The United States celebrates President’s Day on Feb. 17. Russia Direct presents a round-up of five American Presidents who were witness to deteriorating bilateral relations, and five who managed to improve them.

President Barack Obama stands with former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter / Source: AP

Among Russians, there is a widely held notion that all U.S. presidents can be generally divided into “good” – those who contributed to the development of relations with Russia, and “bad” – those, on the contrary, who harmed relations with Russia.

However, the reality is not so simple. If we look at historical examples, we can see some amazing combinations, when U.S. presidents, well-disposed to Russia (often these are representatives of the Democratic Party), led bilateral relations into a deep impasse. Conversely, severe critics of  Russia’s domestic and foreign policies (often Republicans) led to fruitful cooperation and a major breakthroughs in resolving accumulated issues.

Jefferson and Russia

In the history of the U.S.-Russian cooperation, many presidents have looked at Russia with hope and believed in expanding bilateral cooperation. One of the first was Thomas Jefferson (President 1801–1809), who became famous for his correspondence with Emperor Alexander I, and who once stated, “Russia is the most friendly country in the world towards the United States.”

It was during Jefferson’s administration that U.S.-Russian relations attained official diplomatic status, and the principles of mutual friendship and mutual respect became the basis of international contacts for many decades afterwards. It is necessary to point out that Jefferson’s example is almost the only case in the history of Russian-American relations, when the initial positive attitude of the American president, in relation to Russia, did not change by the end of his administration, and led to unique positive and practical results.

From Wilson to Obama: Hoping for the best, but resulting in the worst

One hundred years later, another American president, Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921), enthusiastically received the news of the overthrow of the autocracy in Russia and made plans for the development of comprehensive relations with the new democratic republic. Finally, he was forced, by the end of his presidency, to recognize the complete failure of this project.

Of course, it is hard to blame Wilson for such an outcome. He was president during the rise to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia. Nevertheless, Wilson was one of the first “disappointed presidents,” who pinned great hopes on Russia but did not receive what they expected.

In this category we could also mention Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945), who perhaps more than any other American leader, worked towards the development of cooperation between Washington and Moscow. Indeed, from the very beginning of his long stay in the White House, Roosevelt attempted rapprochement with the Soviet Union. His friendly attitude towards Joseph Stalin became the basis for the highly successful anti-Hitler coalition during World War II.

However, Roosevelt’s last letter reveals the deep anger and frustration he felt about the prospects for postwar Soviet-American relations. The first rumblings of the Cold War put an end to Roosevelt’s plans to establish a new, better, international order.

Bill Clinton (1993–2001) was the last, for the moment, U.S. president, who at the beginning of his mandate sincerely believed in the possibility of Russia’s rapid and profound democratic transformation.

However, the last years of his administration were marked by a deep crisis in relations between Washington and Moscow. NATO expansion, the military operation in Kosovo and other less-than-friendly steps by the U.S. towards Russia put an end to the possibility of turning Russia into one of America’s strategic allies and partners.

Finally, the current U.S. president Barack Obama, as we know, at the beginning of his mandate, hoped to improve relations with Russia. His plans were modest compared to Roosevelt’s or Clinton’s.

Nevertheless, even the extremely moderate “reset” of bilateral relations ground to a halt. Today it seems Washington has, once again, entered a period of frustration and pessimism.

From Monroe to Truman: Ready for the worst

The first president in U.S. history to see Russia as a threat was James Monroe (1817–1825). His famous Monroe Doctrine was largely a reaction to the possible intervention of Russia, along with other “Holy Alliance” European powers, in American affairs.

Subsequent events proved this anxiety about Russia was unfounded. By the end of Monroe’s presidency, Russia regained its reputation in the U.S. The Jeffersonian tradition of friendship and cooperation was revived.

When the ardently anti-communist, Richard Nixon, became president (1969–1974), he quickly moved from criticism and denunciation of the USSR to a policy of détente. This allowed for a reduction in tensions during the Cold War.

Ronald Reagan’s example (1981–1989) is even more revealing. The leader, who, at the beginning of his presidency, called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” and considered the fight against communism his main task, in 1988 walked onto Red Square in Moscow and announced that the Evil Empire was no more.

However, it must be said that in many cases, pessimistic U.S. Presidents did oversee periods of deterioration in Russian-American relations.

Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) became president when there was certainly no Russian-American friendship to speak of. Roosevelt took a dim view of the personality and the royal regime of Russian Emperor Nicholas II.

The outcome of this presidency was a deep crisis in U.S.-Russian relations, leading to a complete rupture of diplomatic ties.

President Harry S. Truman (1945–1953) had an even more negative attitude towards Soviet leadership. This caused an escalation of accusations between the former allies, which Roosevelt complained so much about. Eventually this mutual suspicion evolved into the Cold War.

U.S. Presidents: Pessimists, optimists or realists?

The historical results appear, then, to be deeply ironic. Few U.S. presidents who began their administrations with high hopes for Russia managed to avoid disappointment. On the other hand, American leaders who initially demonized Russia sometimes managed to establish a productive dialogue, as long as they revised their most radical ideas.

This phenomenon has a plausible psychological explanation – high expectations often lead to disappointment. Excessive pessimism falls away once we move from words to deeds.

Historical experience shows that those U.S. presidents who had the strength to abandon extreme views (which, historically, seem to have been characteristic of American perspectives on Russia) had a chance to achieve success in the developing bilateral relations.

At any rate, in recent decades, the “bad” pessimists managed to achieve more success, than the “good” optimists.