As President Obama approaches his second term, few foreign policies are more in need of reassessment than his stance toward Russia.
Recent events have eroded the promise of the “reset” proclaimed in 2009. Its achievements — the New START Treaty, cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran, Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization — have faded, replaced by stubborn differences over Syria, Iran and other high-profile issues amid rising, gratuitously antagonistic rhetoric in both capitals.
Obama will now try to reverse this deterioration, perhaps demonstrating some of the “flexibility” he promised Russian leaders earlier this year. Putin, for his part, has talked about giving the relations “a new quality” by adding a strong economic dimension. We may hear talk of a second phase of the reset. There may be more deals of the kind ExxonMobil struck with Rosneft.
But glib formulations and major energy projects should not cover up the fundamental choice the two administrations face: to continue their transactional approach to relations, with their inevitable ups and downs, or to put relations in a broader, longer-term strategic framework, which could foster more enduring constructive relations.
A choice in favor of the former faces two problems.
First, it is hard to see where progress can be made in the next four years.
Deeper nuclear-arms cuts, a U.S. priority, will harden Russian concerns about U.S. missile defense and nonnuclear strategic systems, while approaching the threshold at which Chinese, Indian and Pakistani forces begin to affect the global nuclear balance.
Putin’s recent preference for trade and investment requires a qualitatively different business climate in Russia, including the de facto rule of law and competent, honest governance. Fruitful cooperation on regional conflicts, as Syria has demonstrated, requires dealing with the age-old principles of world order, sovereignty and noninterference in internal affairs, and the growing Western preference to use force to protect foreign populations from brutal leaders.
The United States will not revert to realpolitik, and Russia will not give up its support for the traditional order. Overall, there will be no easy trade-offs.
Second, domestic political conditions in neither country are conducive to pursuing such trade-offs. Incensed by Washington’s insistence on dealing simultaneously with the Russian government and Russian society, Putin has taken steps — from branding foreign-funded non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents” to ending the U.S. Agency for International Development’s 20 years of work in Russia — that do not make it politically easier for Obama to sell closer engagement with Moscow.
The Magnitsky Act, calling for sanctions against Russian officials who violate human rights, establishes a precedent which, in theory at least, can be expanded to include any senior member of the current regime.
By contrast, a strategic approach would start with the geopolitical transformation now underway across the globe and ask how each country could become a strategic asset for the other.
Russia, if only by virtue of geography, and the United States, because of its global reach, could exercise significant influence over the emergence of a new geopolitical balance in Eurasia. The two countries’ strategic interests do not necessarily collide; indeed, there is probably a significant overlap, given common concerns about China, Islamic extremists and competition for Arctic resources by non-Arctic powers.
Moreover, there is a significant economic component to all these balances that could encourage the productive relations with the United States that are critical to Russia’s becoming a modern economy — one of Russia’s prime national strategic objectives.
The question arises then how the United States and Russia could each harness relations to its own strategic purposes.
So far, both the U.S. administration and the Kremlin have resisted taking a strategic approach. In her article in Foreign Policy a year ago on the “pivot” toward Asia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did not once mention Russia, even though Russia was then preparing to act as host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit meeting in Vladivostok in September 2012 in part to underscore its determination to return as an Asian power, and was playing a vital role in supplying American forces in Afghanistan. Putin canceled his participation in last May’s Group of 8 summit meeting at Camp David at the last moment, something no world leader had done before.
On the U.S. side, this oversight grows in part out of the discomfort America has with the very idea of Russian power, grounded in the long Cold-War struggle. Having confronted malevolent Soviet power for so long, America resists the idea that Russia could ever have a positive role in American strategic interests.
On the Russian side, there is still great resentment over the way the United States treated Russia after the end of the Cold War, and a fair amount of suspicion that U.S. policy is aimed at weakening Russia today.
It is time to begin overcoming this mutual discomfort and mistrust. Two decades after the Cold War, the United States and Russia are no longer strategic rivals, and in the emerging multipolar world they could be partners.
This is a proposition that now needs to be tested. The two countries need to engage in a high-level strategic dialogue to understand the dynamics of our changing world and the ways in which they impact on each country’s strategic interests, and to determine whether there is sufficient overlap in these interests for a long-term cooperative relationship.
There is no guarantee that we would reach agreement. Indeed, a strategic dialogue could reveal unbridgeable differences. But the potential benefits of strategic cooperation justify the effort.
Thomas E. Graham is a senior director of Kissinger Associates.