The Dialectics of Strength and Weakness
No. 3 2007 July/September
Thomas E. Graham

Distinguished Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, USA; Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia on the National Security Council staff from 2004 to 2007

Six years ago, I published an essay in
Nezavisimaya Gazeta that began as follows: “It is hardly a secret
that U.S.-Russian relations are at one of their lowest points, if
not the lowest, since the end of the Cold War. Gratuitous
anti-Americanism, once confined to the fringe, has become regular
fare for the mainstream Russian press, while Russophobia is
penetrating increasingly into American discourse on Russian
developments. Russian leaders have been disturbed by what they see
as excessively harsh or dismissive rhetoric coming out of the new
Bush Administration, while American leaders have been shocked by
language they find reminiscent of the Cold War coming from senior
Russian officials. The appearances of then-Russian Security Council
Secretary Sergei Ivanov and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
at the Munich Conference on European Security Policy, in early
February, neatly encapsulated each side’s grievances.” Replace
Sergei Ivanov with President Putin and Secretary Rumsfeld with
Secretary Gates at the Munich Conference, and what I wrote six
years ago pretty much sums up the situation today.

Relations are deteriorating. And yet
today, as was the case six years ago, as was the case fifteen years
ago, each side – and the rest of the world – still stands to gain
considerably from constructive, forward-looking relations.
Instability in the Middle East, the rise of China,
non-proliferation and international terrorism, energy security,
pandemic diseases, global warming, among other things, can all be
dealt with more effectively when the United States and Russia are
working as partners and not at cross purposes. At some level, each
side understands that. But on both sides injured pride and
arrogance, the desire to appear strong coupled with a sense of
vulnerability, and great disappointment with the accomplishments of
the past six years coupled with a breakdown in communications, have
deepened suspicions about the other side’s motives and undermined
cooperative efforts.

Halting and reversing the current
deterioration in relations is critical to the national interests of
both countries. But it will not be easy, particularly given that
each country is preparing for a transition of power, a process that
shortens timeframes, politicizes issues, and disrupts
decision-making. A necessary step – and in preparation for those
transitions – is trying to understand the character of the current
world and how that affects U.S.-Russian relations. In that spirit,
let me offer eight theses on U.S.-Russian relations in the current

1. We have entered a period of
great flux of uncertain duration.

Although the bipolar international
system ended with the Cold War nearly two decades ago, it is only
now that the struggle for the shape of the new international system
has been engaged in earnest. The easy optimism in the West in the
immediate post-Soviet period that history had ended with the
victory of liberal democracy and free markets was undone by the
mounting global disorder of the last years of the 20th century and
the first years of this century. 9/11 punctured the complacency, at
least for Americans.

Global dynamism – and therefore power –
is ineluctably shifting from Europe to Asia. The vast expanse of
the Islamic world has entered a fierce struggle between tradition
and modernity. Rapid global economic growth and nationalistic
economic policies in producer countries are tightening energy
markets and deepening concern about energy security. Under these
circumstances, it will take years for a new equilibrium to

Liberal democracy and free markets may
in the end prove better able to master the challenges of the
present – and certainly most Americans believe that based on our
own national experience. But this is something that has to be
demonstrated in reality, not simply asserted. In particular, the
great liberal democracies of the West have to demonstrate that they
can forge a sense of common purpose and offer models of success for
others to emulate.

2. Relations among the great
powers remain the key to global security and prosperity, but it is
not clear what countries will have the greatest sway in world

Despite the fascination with the power
of stateless terrorist organizations, states still remain the
dominant players in international affairs. The great powers by
definition will play the leading role in determining the shape of
the new international system. In particular, relations among the
great powers will determine how, and how soon, the terrorist threat
is mastered and at what cost to societal openness and

What countries will have the greatest
sway in world affairs over the next decade remains an open
question. Although its margin of superiority has narrowed over the
past several years and will likely continue to narrow, the United
States remains the preeminent power. China’s rise is widely
assumed, but it must still overcome the seeming contradiction
between its more open economy and closed political system. Current
European disunion militates against a growing role in world
affairs, and the unwillingness to bear major sacrifices to advance
national interests precludes a larger role over time. India and
Japan could play larger roles under various scenarios. As for
Russia, its rapid recovery from the crisis of the 1990s surprised
most observers, but it must master formidable challenges – in
health, education, infrastructure – to sustain that recovery into
the next decade if it is to maintain and enhance its position as a
major power.

