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After the Reset. A New Agenda for Russian-U.S. relations

Sergei Karaganov
08:00 11/10/2010
Sergei Karaganov

Russian-U.S. relations have enjoyed a six-month-long honeymoon since last spring’s “wedding.” The “reset” has worked. But more difficult times lie ahead. The Republicans have gone on the offensive against Barack Obama, determined to derail the ratification of the START treaty. The structural weakness of the current model of relations only aggravates the situation. By and large, that model is primed to provide tactical solutions to inherited (or in some cases, contrived) problems, and certainly not to tackle the challenges that will confront humanity in general, and these two countries in particular, in the future. For the relationship to be of a truly sustainable and strategic character, it must be a real match for this new agenda.

Should one try to measure the current state of Russian-U.S. relations with the yardsticks that were commonly used in the past, it would be difficult to refrain from expressing what Soviet-era speechwriters used to call “a feeling of profound satisfaction.” The climate has never been better, perhaps even since the end of World War II, or at least since that very brief period in the early 1990s, when young Russia, overwhelmed by post-revolutionary enthusiasm, was eager to rush into the West’s embrace. But this time Moscow does not have to yield anything in exchange for the same kind of improvement.

There have been some real achievements, too. A new treaty limiting strategic offensive arms has been signed. This sends a positive political message to the world, even though it does not go beyond providing for token cuts and the restoration of the arms control mechanism as a confidence-building measure. The idea of “the global zero,” an idol that still garners some traditional reverence, has, I believe, been laid to rest. The dream cherished by American liberals of a “nuclear-free paradise,” fueled by others’ utterly cynical expectation that only in a denuclearized world (or one where nuclear weapons have been severely curtailed) can the United States gain political advantage from its non-nuclear superiority, is clearly on the rocks.

It has become obvious that no one is eager to lay down their arms. And, most importantly, it has emerged that, against the worldwide backdrop of these new rising powers and with its burdensome budget deficit, the United States will be unable to retain its absolute non-nuclear superiority for that much longer. Another risky idea (which once boasted a multitude of supporters) has been laid to rest – that of opening artificial and extremely unfavorable talks over tactical nuclear weapons cuts in Europe. After all, it must be said, not only do they not pose a great hindrance to anyone but, on the contrary, they work as a psychologically stabilizing factor.

Russia has joined the coalition of countries that are putting their best efforts into stopping Iran from acquiring either nuclear or “threshold” status (the ability to produce nuclear arms). It seems the international community has already lost this proliferation round. But Russia’s involvement in these sanctions is both politically correct (in terms of demonstrating support for Obama) and beneficial (in terms of containing the next wave of proliferation).

Russia fully backs the operation in Afghanistan, which is of key importance to the United States. This was an entirely correct and wholly beneficial decision.

In response, the United States de facto recognized Russia’s special interests in the former Soviet Union (although this is something it has denied in public), and stopped obstructing Russia’s strengthening of its positions in that region. Previously, it was a matter of principle for the United States to do exactly the opposite.

Discussions of how to enhance economic cooperation have been stepped up. The United States once again promised to help Russia join the WTO.

Finally, various Russian-U.S. official talks got underway within the framework of the Presidential Commission, designed to enhance and institutionalize cooperation. One reason why past attempts at a rapprochement failed lay in their position as reliant on high-level personal relations, not underpinned by any institutional work to advance these top-down incentives.

One could list many other achievements of the “reset” of Russian-U.S. relations, which certainly has materialized, although in many respects not as had originally been anticipated. Shortcomings and pitfalls abound. The worst of them is the American reluctance or conceptual inability to put an end to the as yet unfinished Cold War in Europe either by signing a new European security treaty, or in some other way quite properly advocated by Russia.

Three main problems remain, the first one being the vulnerability of the current round of Russian-U.S. rapprochement, as its success largely depends on the political fate of the Obama Administration, which is currently suffering a fierce onslaught from the Republicans, determined to regain power. They will use any argument to attain their goal, including allegations that Obama is soft on Russia, although from the standpoint of what are rationally understood as being U.S. interests, Obama’s policies look more than sound. The Republicans do not offer any realistic alternatives. They backed negativism to the hilt. Therefore, there is a high risk of the new START treaty getting bogged down in the Senate – for the sole reason that it is, or can be represented, as being “Obama’s treaty,” and because he must be denied even the slightest chance of success.

