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
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
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
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.