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Competing Visions of U.S.-Russia Relations

Had there not been a massive financial crisis crippling the U.S. economy over the past two months and seemingly dominating the public’s short attention span for news, this very well could have been the foreign policy election of the post-Cold War era. Even Vladimir Putin has incredibly suggested that the war in Georgia was masterminded by the U.S. government with the aim of giving John McCain a vehicle to the presidency – though while a preposterous argument, one could still sense a note of disappointment that his “we are all Georgians” speech couldn’t hold the headlines for more than a day. Nowadays in their stump speeches, if either candidate talks about a financial aid package to Georgia, most voters will likely be thinking of bailouts for Delta Airlines and Aflac to shore up jobs in the Atlanta area.

Russia has most certainly been moved to the back burner, and not only because of the financial crisis. The candidates are eager to emphasize their differences to voters, and as we saw during the second Obama-McCain debate, the two appear to largely agree in principle about what should guide U.S.-Russia relations. So what would be the substantive differences between the two candidates on Russia policy? There are some who believe that both the Democrats and Republicans would run identical policies with Russia, and others who believe that although their tactics and style would be different, that the objectives would remain the same. I argue that we should look at the specialists they have on their teams to advise them on these regions – and there are some big differences there.However, the lesson to take away is that partisanship really means nothing in terms debating Russia policy – some of those pushing hardest for the softest policy are found on the extreme ends of both sides of the political spectrum, while those reacting to the hard line advocates find themselves in the business of manufacturing excuses for Putinist authoritarianism.Today James Carroll at the Boston Globe takes an ill-advised plunge into lecturing partisan politics on the basis of Russia policy. Decide for yourselves if you find it convincing, misguided, or simply naive:

One of Obama’s political triumphs is the way he outflanked McCain on national security issues, preventing the Republican from portraying him as dangerously timid. Thus, when Russia went to war in Georgia, Obama, while more measured than McCain, was fierce in his criticism of Moscow. Obama has spoken positively about the ambitions of Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, although with the cagey caveat that their admissions depend on meeting NATO “criteria for membership” – which neither nation will do anytime soon. McCain is prepped for a new Cold War; Obama is looking for a thaw.During the old Cold War, ironically, a vigorous structure of dialogue and cooperation defined East-West relations – everything from nongovernmental interchanges among scientists to the arms control regime. That structure was dismantled, with nothing doing more damage to the “trust but verify” mutuality that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev achieved than the Bush administration’s cavalier abandonment of treaty obligations – especially the American abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which led immediately to Russia’s repudiation of START II), and the disregard of obligations under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. If Obama becomes president, his simple reaffirmation of American intentions to abide by treaties would begin a transformation of US-Russia relations.Indeed, the issue of treaties will be immediately targeted by the next president because the START I Treaty, which provides the only mechanism for verified arms reduction, is set to expire in 2009. In 2010, the NPT is set to be reviewed by its signatories. Judging from the candidates’ overall approaches, it seems clear that McCain would do nothing to invigorate these agreements, or to fulfill their legally binding terms, while Obama would seize these deadlines as an opportunity to restore the Moscow-Washington structure of cooperation on what remains the world’s most pressing piece of unfinished business. US-Soviet partnership on the urgent project of getting rid of nuclear weapons was what ended the Cold War; a renewal of that partnership now could usher in a new era of international collaboration.Both sides need it. Without Russian support, the United States will never bring its disastrous entanglements with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran to resolution, and Obama knows that. He also knows, conversely, that Russian sensitivity about adjacent territories through which a dozen invasions have come over the centuries is not to be waved away with rhetoric about democracy. Moscow’s near-abroad security matters.