What they mean when they talk about Russia
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Jeffrey Mankoff

Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City.

Notwithstanding the impending departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the possibility of war with Iran, and the general crisis in the Middle East, a striking feature of this year’s presidential campaign has been the lack until quite recently of substantive discussion of foreign policy (See for instance Mitt Romney, “Mitt Romney: A New Course for the Middle East,” Wall Street Journal, 30 Sep 2012). With U.S. unemployment still high, both President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney recognize that, even more than usual, this election will be decided by the economy. Nevertheless, the U.S. faces an increasingly complex international environment, and the candidates do voters a disservice by failing to articulate their foreign policy visions. Oddly, one issue the candidates have consistently discussed is U.S.-Russia relations. The two men’s comments about Russia have been sharply distinct, and provide insight not only into their thinking about Russia, but into their foreign policy thinking writ large.

For President Obama, talking about Russia has meant promoting the “reset” policy, first proclaimed in early 2009, as a successful example of a foreign policy based on engaging longtime rivals to gain support for U.S. objectives. Mitt Romney, conversely, has called Russia the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States, accusing it of suppressing its own people and resisting U.S. global leadership. According to Romney, reaching out to regimes fundamentally at odds with U.S. interests is naïve, and Washington would do better to “show more backbone.” Obama’s foreign policy emphasizes engagement, the search for common interests, and, if necessary, horse-trading. Romney’s vision focuses on unapologetically standing up for U.S. interests and supporting traditional allies over reaching out to rivals.

The reset with Moscow was the most successful of Obama’s attempts to extend a hand to countries with which the U.S. had fraught relationships (including Iran, North Korea, and China, as well as the Muslim world). This approach was based on the proposition that a U.S. that acknowledged its mistakes and was sensitive to others’ concerns could be more effective at garnering support for its own aims. The results, particularly with Iran and now, the Arab Middle East, have been disappointing, leaving the reset with Russia as the best argument for Obama’s approach.

The reset sought to give Moscow a stake in good relations by addressing longstanding Russian complaints, particularly plans for missile defense and NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union. In exchange, Obama sought Russian support on two issues of crucial importance to the United States, Afghanistan and Iran. Measured by this scale, the reset has been a success. Russia agreed to facilitate transit of U.S. soldiers and equipment both to and from Afghanistan, and stopped criticizing U.S. military deployments in Central Asia. The reset also helped secure Russian cooperation to stem Iran’s nuclear program. Moscow voted for the most recent round of UN sanctions, and cancelled the sale of an advanced air defense system that would dramatically complicate plans for a U.S. or Israeli airstrike.

Recognizing that the relationship remained transactional, Obama sought to make some low-cost concessions (missile defense remains a long way from reality and post-Soviet NATO expansion was effectively snuffed out by the 2008 Russo-Georgian war) in exchange for Russian assistance on high priority U.S. goals. Such trade-offs relied on the ability of both countries to eschew linkages, assuming they could continue cooperating while disagreeing profoundly on, for instance, Russian domestic politics. Particularly in the heat of a campaign, that has proven difficult.

Continued tensions with Russia and Obama’s inability to get much traction with his engagement-based approach elsewhere gave Romney a platform to criticize the president’s foreign policy generally, and his handling of Russia in particular. Romney criticizes the president for being too deferential, for failing to recognize that countries like Russia have no interest in seeing the U.S. succeed internationally, and for abandoning U.S. allies as the price of limited cooperation. As Romney has said on several occasions, Obama’s efforts to engage Moscow appear more like one-sided concessions.

As several commentators have pointed out, Romney’s decision to call Russia a geopolitical foe is also significant, emphasizing traditional measures of power—territory, resources, and location—which predispose countries like Russia to oppose the U.S. This worldview underpins Romney’s contention that the reset has come at the expense of Russia’s smaller neighbors, including Georgia and Poland (one of the countries Romney visited on his first foreign trip as nominee).

Similarly, Romney paints Russia as an authoritarian state that does not respect the rights of its citizens, arguing that, in seeking the Kremlin’s cooperation, Obama has failed to stand up for American values. Russia is hardly the most autocratic state in the world, but since the U.S. is much less dependent on Russia than on, for instance, China or Saudi Arabia, it is an easier target. Harping on Russia’s authoritarianism allows Romney to criticize Obama’s ambivalence about supporting human rights without alarming influential Republican constituencies that worry about China’s holdings of U.S. debt or the global oil price. It fits with Romney’s broader critique that Obama has pursued an amoral foreign policy at odds with the U.S.’s history of supporting democracy.

The irony is that November’s election is not likely to have a major impact on U.S.-Russia relations. With the easier agenda items already accomplished and U.S. attention shifting to Asia and the Middle East, Russia is unlikely to be a priority even in a second Obama Administration. Romney may view Russia as a geopolitical foe, but he will still need Moscow’s cooperation to get U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and to keep up the pressure on Iran. One area where the election could make a difference is missile defense cooperation, an Obama Administration goal that remains unfinished, and one which none other than Putin himself said would be more likely to advance if Obama is re-elected. Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s own approach will remain the same whatever happens in November. Obama and Romney presumably understand this reality; that is why Russia can serve as a proxy for the bigger foreign policy discussion they are not having.