3. Russia’s self-assertion
masks continuing weakness.

President Putin’s chairing of the G8
summit last summer highlighted Russia’s return to the high table of
global politics. On a number of high-profile issues – Iran,
Syria/Lebanon, Israel/Palestine – Russia is increasingly effective
in ensuring that its voice is heard. The next step is to
demonstrate that Russia can help forge durable solutions to urgent
global problems. Too often, Russia’s advice is simply to continue
the dialogue or negotiations. But great powers have a
responsibility to persuade other powers, through the use of
incentives and disincentives, that their interests lie in pursuing
reasonable solutions. In short, great powers must bring to the
table more than just words; they must bring the hard and soft power
necessary to forge solutions within a reasonable

In addition, many observers doubt
whether Russia’s self-assertion, particularly vis-a-vis its
immediate neighbors, in fact advances Russia’s long-term strategic
interests. Economic boycotts, for example, of Georgia and, more
recently, Estonia appear to have persuaded those countries to
reorient their commercial ties away from Russia, without in any way
encouraging more positive interactions with Russia. So the
question: Are these policies signs of strength or evidence of

Finally, outsiders look at Russia’s
domestic politics and wonder whether what they see as overreaction
to small opposition groups and autonomous NGO’s inside Russia is a
sign of the Kremlin’s strength and confidence or speaks more
clearly of doubts and vulnerability. Similarly, outsiders look at
the rise of aggressive nationalist ideologies, seemingly with the
Kremlin’s encouragement, that threaten the very social fabric of
multinational Russia and wonder whether this is a sign of strength
or of weakness.

4. The United States remains
the power best positioned to help Russia deal with its security

Although much attention is now focused
on growing tensions between Russia and the West, and Russian
officials often speak as if alleged U.S. attempts to create a
unipolar world are the gravest threat to Russia, the real threats
to Russia lie elsewhere: to its South in the guise of radical
Islamic fundamentalism in the near term and in East Asia in the
guise of a shifting balance of power in the longer term. Add to
this the various transnational sources of disorder: terrorism, WMD
proliferation, organized crime, pandemic diseases, and so on. The
United States remains the only country with the capability to help
Russia confront all of these challenges. Europe is too disunited
and lacks the hard power; China is an integral part of the East
Asian equation, but its reach on other issues of interest to Russia
is limited. At some level, Russian leaders understand that their
strategic challenge is to harness American power to Russian
purpose, even as the United States pursues its own national
interests. It is particularly hard for Russia to act on this
understanding now because, from its standpoint, U.S. policy has
exacerbated instability in the Middle East and elsewhere and
energized and radicalized Islamic fundamentalists, thus
complicating Russia’s security challenge.

5. The United States needs a
strong, capable, confident Russia.

Throughout the 1990s, the United States
was more concerned about Russia’s glaring weakness than its
potential strength. We feared internal instability in a country
that housed one of the world’s largest stockpiles of weapons of
mass destruction, bordered on other fragile states, and possessed
vast natural resources that other countries might be tempted to
seize. So the United States should welcome Russia’s growing
strength. A strong Russia could prove valuable to creating and
sustaining a new political and economic equilibrium in East Asia. A
strong Russia is critical to building reliable security structures
in Central Asia and the Caucasus; it could help manage the
instability in the Middle East, rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, and
deal with the problem of Iran. A strong Russia would be more able
to work constructively in Europe on a range of European issues of
importance to the United States. And a strong Russia should be a
leader in dealing with non-proliferation, terrorism, and other
transnational issues. But the United States, so long accustomed to
dealing with a weak Russia, finds it difficult to adjust to a more
assertive Russia. While there is much that Russia does abroad that
raises concerns, there is still a tendency in many circles in the
United States to exaggerate the problems and to favor
“pushing-back” to searching for pragmatic solutions to those
matters that divide us.

6. Current fears of Russia are
less a reflection of Russian strength than of Western weakness and

An astute historian of Russia, Martin
Malia, wrote several years ago that “Russia has at different times
been demonized or divinized by Western opinion less because of her
real role in Europe than because of the fears and frustrations, or
hopes and aspirations, generated within European society by its own
domestic problems.” Such is the case today. To be sure, mounting
Western concerns about Russia are a consequence of Russian policies
that appear to undermine Western interests, but they are also a
reflection of declining confidence in our own abilities and the
efficacy of our own policies. Ironically, this growing fear and
distrust of Russia come at a time when Russia is arguably less
threatening to the West, and the United States in particular, than
it has been at any time since the end of the Second World War.
Russia does not champion a totalitarian ideology intent on our
destruction, its military poses no threat to sweep across Europe,
its economic growth depends on constructive commercial relations
with Europe, and its strategic arsenal – while still capable of
annihilating the United States – is under more reliable control
than it has been in the past fifteen years and the threat of a
strategic strike approaches zero probability. Political gridlock in
key Western countries, however, precludes the creativity,
risk-taking, and subtlety needed to advance our interests on issues
over which we are at odds with Russia while laying the basis for
more constructive long-term relations with Russia.

