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The Two-Headed Beasts of U.S.-Russia Relations

twoheaded050608.jpgOne appears to be liberal leaning and pro-engagement, the other more hawkish and confrontational. Both men will be vying for influence over foreign policy in coming years, seeking to impose their different visions of international politics, and potentially transforming U.S.-Russia relations at a critical historical juncture. No, actually I am not talking about Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin – I think you can find a surplus of profoundly unexciting articles in the papers today letting you know that Putin “is still in charge” and that Medvedev is likely to remain in his shadow. (Nevermind for the moment that I am a little too cynical to accept such a neat little presentation … everyone thought Putin was a “puppet” at first too…) The other two-headed beast is far from the Kremlin: Robert Kagan and Stephen Biegun, the ying and the yang of Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain’s team of advisors on Russia policy. If McCain is able to win the election, which seems less and less impossible as the once superior Democratic candidates continue their tedious mutual destruction, then we will have to pay very close attention to which of these two policy men ends up winning over McCain’s ear.

Stephen Biegun, a Vice President of the Ford Motor Company (which is heavily invested in Russia), and a leading advocate for the incorporation of Russia into the WTO, has been written about in a previous blog post. He is not someone who has published his views on Russia with any regularity, so there is a big question mark over his specific vision on engagement with Moscow under Medvedev, but the resume would lead us to believe that he is on the pragmatic/realist side of the Russia debate, especially compared to the neoconservatism of Robert Kagan.Kagan, who has published prolifically – most recently with another book entitled “The Return of History and the End of Dreams” (a clear parry to outdated neoliberalism of Fukuyama) – has attracted some attention and criticism for his confrontational position, and seemingly has made an impact on McCain’s thinking, judging from the recent foreign policy speech made in Los Angeles.Although it is difficult to tell when Kagan is pontificating on McCain’s future policy toward Russia and China, or when he is merely hawking his new book, there are some very problematic conclusions in his arguments in my opinion. For example, in a new Washington Post column he argues that for the authoritarians in Russia and China, opposition to Western-style democracy is and of itself an “ideology” – one that threatens to reshape the international arena. The United States (as well as the community of democracies that it gets along with) should actively work to combat this ideology, and separate the world into two new spheres, he argues.Kagan really loses the thread when he argues the contagion effect of Russian-style authoritarianism could start a whole new domino effect across the world, as countries seek to model themselves on Moscow to re-create its success:

American and European policymakers say they want Russia and China to integrate into the international liberal order, but it is not surprising if Russian and Chinese leaders are wary. Can autocrats enter the liberal international order without succumbing to the forces of liberalism?Afraid of the answer, the autocracies are understandably pushing back, with some effect. Autocracy is making a comeback. The modern liberal mind at “the end of history” has trouble understanding the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world. But changes in the ideological complexion of the most influential world powers have always had some effect on the choices made by leaders of smaller nations. Fascism was in vogue in Latin America in the 1930s and ’40s partly because it seemed successful in Italy, Germany and Spain. The rising power of democracies in the last years of the Cold War, culminating in communism’s collapse after 1989, contributed to the global wave of democratization. The rise of two powerful autocracies may shift the balance back again.

In a very well written book review, the New York Observer had this to say about Kagan’s repaired neocon regime change ideology:

Chastened by the disasters post-Mission Accomplished, Mr. Kagan takes pains to point out that he’s not advocating “a blind crusade on behalf of democracy everywhere at all times.” Democracies, he assures us, “need not stop trading with autocracies or engaging in negotiations with them.” Nevertheless, the distinction between the two—and the internal coherence of each—is absolute: “The world’s democracies are either supporting autocracy, through aid, recognition, amicable diplomatic relationships, and regular economic intercourse, or they are using their manifold influence in varying degrees to push for democratic reform.”And so the ’08 neocon, like the ’72 Mustang, is both more expansive and less focused than its earlier iteration; the failure of the Bush democratic domino theory (ink-stained Iraqi fingers did not jump-start regional stability, alas) has subtly, but fundamentally, transformed the premise of the project. Indeed, to shift the archetype of autocracy, as Mr. Kagan does, from the axis of evil to China and Russia is to posit a very different timetable—and a very different endgame.

And Gideon Rachman of the FT believes that Mr. Kagan’s disdain for the international activism of these autocratic governments could result in a dangerous big idea – namely McCain’s stated plans to create a new alliance of democracies that could eventually wield a diplomatic force beyond the reach of a Chinese or Russian veto in the United Nations:

If he ever makes it to the White House, he may come to regret this. For while the idea of a league of democracies has some attractions, it also has some obvious dangers.The first problem is that it would exacerbate tensions with Russia and China. Robert Kagan, an adviser to Mr McCain, argues that those tensions already exist. Indeed Russia and China sometimes act as the de facto heads of a league of autocracies – protecting bad governments such as Iran and Zimbabwe at the UN. So, Mr Kagan thinks, it would be a good idea for the world’s democrats to promote their values in a more organised and determined fashion.The trouble with this idea is that it risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. America’s relationships with China and Russia are complicated and ambiguous – with elements of both competition and co-operation. But the formation of a league of democracies would harden antagonisms and might even be seen as the launching of a new cold war. (…)The biggest problem with Mr McCain’s “big idea” does not lie with the autocrats – it lies with the democracies themselves. Almost all of America’s closest democratic allies have deep reservations about a league of democracies. The Europeans are committed to the UN and would be loath to join an alliance that undermined it. They are also suspicious of America’s democratic evangelism. Talk to senior French and British policymakers and you will find a rare unanimity on the league of democracies. A French diplomat calls it a “really bad idea”. A British diplomat scoffs: “How are you going to decide the membership? Is it going to be like a football league, where you are going to have promotion and relegation at the end of the season?”

Right at a time when the soft power of the United States has never been weaker, the new neocons within proximity of McCain (certainly not all his advisors) seem to be taking a page from the book of Russian nationalism, naively believing that alienating Russia and China would help bring about positive changes there. Right at a moment in which there are signs that forces within the Kremlin have decided to give confrontation a break and begin serious talks, he proposes that the United States make Moscow an explicit enemy.I can tell you from my limited contact with those in Russian government that there are paranoid and hostile elements within the Kremlin who speak endlessly of a Western conspiracy which seeks to harm Western interests – and if Kagan were running U.S. foreign policy, we would prove the conspiracy peddlers right and see a dramatic worsening of authoritarian abuses and international belligerence. I am all for blunt honest talk about the shortcomings of Russian and Chinese domestic and foreign policy, but eliminating opportunities for them to further integrate into our political environment sends out exactly the wrong message at exactly the wrong time. This is unfortunately the same kind of logic that has guided the U.S. on its Iran policy and has allowed Russia to create so much mischief.Relations with Moscow and Beijing need to be handled separately and intelligently, and we need to put at least as much energy into areas of mutual interest and cooperation as we put toward the often fruitless expression of our differences.