The U.S. Shoots its Dog

The United States should talk to Russia, not continue with abrasive—and ineffective—posturing.

Sometime before the United States celebrates its two-hundred-fiftieth anniversary, it is to be hoped that we settle at least one misconception that confuses Americans and bewilders the world. That has to do with the uses and purposes of diplomacy.

Too many of us still look upon diplomatic recognition and ambassadorial exchanges, as well as bilateral agreements and multi-lateral collaboration, as favors granted by the United States to friendly nations. Too little time is taken by presidents and senators to explain to the public at large that we engage in diplomacy at all levels because it is in our interest.

The most recent example is the U.S. reaction, by both the Bush administration and members of Congress of both parties, to the Russian-Georgian conflict. Virtually without exception, all who have spoken have condemned Russia and have announced, one way or the other, that now "we are all Georgians."

This fits into a long history of choosing to see the world in blacks and whites. Without in any way excusing the harsh Russian overreaction to Georgian provocation in Abkhazia and Ossetia, very few of those American politicians who have been heard from have taken the trouble to try to provide even a brief history of the troubled and complex Caucasus or to question how the U.S. might react were Americans in disputed territories on or near our border suddenly placed under attack.

As our nineteenth century war with Mexico and our mishandling and overreaction in Cuba have established, the U.S. has not always handled its "near abroad" problems with finesse or maturity.

Until maturity in the form of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates emerged, the current administration, especially as represented by Vice President Cheney, seemed determined to place Georgia's interests ahead of our own and to seek every way possible of escalating the friction with Russia into outright confrontation. Withdrawing the proposed cooperative agreement on peaceful use of nuclear energy was the most recent and most visible instance.

This step illustrates the folk observation of someone who cuts off his nose to spite his face. And it also could be characterized this way: If you don't do what I tell you to do, I'll shoot my dog.

While we let tempers cool and inflammatory rhetoric take its course, we should begin to think where long-term U.S. interests lie. Despite almost two decades of mismanaging the Russian account, we still have much more in common than the issues that separate us. We need to cooperate on terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, reduction of nuclear arsenals, climate and pandemic issues, the security of energy distribution systems, and a non-nuclear Iran.

We can continue to condemn the unnecessary use of force, though our leaders' rhetoric about invading sovereign nations must be tempered by our own actions in Iraq. And we must think about how to bring Russia into the West instead of increasing its isolation and alienation.


Gary Hart is the Wirth Chair at the University of Colorado at Denver. He is also a former U.S. senator.