pressure may have effects, but will not wholly shape the outcome of Putinism and the Ukraine war.

By Raymond S. Pfeiffer

Raymond S. Pfeiffer, Ph.D., Washington University in St. Louis, is Professor of Philosophy Emeritus from Delta College in Michigan, the author of philosophy books and articles, as well as articles in Thousand Islands Life, and a summer resident of The Punts Islands.

February 16, 2024

Posted in: Volume 19, Issue 3, March 2024, Book review

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