Navigating Together in Dangerous Conditions

1 july 2009

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: U.S. President Barack Obama's visit next week to Moscow is generating more interest in U.S.-Russian relations than we have seen in a long time. A dozen or so presummit conferences sponsored by leading think tanks dedicated to future relations between the two countries have been held recently in Moscow and Washington.

U.S. President Barack Obama's visit next week to Moscow is generating more interest in U.S.-Russian relations than we have seen in a long time. A dozen or so presummit conferences sponsored by leading think tanks dedicated to future relations between the two countries have been held recently in Moscow and Washington.

The deficit of good news in U.S.-Russian relations has created a pent-up demand for anything positive. In informal discussions, U.S. representatives acknowledge the significant role that Washington has played in driving relations with Russia to a dead end.

Russia does not believe it is responsible for causing the deterioration in bilateral relations. Moscow does not feel that it needs to make any basic changes to its position, but it is ready to respond far more positively to constructive signals or proposals from Washington than before. Russia would like the summit to be successful and to sign a new strategic arms limitation treaty by the end of this year. The Kremlin worries less about the summit failing than the White House does, although many in Russia realize that lost opportunities now would exact a much higher cost later on.

Despite the numerous technical, political and psychological difficulties of reaching a consensus on difficult summit issues such as nuclear arms reductions, there still is a good chance of success since leaders on both sides have a strong incentive to reach an agreement. The U.S. and Russian positions coincide not only on nuclear arms reductions, but also on Afghanistan and a range of other issues.

Regarding the global problems of terrorism, the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons and climate change, both sides have similar goals, but it has been difficult to transform these goals into concrete examples of cooperation.

The two countries' regional priorities also differ. The United States is most concerned about Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East and North Korea. The problems in those countries are also important to Russia, but far more important are those closer to its borders -- Ukraine, Moldavia and the countries in the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Obama has shown less enthusiasm in expanding U.S. influence in the former Soviet republics than former U.S. President George W. Bush -- something that Russia surely considers a step in the right direction. But neither side -- especially the United States -- understands that all regional issues should be viewed as part of a larger whole so that more common ground can be achieved in each individual case. Both sides must recognize the overarching connections between various regional conflicts and understand that a problem in one region has a nasty habit of spilling over into others.

The tendency to focus on the past is also a barrier to mutual understanding. For Americans, it is clear that Obama is an altogether different president than Bush or Bill Clinton. The United States is confident that past failures can be overlooked and that "pressing the reset button" should be enough to get things going on the right track.

Washington is therefore disturbed by Moscow's habit of focusing on past problems in relations and of dragging those issues into the current dialogue. But Russia, like Europe, sees the political process as being continuous and unbroken. Russia has accumulated 20 years of grievances with the United States and tends to view the successive changes in presidential administrations and policies as being more superficial than substantial in character. Presidents, political parties and rhetoric may change, but the overall policy toward Moscow generally stays the same. Concrete and substantive U.S. actions are needed to change Russia's pessimism about U.S. intentions and motives.

There is a possibility, however, that Moscow will become gradually convinced that the current U.S. administration is different than its predecessor, and that the offer to reset relations can be taken seriously. But because the domestic political situation requires that Obama achieve results quickly, he might lose patience with -- and interest in -- Russia.

This is also stems from the differences in the two political systems. The Russian president and prime minister are capable of personally ensuring that the necessary decisions are carried out. The U.S. president is dependent upon Congress, with its various interest groups, and the implementation of any decision requires significant effort. Because every administration has a limited quantity of political capital to work with at any given time, it will always "spend" that capital where it can produce the greatest effect -- on Russia, or elsewhere.

In his book "The American Way of Strategy: U.S. Foreign Policy and the American Way of Life," author Michael Lind argues that "the ultimate purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to create conditions favorable to the individualistic American way of life." The goal, he contends, is not to impose the U.S. model on others -- a practice that Lind says is a departure from the precepts of the founding fathers -- but to guarantee that those principles operate fully and correctly within the United States itself. For this reason, the argument continues, Washington will pursue whichever foreign policy approach it considers the most effective in attaining that goal -- either pragmatic (realism) or ideological (liberal interventionism). Any heated debate over national interests and cultural values is therefore meaningless -- they are closely interconnected, and both serve as tools for achieving a single, very egocentric goal.

The number of problems have grown so large that the most appropriate way to cope with them is through a pragmatic use of force and resources. If and when those problems are eventually resolved, that approach might change. As of today, however, the Obama administration has not shown any signs of arrogance toward Russia or any other country.

The fundamental problem is that the United States and Russia have been unable to set an agenda that focuses primarily on the future. It is unclear which of their mutual interests will turn out to be the most important in the multipolar world of the 21st century. Neither has found a viable alternative to hashing out the issues they inherited from the previous century.

To help improve U.S.-Russian relations, both sides need to stop staring into the rearview mirror. Russia and the United States are both at the helm of the global 18-wheeler, and they both need to work together to steer this unwieldy truck while it tries to make its way through the narrow, treacherous mountain pass.

| "The Moscow Times"

Last updated 1 july 2009, 14:35

} Page 1 of 5