Second (and more important in the long run), almost the entire current and proposed agenda of Russian-U.S. relations is focused on the problems of the past. These are quite often important ones, there is no denying that, because they at least look important to foreign policymakers. And it will take them a long time to make that mental shift. But that is something this agenda is powerless to reform, as it rather perpetuates old-time stereotypes. These may even have positive political results. But they will continue to be inadequate to the challenges of today’s world and the world of tomorrow. The clearest example of this can be found in the role of strategic offensive arms control in Russian-U.S. relations. Their role and the related discussions have remained almost unaltered since the Cold War era, when the two countries really posed a threat to each other. For a time the first agreements to limit these weapons helped ease animosity and enhance mutual security. Now neither country no longer really considers the other their enemy. And their strategic arms, while retaining a residual function of deterrence, in fact, do not threaten each other.

But the newly-signed START treaty is again regarded as being a central element of bilateral relations. I am for it. But the treaty has very little bearing on the real challenges and threats we face. It looks lovely, but is very out of place, like a middle-aged couple dancing a polonaise in a nightclub.

Sadly, the policy of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear state looks no longer relevant, too. This policy of prevention should have been pursued long ago, with regards to Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea, thwarting their nuclear ambitions. Now, while waging the still necessary but grossly belated rearguard battles, one should spare a thought for how to survive in a world where there are not five nuclear powers but nine, and for what should be done to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Third (and maybe the most important factor), the greatest weakness of the current model of Russian-American relations is their almost complete disregard for the future. The sole aspect of this dialogue that at least goes some way to address the issue of the future and that is aimed at warding off possible common threats involves U.S. proposals for a joint (Russian-U.S., or Russian-NATO) missile defense system. I remain skeptical both about these plans themselves and about their feasibility. But they at least have some concept of the future, they are aimed at countering challenges that are yet to emerge, and if implemented, they will help create a relationship that could be described as a real alliance.

Also, I have some questions about the very idea of a special bilateral relationship in a world where neither the United States nor Russia naturally enjoy undisputed world leader status, one in which they will have no choice but to press for practical initiatives in a multilateral format.

This is an apt moment to consider this new world where Russia and the United States will have to act, jointly or on their own.

One of that world’s most important features will be the weakening of the United States and Russia in both absolute and relative terms. That weakening, accompanied by international relations that are almost inevitably more chaotic, will require far greater policy coordination by the leading powers. And this will prove a major incentive that is bound to push Russia and the United States (as well as other powers) towards a closer relationship as interaction between China, the United States and Russia, and Russia, the EU, and the United States is set to become a powerful factor in the emerging global stability. The G20, G8 and other forums for international governance cannot be even the slightest bit effective unless groups of countries capable of political and intellectual leadership emerge. Russia’s presence in them would of course be desirable. And not as was observed at the Copenhagen forum on climate change, where the EU and Russia were actually barred from decision-making.

Another challenge that will have to be met is the rise of Asia and of the nation-state, which will occur alongside each other in the same place and at the same time. I am by no means attempting to spin another “yellow peril” scare story. That rise, primarily China’s, has become the growth engine of prosperity for humanity as a whole. Too bad Russia has not joined that particular locomotive, as yet.

But the rise of Asia and state nationalism will inevitably put new challenges to the international system on the agenda. Only some of them can be anticipated, for example, the emergence of a relative security vacuum (maybe even virtual) around an increasingly powerful China. In East Asia and South Asia, this means adding a new problem to the old ones. And it cannot be resolved using any of the old methods, such as the establishment of a system of military deterrence. What is needed is rapid formation of a security system covering the entire region in which both the United States and Russia can and should play an important role.

Another part of Asia where a security vacuum has emerged, and is worsening, is the vast region around the Persian Gulf. That this nuclearizing region still lacks a security system is the biggest failure in international politics of recent decades. This vacuum will deteriorate still further in several years’ time, when the United States and NATO will inevitably pull out of Afghanistan. Something will arise to fill it. And without any forthcoming initiatives from Russia, the United States, China and India, this simply cannot be done. And of course it cannot be done without security guarantees provided by external powers. At this point only the United States and Russia are capable of such a feat.

