Despite the fact that the threat of Russia to British interests was minimal, and trade and diplomatic relations between the two countries were not bad at all in the years leading up to the Crimean War, Russophobia (even more than Francophobia) was arguably the most important element in Britain’s outlook on the world abroad. Throughout Europe, attitudes to Russia were mostly formed by fears and fantasies, and Britain in this sense was no exception to the rule….In the early nineteenth century there was a frenzy of European publications–pamphlets, travelogues and political treatises–on ‘the Russian menace’ to the Continent. They had as much to do with the imagination of an Asiatic ‘other’ threatening the liberties and civilization of Europe as with any perceived or real threat [bold mine-DL]. The stereotype of Russia that emerged from these fanciful writings was that of a savage power, aggressive and expansionist by nature, yet also sufficiently cunning to plot with ‘unseen forces’ against the West and infilitrate societies. ~Orlando Figes, The Crimean War (p. 70)
Figes notes that the 19th-century stereotype of Russia shaped the way Westerners later viewed the USSR during the Cold War, and there are some obvious similarities with the way that many Westerners still view Russia today, but what I find interesting about this description is that it is the way that hard-liners and hawks always perceive other nations that they view as competitors or threats. It does not seem to matter that they are almost always wrong in their estimations of the threat from the other nation. It is certainly not unique to American hawks or Americans in general, but Americans do seem to prefer treating potential and real enemies as if they were incredibly powerful and inherently aggressive and irrational. Logevall and Osgood quoted George Kennan’s observation on this habit:
We Americans like our adversaries wholly inhuman; all powerful, omniscient, monstrously efficient, unhampered by any serious problems of their own, and bent only on schemes for our destruction. Whatever their real nature, we always persist in seeing them this way. It is the reflection of a philosophic weakness—of an inability to recognize any relativity in matters of friendship and enmity.
One might think that this would lessen as we move away from the major, total wars of the last century that reinforced the habit, but this is not what has happened. If anything the vast disparity of power between the U.S. and our actual enemies not only encourages hawks to exaggerate threats, but it also pushes them to seek confrontation with other major powers by finding reasons for hostility. If a major power is seeking normal influence in its own region, it has to be treated as an aggressor and a “revisionist” power bent on expansion. If its external behavior doesn’t directly threaten our country, it is then necessary to align ourselves with those in the region hostile to that power for the sake of our “values.” If that fails to wreck relations, it becomes useful to find fault with the major power’s internal regime on the grounds that its political constitution proves that it will eventually become aggressive and dangerous.
Serving in the Aberdeen government, Palmerston’s agitation for war with Russia exhibited elements of all three of these. Figes describes Palmerston’s foreign policy:
Palmerston was the first really modern politician in this sense. He understood the need to cultivate the press and appeal in simple terms in order to create a mass-based political constituency. The issue that allowed him to achieve this was the war against Russia. His foreign policy captured the imagination of the British public as the embodiment of their own national character and popular ideals: it was Protestant and freedom-loving, energetic and adventurous, confident and bold, belligerent in its defence of the little man, proudly British, and contemptuous of foreigners, particularly those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox religion, whom Palmerston associated with the worst vices and excesses of the Continent. The public loved his verbal commitment to liberal interventionism abroad: it reinforced their John Bull view that Britain was the greatest country in the world and that the task of government should be to export its way of life to those less fortunate who lived beyond its shores. (p.148-149)
Change out some of the religious categories and replace them with political ones, and the description is a very familiar one of modern American interventionist attitudes. The British public’s enthusiasm for Palmerston’s confrontational policy with Russia relied on the belief that “the struggle against Russia involved ‘British principles’–the defence of liberty, civilization and free trade.” (p. 149) According to Figes, just as the Russians were vilified, so the Ottomans were transformed into virtuous victims in the public imagination, and it would be the British government riding this wave of popular sentiment that would be the one to push hardest for war with Russia. Lost in all of this was the reality that there was no reason for Britain and Russia to fight one another at all. Consequently, as Figes explains, “the allied expedition to the East began with no one really knowing what it was about.” (p. 158) Then again, it is extremely difficult to understand the purpose of a war when the government enters into it for emotional and ideological reasons alone.