There's a lot of talk about Russia's hostility to America, thanks to their apparent (and to some—glaringly obvious) interference in the 2016 election. But in the grand scheme of things, Russia is small potatoes. America is bigger economically, has far more friends and thus a better world standing, and has a lot more going for it, as Stephen Walk explains here. Should we really be concerned with a country with a GDP some 15 times smaller than our own, with a rapidly aging population and no industry beside oil and gas? Stephen Walt's latest book is The Israel Lobby.
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Transcript: The United States is much stronger than Russia, and will be for the rest of my professional lifetime, and I would guess for the entirety of the 21st century unless we commit a series of almost unimaginable self-inflicted wounds.
The United States first of all has a much larger economy. Our economy is now about $17 trillion, Russia’s is less than $2 trillion and has actually been declining in recent years. So we are already close to eight or nine or ten times stronger economically.
The United States is much more powerful militarily: We spend four or five times more than Russia does on defense every year. We have much more sophisticated weaponry than Russia does. The United States is still blessed with allies in many parts of the world. These allies are for the most part rich, relatively powerful and stable. We’re talking about countries like Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and others. Russia by contrast has no allies of any real consequence. It has something of a friendly relationship with China, but it’s not really an alliance.
And lastly Russia has a terrible demographic situation. Its population is much older than ours on average, and it’s aging rapidly; the population is projected to decline dramatically by 30 or 40 million people over the next 50 years or so.
So for all of those reasons the United States has far more power potential.
Last but not least, Russia’s only real economic asset now is oil and gas. People are not lining up to buy the next Russian smartphone or anything like that, so Russia’s long-term potential strikes me as not nearly as promising as that of the United States.
Well, weaker states can still do a lot of things that cause trouble, and what Russia did in the 2016 election—the full extent of which and the importance of which we are still trying to figure out—certainly has roiled American politics in a variety of ways, so it does show that even much weaker powers can find various ways to interfere or cause problems.
Now, it was in part because we were vulnerable to that kind of manipulation, and that’s our fault, not theirs.
I would say a little bit more about this too, though: what Russia did is not unprecedented. The United States has interfered in democratic elections in lots of countries around the world, and you could argue that we've been doing a variety of things to try and encourage democratic forces, promote civil society, both in Russia or in countries close to Russia, in ways that they regard as alarming.
We might think that we’re doing the right thing, spreading our values in various places, but you could certainly understand how Russia might regard that as threatening, and might even view what they did in 2016 as a form of payback: “If you want to manipulate politics in Ukraine, if you want to interfere in Russia in various ways, well we can do things to you as well.”
So again, without knowing the full extent of what Russia may or may not have done we shouldn’t view this as unprecedented, and we shouldn’t view it as coming completely out of the blue. It doesn’t mean we have to like it, but it’s important I think to keep just how heinous it may or may not be in some context here.
Again, Russia is simply not the kind of global superpower that the Soviet Union was. It doesn’t pose a significant ideological challenge to us, it seems to me. And to the extent that the United States is going to worry about a rival/peer/competitor, it’s not going to be Russia—it’s going to be China.
But having said that, you can imagine circumstances where a confrontation between the two countries could begin to spin out of control, conceivably over what’s happening in Syria.
If things in Ukraine were to heat up again and the United States got more actively involved there, one could imagine some kind of clash arising.
I don’t think that leaders in Washington or leaders in Moscow actually want something like that to happen—Remember, we are still talking about two nuclear powers with thousands of nuclear weapons that could still be fired at each other, but I don’t think you can completely rule it out.
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