Checks & Balances

The reset with Russia won’t amount to anything unless Congress is on board.

It is no secret that I have become quite pessimistic about the track of U.S.-Russia relations in recent years. Therefore, I was quite pleasantly surprised to leave Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns's address today at the Center for American Progress (CAP) with a much more optimistic feeling. Burns pointed out that the tide of anti-American sentiment that was washing over Russian public opinion appears to have been reversed by the change in tone brought about by the Obama administration's "reset." However, he acknowledged that the momentum, although positive, must be sustained; the progress that has been made in reversing the slide to the "new Cold War" is real but tentative.

Burns laid out a grand agenda, highlighting the importance of improving the lackluster U.S.-Russia economic relationship as part of this process. Energy security, boosting bilateral trade and investment, cooperation on nonproliferation, working jointly on missile defense-all the various items that so many commissions convened to chart ways to improve ties between Washington and Moscow have outlined. It carries much more weight, however, when it was articulated so clearly and forcefully by a senior member of the administration's foreign-policy team. And there was a definite signal that President Dmitri Medvedev and his officials could be the partner that the Obama administration is seeking to move forward in implementing this agenda.

But there's one small problem. Burns made the case-but will members of the U.S. Congress be convinced? (He may have an immediate test; he departed from CAP to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee.) Without the approval of the legislative branch, the hands of the executive are tied, because many of the areas where Burns called for positive movement will require congressional action.

Among these: ratification of the new START agreement; the repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment preventing permanent normal trading relations between America and Russia; approval of a 123 agreement to jump-start civil nuclear cooperation between both countries; and appropriations for all sorts of programs. I was intrigued by Burns's identification of missile defense, hitherto one of the major stumbling blocks in the U.S.-Russia relationship, as a possible area for transformation; he noted that both the United States and Russia have conducted extensive tests and research into anti-missile systems, and that both sides "can learn from each other." But would Congress be interested in pursuing joint development projects?

It is going to take a sustained campaign on the part of the administration to work against the many roadblocks that currently exist in improving relations. Will the president, and his vice president and secretary of state, lobby fellow former colleagues in Congress on Jackson-Vanik, arguing, as Burns did today, that the amendment has "long since passed its original purpose" when there is a long list of congressional complaints about Russia? Will the new START agreement get through the Senate without a complicated ratification process? Is the Obama team prepared to argue that, while America may have significant concerns about Russia's progress in terms of meeting human-rights criteria, Washington is generally satisfied with Russia's long-term direction?

Medvedev appears to believe that he can do business with Obama-and a more cooperative approach toward U.S. concerns, especially on Iran and on access to Afghanistan, can reap substantial rewards for Russia. The test for the Obama team is to make the same arguments forcefully to Congress as to why American interests are similarly served.

There was a burst of optimism in the wake of the early meetings between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2001-02 that the U.S.-Russia relationship would be fundamentally reshaped. Those dreams perished when they came up against hard political realities in both capitals. Can Medvedev and Obama succeed? Burns today laid out the foundation. Now it remains to be seen whether anything can be built on it.


Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.