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Between Business as Usual and Isolation

This is from Michael McFaul’s recent testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Sept. 9, 2008.

Two responses currently being debated among America’s foreign policy elite – business as usual and isolation – must be avoided. This first school of unqualified engagement contends that we need Russia on so many crucial issues, and therefore we cannot risk alienating the current Russian government over minor disputes such as Georgian territorial integrity. For instance, we need Russia to help us on dealing with Iran — so the argument goes — so we should not make a big deal about Russian actions in Georgia. This way of thinking misunderstands both the current Russian government and American national interests. On Iran or any other issue in U.S-Russian relations today, Russia’s current leaders are going to act based on their calculations about Russia’s national interests and not as a favor to the United States. Trying to trade soft statements on Georgia for Russian votes on Iran at the United Nations Security Council will never work. Moreover, the engagement-at-all-costs school overestimates our dependence on Russia for pursuing our security needs while at the same time underplays a core U.S. national interest – peace and stability in Europe. After twenty years of working diligently to make Europe whole and free, we cannot abandon this mission now. Signaling indifference to this objective also will encourage more Russian belligerent behavior.

The second school of isolation or containment, however, moves too far in the opposite direction. Russia’s invasion of Georgia did not spark a new Cold War. Thankfully, the battle between communism and capitalism is over and the danger of a proxy conflict between the East and West escalating into a nuclear holocaust has diminished substantially. Compared to the last century, Russia’s economy is vastly more integrated into world markets, making it more difficult for Russian leaders to ignore the economic consequences of risky behavior. And even during the Cold War, American leaders always talked to their Soviet counterparts about issues of both agreement and disagreement. While Ronald Reagan was rightly denouncing the Soviet Union as the evil empire, his Secretary of State George Shultz was conducting direct negotiations with his Soviet counterparts (well before Mikhail Gorbachev arrived on the scene) about arms control, regional conflicts, and human rights abuses inside the Soviet Union.Instead of business as usual or isolation, the United States must navigate a third, more nuanced, more complicated, and more comprehensive strategy that seeks to bolster our allies and partners, check Russian aggression, and at the same time deal directly with the Russian government on issues of mutual interest. The long term goal of fostering democratic change and keeping the door of Western integration open for countries in the region, including Russia, must not be abandoned. American foreign policy leaders have to move beyond tough talk and catchy phrases and instead articulate a smart, sustained strategy for dealing with this new Russia, a strategy that advances both our interests and values.