Speaking in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Vice President Joe Biden introduced an unusually harsher and more derisive tone to US/Russia relations; "The reality is the Russians are where they are", he stated, "They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they're in a situation where the world is changing before them and they're clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable."
Ouch. Biden's blistering comments made front page news in a clearly affronted Moscow, who immediately demanded clarification from The White House, wanting to know precisely what the US administration meant when they proposed a "reset" of relations. They're also questioning exactly who is running US foreign policy (ironically a question also often asked of Russia with Medvedev and Putin). Chief foreign policy advisor to President Medvedev, Sergei Prikhodko, was quoted by the Interfax News Agency as saying, "The question is; who is shaping the US foreign policy, the president or respectable members of his team?"
By ruffling feathers at The Kremlin, Biden appears to be straying from the principles of the "reset" button; the White House's well-intentioned gift to Russia, presented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Russian Foreign Minister earlier this year. Admittedly, the reset button appeared easy on the pocket (much like the DVD's presented to British PM Gordon Brown) but its symbolism and implied historical significance was vast (unlike the aforementioned DVD's). I'm not sure what Prime Minister Putin has done with it since, but after Biden's words, I suspect the words karate and chop may have something to do with it.
Now I like Joe Biden, he seems to be a forthright, down-to-earth and generally well-intentioned kind of guy. One of my abiding memories of the 2008 Democratic convention was when Biden spoke fondly of his mother, a smart, tough and delightful woman who appeared to have taught her children well. "As a child, I stuttered," he said recalling an endearing memory, "and she lovingly would look at me and tell me, "Joey, it's because you're so bright you can't get the thoughts out quickly enough."
Well, he got his thoughts out quickly enough here. In his candid interview, he went on to suggest that Russia had no choice but to cooperate with the U.S because its economy was on the brink of sharp decline, and consequently Moscow wasn't in any position to try and cut any deals.
Ok Joe, I think they got it. So was it an unintentional blunder? At face value, it certainly doesn't sound like the "smart politics" the administration has been advocating. However it would be dismissive to rule out another strategy that may have been employed by the Obama administration the 'good cop, bad cop' tactic (well, if it's good enough for Miami Vice..). Biden playing the bad cop, to Obama's good cop in light of the latter's much touted recent summit meeting in Russia. Clinton tried to reassure Moscow that Washington remains committed to resetting bilateral relations, "The US views Russia as a great power" she stated, but the damage was already done. Mixed messages are generally counterproductive. As they are so confusing, the country on the receiving end is mistrustful of the other side's real thoughts and intentions and therefore less likely to co-operate. "Perplexing" was the phrase used by The Kremlin to describe Biden's comments.
There is a Russian saying, "Better to stumble than make a slip of the tongue", i.e. it is better to do something wrong that to say something wrong, because it is sometimes more difficult to improve something said than something done. The Obama administration would do well to heed this in the coming months as they continue their mission of re-establishing relations with former adversaries. It will be difficult to re-build trust and to work together on common areas of interest if the perception is that the US (as the more powerful party) persists in acting arrogantly and is only interested in gaining as many concessions as it can by offering little, if anything in return, a la the Bush/Cheney administration. "We have been there already", as Medvedev's foreign policy advisor retorted.
Emotions and slighted feelings aside, most countries ultimately go on to act strategically and do what serves them best, whether they like the other party or not. However, the mixed messages cause unnecessary resentment, delaying re-engagement and co-operation. The messages coming out of Washington should be measured, consistent and united. The US administration presented Russia with a "reset" button, symbolising a new era of mutual respect and improved relations. To show that they could be both tough and respectful, and that the two traits weren't mutually exclusive, contrary to the Bush/Cheney era of arrogant unilateralism.
Now is the time to prove it.