Michael McFaul is U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation.
November 17, 2013, marked the 80th anniversary of the U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union, when then-Soviet Foreign Minister Maksim Litvinov traveled to the U.S. to sign an agreement establishing diplomatic relations. While this is a milestone in our relationship with what was then the Soviet Union, our relationship with Russia actually extends much further back in time, more than 200 years, to the late 18th century. A newly founded, independent United States sent a representative to Saint Petersburg in 1781 followed shortly by the establishment of Russian outposts by the 1790s in present-day California and Alaska. Tsar Alexander I corresponded and exchanged books with President Thomas Jefferson, who addresses him, in one letter, as his "Great & Good Friend.” They established official diplomatic relations between our nations in 1807. Placing great importance on this relationship, President Jefferson sent John Quincy Adams, who later became Secretary of State and then our sixth President, as our first Minister to Russia.
Cultural and scientific cooperation has even deeper roots. As early as 1766 Benjamin Franklin corresponded with Russian scientist Franz Aepinus on the theory of electricity and magnetism. Around the same time Russian explorers were leaving their mark in Alaska and by 1812 had settled as far south as Fort Ross near present day San Francisco. (Fort Ross has special meaning for me as it is the place that I got engaged with my wife. This year, we celebrated our 20th anniversary!) Today Russian innovators and entrepreneurs are leaving their mark in Silicon Valley and American universities such as MIT partner with Skolkovo to develop new innovation centers.
We have had a long history of shared interests from the very beginning of our history. When Great Britain requested 20,000 troops during the American War of Independence, Catherine the Great refused the request, which helped the revolution succeed. During the American Civil War, for a number of reasons, some unrelated to Russo-American relations, the Russian Empire dispatched part of their fleet to New York and San Francisco, boosting spirits in the North. The presence of the Russian ships was taken by many as a sign that the Russian Empire would not engage in attempts to force a settlement that would lead to the division of the American nation.
Despite the fact that bilateral diplomatic relations had been broken off after the Bolshevik Revolution, the United States provided relief and support to those suffering in the Soviet Union during the famine of 1921. The U.S. effort was spearheaded by future President Herbert Hoover. Author Maxim Gorky wrote to Hoover in 1922: "Your help will enter history as a unique, gigantic achievement, worthy of the greatest glory, which will long remain in the memory of millions of Russians whom you have saved from death.” In 2009, the government of Tatarstan presented to me a letter of thanks from their local leaders to Herbert Hoover from this period. It hung on my wall when I worked at the White House. In more recent times the Russian Government has provided assistance to victims of natural disasters in the United States including following Hurricane Sandy. Developing a better ability to predict and respond to natural disasters is one of the many areas where we work together under the Bilateral Presidential Commission.
During World War II our shared sacrifice and ultimate victory were never greater. Teams of Russians and Americans faced the Arctic Cold and the German and Japanese navies to transport much needed supplies between our countries. Through the Lend Lease program, the United States was able to provide the USSR with approximately $11 billion in support thanks to ‘Liberty’ ships and volunteers from both countries.
Shortly after World War II, we then endured a long and difficult period of confrontation during the Cold War. Yet, even that difficult chapter in our shared history included instances of cooperation around common interests. As John F. Kennedy recalled in his famous commencement address at American University in June 1963, just months after the Cuban missile crisis, "Among the many traits the peoples of our two countries have in common, none is stronger than our mutual abhorrence of war. Almost unique among the major world powers, we have never been at war with each other.” Our common commitment to avoiding nuclear war produced arms control treaties that made both countries more secure.
Since the end of the Cold War, our common interests and challenges have outweighed our differences and disagreements. Today the United States and Russia continue to cooperate on a range of vital security and economic interests, including ensuring non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the modern age, reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles, as well as collaborating on regional issues, such as Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and the Middle East Peace Process. Our recent collaborative efforts on Syria and Iran are especially noteworthy and have the potential to make lasting contributions to security in the Middle East. With Russia joining the World Trade Organization in 2012, opportunities for trade and investment between our two countries have expanded. We also maintain cooperation on whole range of issues that rarely get noticed in the press, be it counterterrorism, cyber-security or space.
We also must manage a range of difficult bilateral issues, including our disappointment with the Russian ban on adoptions for American parents, our dismay at the Russian government’s handling of Edward Snowden, and our confusion over why there continues to be so many blatant mischaracterizations of American policy and society in some Russian media outlets. But on balance, the Obama administration greatly values our deep, complex, and comprehensive relationship with Russia. Engagement is important, both in finding win-win outcomes and for managing our differences, so we applaud those involved in the restoration of bilateral relations 80 years ago.