A new industrial revolution and the rise of Asia have drastically and permanently raised the demand for natural resources, energy and food. A new competition is unfolding over them, and naturally, over territory. The conditions must be created that will prevent it developing into another round of geopolitical rivalry as has happened in the past few centuries. Some signs of this are already present. Suffice it to recall the hitherto virtual struggle for 25 percent of the unexplored energy resources of the world that are thought to lie within the Russian Arctic zone. In the traditional West, some have begun talking about a quite ridiculous “Arctic NATO.” Russia, it is alleged, has been holding what looks like military exercises practicing its defense of its Arctic territory. There has been a chorus of media accusations of China laying claim to these areas. Obviously, this area requires different policies and a different conceptual approach.

It is to be hoped that last summer’s wildfires in Russia have convinced the last remaining skeptics that there is a very real risk of continued climate change. For the time being humanity keeps on performing the same old song and dance around this issue. Here, too, there is an obvious need for joint Russian-U.S. initiatives (to be put forward in collaboration with the EU and other players).

Almost all these new challenges converge in Russia’s Far East and Siberia. Without international investment and policies aimed at turning the region into a source of natural resources and food for new markets, Russia has no chance of escaping it simply becoming China’s backyard, politically and in terms of natural resources. This is fraught with risks for everyone, including for China itself. Preventing this course of development is only possible through joint efforts under the auspices of Russia, a number of Asian countries, and the United States, of course.

The format of a newspaper article is too limited, and by its very nature cannot accommodate the enumeration of all the opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the United States that would feature on this new agenda. If, of course, these relations are indeed to be transferred in earnest to a new political and intellectual basis, drawn out from under the shadow of the Cold War and steered towards the creation of a genuine alliance.

It is not yet clear whether the current ruling elites in both countries are ready to rise to the occasion, to prove themselves worthy of these new challenges, and to overcome the habit of “backtracking forward.” But unless they are presented with new challenges, this habit may become incurable. These elites will continue to fade away and be replaced by clones, just as they have been for the past twenty years.

However, there is still hope for change. America has successfully surpassed itself in electing Barack Obama, with his largely innovative and rational way of thinking. True, he may fail and be defeated, but he certainly inspires hope that younger generations can be smarter and better than their older predecessors.

Of course, this call for a somewhat futuristic agenda for Russian-U.S. relations does not mean that I want to see the “old-old” agenda (i.e. the unfinished Cold War in Europe), or the “new-old” one (i.e. nuclear proliferation, international terrorism or drug trafficking) forgotten altogether. Those issues cannot be ignored. The challenges of today and of yesterday have not gone away. And they might even prove aggravating factors, albeit in a semi-farcical way, as was the case during the war in South Ossetia. There is a certain risk of a renewed arms race, though not, I hope, between Russia and the U.S. track.

But without at least glancing in the general direction of the future these old agendas will keep pushing us backwards. While a new one will at least enable us to try to develop truly innovative relations between Russia and the United States and not just “reset” the old ones back to normal. This would clearly be to the benefit of both countries and the rest of the world.

Sergei Karaganov is Deputy Director of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dean of the Department ofWorld Economy and World Politics at the State University – Higher School of Economics, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, Chairman of the editorial board of Russia in Global Affairs magazine.


This article was originally published in Russian in Rossiiskaya Gazeta, September 29, 2010.

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RIA NovostiSergei KaraganovAfter the Reset. A New Agenda for Russian-U.S. relations

08:00 11/10/2010 Russian-U.S. relations have enjoyed a six-month-long honeymoon since last spring’s “wedding.” The “reset” has worked. But more difficult times lie ahead. The Republicans have gone on the offensive against Barack Obama, determined to derail the ratification of the START treaty. The structural weakness of the current model of relations only aggravates the situation. Deputy Director of the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences, Dean of the Department ofWorld Economy and World Politics at the State University – Higher School of Economics, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, Chairman of the editorial board of Russia in Global Affairs magazine>>

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