Will Russia Join the World?

On his visit to Moscow, President Obama carried more than an olive branch. He urged Russia to join the global community, which may be more important even than healing the mess that George Bush made of Russian-American relations. From the perspective of the former Soviet Union, there have been a lot of betrayed promises in the past ten years, and Obama needed to attend to that. His theme of a fresh start was welcome news.

Yet something more basic hangs in the balance. Russia is struggling to find its collective consciousness. Aspects of the past linger in many unhealthy ways. The loss of empire stings, and Obama had to be careful to make the Russians feel like equal partners. In reality, they aren't, except in the deadly sense of possessing an enormous nuclear stockpile. They have a population of only 140 million people (less than Pakistan), that is quickly aging. Because of a drastically low birth rate, the country could dwindle to 100 million over the next twenty years, with a huge portion of the elderly.

The average Russian male has a life expectancy of 60, with alcohol being a major factor in early death. There is substandard medical care, with almost no attention to prevention and wellness. On the economic front, the Russians have failed to develop a safe, reliable system of capital. Without oil and gas, they would have almost no viable economy.

One can see why their sense of identity is struggling, trapped between the security of the old repressive system and the fragility of a newly fledged democracy. Many Russians are satisfied with an autocrat like Vladimir Putin, who seizes whole industries at will and outlaws freedom of the press. On the other hand, the isolation of the Soviet years was stifling, as evidenced by the mass migration of minority groups, particularly, Russian Jews, as soon as the borders to the West were opened.

Officially, the agenda for dealing with Russia centers on nuclear disarmament, mutual defense interests, fighting terrorism, and the like. But the real issue is intangible. Will Russia become secure enough to join the world? Old habits die hard, and in Russia's case a return to militant nationalism and isolation would be disastrous. For decades Russia has played the role of the outsider and dissenter, the country that prides itself on blocking international progress and fomenting tension.

The good news is that President Obama struck exactly the right notes for calming Russian anxiety and hostility. He agreed to negotiate on almost every sore point; he showed respect for a once-equal antagonist; he pointed the way to global initiatives. Very quickly the Russians responded with various concessions, both real and symbolic. For once, the U.S. is motivating Russia toward positive change. They are unlikely to embrace freedom, democracy, and capitalism along American models, but with any luck, the new Russian consciousness will benefit the world at large for the first time.

Published in the San Francisco Chronicle

Deepak Chopra on
Follow Deepak on Twitter

Subscribe to the World Post email.