In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that there were “two great nations in the world.” They had started from different historical points but seemed to be heading in the same direction. As expanding empires, they faced the challenges of defeating nature and constructing a civilization for the modern era. Although they adhered to different governmental systems, “each of them,” de Tocqueville declared, “seems marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.”
De Tocqueville’s words were prophetic. In the 19th century, Russian and American intellectuals and diplomats struggled to understand the roles that their countries should play in the new era of globalization and industrialization. Despite their differing understandings of how development should happen, both sides believed in their nation’s vital role in guiding the rest of the world. American adherents of liberal developmentalism often argued that a free flow of enterprise, trade, investment, information, and culture was the key to future growth. They held that the primary obligation of American foreign policy was to defend that freedom by pursuing an “open door” policy and free access to markets. They believed that the American model would work for everyone and that the United States had an obligation to share its system with the old and underdeveloped nations around it.
A similar sense of mission developed in Russia. Russian diplomats had for centuries struggled to establish defensive buffers around the periphery of their empire. They had linked economic development to national security, and they had argued that their geographic expansion represented a “unification” of peoples as opposed to a conquering of them. In the 19th century, after the Napoleonic Wars and the failed Decembrist Revolution, tsarist policymakers fought to defend autocracy, orthodoxy, and nationalism from domestic and international critics. As in the United States, Imperial and later Soviet leaders envisioned themselves as the emissaries of the Enlightenment to the backward East and as protectors of tradition and order for the chaotic and revolutionary West.
These visions of order clashed in the 20th century as the Soviet Union and the United States became superpowers. Conflicts began early, with the American intervention in the 1918–1921 Russian civil war. Tensions that had previously been based on differing geographic and strategic interests then assumed an ideological valence, as the fight between East and West became a struggle between the political economies of communism and capitalism. Foreign relations between the two countries experienced boom and bust cycles that took the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust and yet maintained a strategic balance that precluded the outbreak of global war for fifty years. This article will examine how that relationship evolved and how it shaped the modern world.