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Mired in a Yawning Divide

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Headlined to H2 7/14/09

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First published in The Moscow Times on July 13, 2009.

Although couched in terms of resetting relations, U.S. President Barack Obama's approach to Russia is actually quite traditional. At its heart is an old formula, first promoted during the administration of former President Dwight Eisenhower, that argues that a limited agenda is the best that the United States can hope for with a hostile Kremlin. Specifically, Washington should focus on technical agreements with Moscow - arms control being a good example - while setting aside broader philosophical disagreements.

According to Michael McFaul, senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, Russia's leaders continue to "think of the world in zero-sum terms." Given what he terms "the yawning divide" between the two countries in terms of values, there should be no illusions in our relationship with the Russians.

Not surprisingly, Russian proposals to redefine the relationship in post-Cold War terms are met with deep suspicion. Even creative proposals designed to transform hostility into trust don't receive a fair hearing in Washington because they run up against the deeply ingrained assumption that the Kremlin's interests are inherently inimical to the United States.

Trapped by this assumption, the Obama administration has little choice but to fall back on two familiar Cold War strategies. First, Obama distinguished between doves and hawks in the Kremlin, having said on the eve of the summit that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has "one foot stuck in the past." Second, Obama decided not to engage Russia's leaders directly in a discussion of democratic values. Instead, he addressed these issues by trying, in McFaul's words, "to establish a direct relationship with the Russian people" by meeting with human rights groups and members of the opposition.

Both strategies trace their origins back to the famous 1947 "X" article by George Kennan, the former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union. Kennan described Russians as "Asiatic" and politically passive. Since it was impractical to expect to change Russia's internal political process, Kennan concluded that the only realistic U.S. policy toward Moscow was a "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."

Has anything really changed since Kennan's assessment? While ostensibly rejecting the rhetoric of the Cold War and containment, the Obama administration remains just as mired in its fundamental premise - namely that the values of Russian society are fundamentally at odds with the West. Today this "values gap" is used to justify attempts to democratize Russian society and institutions and to contain its influence on its neighbors, just as it did 60 years ago.


This mindset helps to explain McFaul's explanation to U.S. journalists that the United States will define its national interest, and if the Kremlin doesn't cooperate then "We don't need the Russians," as McFaul concludes.

Reverting to this familiar pattern prevents the United States from forging a better relationship. The administration's insistence that it is the Russian elite who are mostly at fault in our relationship has drowned out Moscow's persistent calls for a meaningful discussion of values and "a common vision of our historical epoch."

The Obama administration needs less of Kennan's brash self-confidence from 1947 and more of the mature wisdom of Kennan in 2005, when he remarked that "This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers ... strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable."

No less troubling is that by clinging to such outdated thinking, the initiative in defining a new security architecture has slowly but surely begun to drift into the hands a new group of global leaders - Brazil, Russia, India and China.

To retain its global leadership role, the United States must appeal not only to the interests but also to the values of the BRIC nations. With respect to Russia, this cannot happen without first learning to see the country as it truly is - a nation that is actively reshaping itself and that is once again becoming a vital part of European civilization.

 

Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)
 

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