7. To rebuild relations, we
need to focus on common interests, but we can’t ignore

To a great extent, this is already
happening in U.S.-Russian relations. Because of an overlap in
interests, the two countries are working together effectively on a
number of nuclear security, counterterrorism, and non-proliferation
issues, including Iran and North Korea. But we cannot avoid the
issue of values, because they shape the way we think about our
interests and are critical to the trust needed to deal with
sensitive issues, even when outside observers would posit a common

A few guidelines for my American
colleagues: (1) We need to respect Russian choices and preferences.
It is their country and they will decide how it will be governed
and bear ultimate responsibility for Russia’s successes and
failures. (2) We need to be patient. Russia is still only a short
distance from its totalitarian past. Like any other country, it
needs time and space to determine what political institutions work
best for it, based on its traditions and current and future
challenges. (3) We need to recognize that Russia is part of
European civilization. Although it has lagged behind in many
respects – and the Soviet period derailed its development in many
ways – Russia has followed the main European path, which has
witnessed an expansion of liberty for the past several hundred
years. (4) We need to raise our concerns, but we must do it in a
way that demonstrates that we understand the complexity of Russia’s
reality, including the contradictions in developments in the

And what do we ask of our Russian
colleagues? (1) That they not dismiss American discussion of values
as a cynical ploy to advance geopolitical interests. Based on their
own experience, Americans believe deeply in the power of democracy
and markets to build free, prosperous societies. (2) That when they
raise counter-concerns that they too do that in a way that
demonstrates understanding of the complexity of American reality.
(3) That they acknowledge that they bear ultimate responsibility
for the conditions in Russia, including how they use any advice
that is provided from outside.

8. Rebuilding relations
requires sustained engagement at the highest levels of government
and supportive constituencies.

The deterioration in relations has been
paralleled by a breakdown in the channels of communication between
the two governments, although there has been an effort since
President Putin’s Munich speech to step up engagement. Given the
complexity of the issues involved, the persistence of Cold-War
attitudes in the bureaucracies of both countries, and national
sensitivities, U.S.-Russian relations cannot progress without
sustained high-level engagement by the two presidents and their

But even that will not be enough
without the expansion of constituencies in both countries that have
a deep interest in improving U.S.-Russian relations. Such
constituencies are limited at the moment. As a result, there is
little political price to pay in either country for sharp – and
often unreasonable – criticism of the other; in fact, in each
country sharp criticism is a way of currying favor with powerful
political forces and manipulating the fears and anxieties of the

For the moment, commercial relations
present the best opportunity for building the needed
constituencies. American companies already working in Russia are
expanding operations; others are considering entering or
re-entering the market. Russian firms are looking for investments
in the United States. We need to encourage the governments in both
countries to facilitate such investment. The American companies
themselves need to be more active in getting out the news of the
business opportunities in Russia, without denying the obvious
hurdles. And together, the Russian and American business
communities must be more vocal in publicizing the benefits of
U.S.-Russian cooperation and pressing the governments to seek
pragmatic solutions to the problems that divide us.

* * *

As we look at U.S.-Russian relations
over the next few years, we face a fundamental choice in attitude
and approach, in Russia and in the United States. We can play to
our fears, stress the threats, and focus on our vulnerabilities. Or
we can play to our hopes, stress the opportunities, and focus on
our strengths. The actual approach in each country will surely fall
somewhere between these two poles, but, I would argue, each country
would be better off – and U.S.-Russian relations would revive – if
we leaned toward the pole of hope, opportunity, and

And so the question I ended my article
in Nezavisimaya Gazeta six years ago stands: Does Russia have
sufficient confidence in its own strength to enter a constructive
dialogue with the United States, or will doubts about its abilities
and injured pride lead it to seek ways to work against the United
States? But I would add a second question now: Does the United
States have sufficient confidence in its own strength and optimism
about its future to engage in a constructive dialogue with Russia,
or do the doubts growing from a less than successful foreign policy
and injured pride lead it to see Russia as a source of its problems
rather than as a potential partner?