Medvedev and Obama: 'Resetting' U.S.-Russia Ties Won't Come Easy
Moscow's part, too, there's a desire to break the deadlock, but Russia doesn't
feel it bears any blame for creating it. A common opinion is that Americans
have made a pile of mistakes, so now the ball will be in their court for a long
time to come."
Secretary of State
Clinton makes a peace offering to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
during a meeting in Geneva, Mar. 6. The gift - a button marked 'reset' in
English, was meant to convey a new beginning. Unfortunately, the Russian
word on the button, 'peregruzka,' means 'overload.'
It's difficult to recall the
kind of buzz in Russian-American relations that's taking place on the eve of Barack
Obama’s visit. It has been a long time since there has been any good news
between Russia and the United States, and there's a demand for something
positive. But are the parties ready for real cooperation, or will things be
limited to the image-effect of the first summit?
During informal conversation,
many American officials agree that Washington bears a significant share of
responsibility for the stalemate in relations with Russia. The ideological and
emotional approach so characteristic of the previous administration has been
exchanged for a sober assessment of a number of disagreements.
The United States understands
the need to improve the atmosphere. Moreover, Obama Administration, which desperately
needs a success in the international arena, is looking in Russia's direction.
On Moscow’s part, too, there's
a desire to break the deadlock, but Russia doesn't feel it bears any blame for
creating it. A common opinion is that Americans have made a pile of mistakes,
so now the ball will be in their court for a long time to come. Moscow doesn't believe
it needs to change anything, but is more than ready to respond more
constructively to U.S. proposals. Russian representatives acknowledge that that
the climate of negotiations has changed for the better, and so two angry
monologues have given way to a difficult dialogue.
Russia is interested in the
success of the summit, and in signing of a new strategic arms reduction treaty
by the end of the year. Moscow has long called for this - but without receiving
any reciprocal interest from the Bush Administration.
A failure would become a
symbol that Russians and Americans have forgotten how to cooperate. Now the
political will exists at the highest levels on both sides.
However, the more detailed and
technical the discussions of strategic stability become - so too are the political
and psychological difficulties that emerge. At the root of the problem is the
fact that compared to Soviet times, the imbalance between the parties is too great
in terms of their strategic facilities and potential (not nuclear potential, but
rather nuclear and non-nuclear potential combined).
There is one global question
(agreement on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty - START I) and one regional
question (the situation in Afghanistan) on which the positions of Moscow and
Washington are compatible. On everything else, the perspectives and world views
are radically different. This is why at this stage, success is possible, but in
all likelihood later, there will be a pause, and the partied won't know how to
On global issues - terrorism,
nuclear proliferation, climate change, economic imbalances - the goals and
objectives converge at the level of pronouncements. But practical cooperation,
in essence, never takes place, and attempts proceed uncover all shapes and
sizes of mutual misunderstanding. For instance, America simply doesn't notice
Russia’s desire to participate in the rebuilding of the global financial system
- which, as the crisis has shown, Russia is highly dependent upon - since its
economic weight is too meager.
The list of regional
priorities is very different. For the United States, in addition to Afghanistan,
there is Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, North Korea. Russia doesn't deny the
importance of the American list, but in response it offers its own: everything
having to do with the near-periphery - Ukraine, Moldova, the Caucasus
[including Georgia] and Central Asia.
Compared to Bush, the Obama Administration
has reduced its activity in the post-Soviet space, which cannot but make Russia
happy. However, this isn't due to a U.S. reevaluation of the course, but rather
a realistic appraisal of current capabilities.
No American administration would
agree with Moscow’s desire to have special rights to its neighboring
territories. And Russia will not relinquish these aspirations. Both positions
are based on fundamental beliefs regarding their own interests.
In both Moscow and Washington,
there is a failure to understand that the entire regional palette must be
viewed as a unified whole, which would provide more room to maneuver in each
situation. This would be much more appropriate in terms of methodology. Indeed,
if we incorporate all the existing strands we obtain one concrete whole -
ensuring the stability in Eurasia after the disappearance of the USSR and the
termination of the [Cold War] ideological confrontation.
Different ways of thinking about
history is one obstacle to a meeting of minds. In general, the American
approach is that an unsuccessful page can be turned begun anew. Hence the notion
of a “reset.”
Washington is annoyed by
Moscow’s fixation on both the recent and more distant past, which always gets introduced
into the ongoing dialogue. But Russia, like Europe in general, sees the political
process as one of continuity and succession.
Russians appeal to the resentment
and frustration of the past 20 years and don't believe that American politics
can change in both form and content. In order to prove the opposite to Moscow,
one needs strong arguments. For Americans, it is equally as obvious that to Obama
- completely unlike Bush and even Clinton - this is an axiom. And Russian
mistrust is perceived as obstinence - if not a desire to strengthen its
The difference in political
systems also plays a role. In Russia, most important decisions are made without
transparency and behind the curtains. But if consensus is reached, a mechanism for
implementation is established. In the United States, the head of state acts in an
open environment that involves many factors and pressure groups, and therefore implementing
decisions requires serious effort. However, the political capital of any U.S. administration
is limited, so it will always carefully decide how much of it can be spent on
On the eve of the
summit, specialists in Russian-American relations are once again discussing what
the basis of these relations should be - values or interests. And on both sides
of the ocean, the argument is dictated exclusively by domestic political considerations,
which in terms of foreign policy - have no meaning.
Michael Lind in his book The
American Way of Strategy, which was published three years ago, proves
that, “the sole objective of American foreign policy is to create conditions conducive
to the individualistic American way of life [translated quote].” In order to do
that, in the international arena the United States applies the approach it
believes to be most effective at the moment - pragmatic (realistic) or
ideological (liberal-internationalism). Their synthesis comprises the essence
of the “American way of strategy.” Interests and values are two different tools
for achieving the same goal, the purpose of which, at the end of the day, is
The main problem is that Russia
and United States don't see a truly promising, future-oriented agenda. It isn't
clear which of their mutual interests will prove most important in the global,
multi-polar world of the 21st century.
There is probably no way to
resume communications other than to resolve the questions inherited from the
last century. But much more important is to go beyond the framework of well-worn
issues and to try and understand what awaits Moscow and Washington beyond the
next twist of history.
*Fyodor Lukyanov is Chief
Editor for the magazine Russian in Global Affairs
Help Support Worldmeets.us
Worldmeets.us is a non-partisan, volunteer-based, not-for-profit organization that operates solely in the public interest. The opinions expressed in articles posted by Worldmeets.us are not necessarily those of Worldmeets.us, its sponsors or its volunteers.