Advancing American Interests and the US-Russian Relationship. The Commission on America's National Interests and Russia

October 1, 2003 Tags: Heads Of State

Advancing American Interests and the US-Russian Relationship. The Commission on America's National Interests and Russia

Mini Teaser: The public reconciliation of Presidents Bush and Putin in St.


The public reconciliation of Presidents Bush and Putin in St. Petersburg and at the G-8 Summit in Evian and the ongoing relationship (evidenced by the meetings at Camp David this past weekend) has fostered the impression that all is well in the U.S.-Russian relationship.  This is a dangerous misimpression.  The U.S.-Russian dispute over Iraq exposed conflicts in the U.S.-Russian relationship and even cracks in its foundation that must be addressed to advance vital American interests.

The tragic attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon rapidly crystallized American thinking about the interrelated threats of terrorism and proliferation.  Containing these threats has become the principal aim of U.S. foreign policy.  Today's Russia can play a major role in advancing this aim-or in undermining it. 

The combination of Russia's size and strategic location; its relationships with, intelligence about and access to key countries; its arsenal of nuclear and other weapons and technologies; its enormous energy resources; and its ability to facilitate or block action by the United Nations Security Council places Moscow among America's most important potential partners.  Fortunately, the interests America and Russia share greatly outweigh the interests that divide us.  Nevertheless, even before the dispute over Iraq, lingering resentment on both sides was undermining the relationship.  Russian opposition to one of the most significant American foreign policy initiatives of the last decade raised further questions and must be correctly understood not simply to avoid further problems, but also to get the most out of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

Many Russians now believe that Moscow's opposition to U.S. policy toward Iraq was a strategic blunder.  It also reflects shortcomings in America's approach, however, including the delay in deepening the U.S.-Russian relationship, the concomitant absence of equities that would have encouraged Moscow to accommodate U.S. preferences, and the undisciplined pursuit of contradictory policies.

Moving forward requires that Russian officials understand that the United States has been making a special effort to develop bilateral relations and that obstructionist conduct on key U.S. priorities is not cost-free.  It also requires a review of the U.S.-Russian relationship and the development of more reliable means to advance American interests within it and through it.

First, as the Iraq experience demonstrates, changes in the format and style of communications with Russia are necessary.  Better communication is not a panacea.  Communication with Russia is complicated by Russian unrealistic expectations of symmetry that have not yet fully accommodated very real asymmetries in the bilateral relationship.  Nevertheless, extra attention to Moscow-through earlier and more frequent consultations, including private dialogues, and by easing Russian travel to the U.S.-is appropriate in view of Russia's crucial geopolitical role.

Second, the Bush Administration must take a series of steps to improve counter-terrorism cooperation.  These include promoting intelligence sharing, developing joint threat assessments and counter-terrorism strategies and plans, working with Russia and other states in Central Asia to secure borders, and clarifying U.S. interests and objectives on Russia's periphery.  Practical cooperation in countering terrorism is complicated by resentments and suspicions in bureaucracies on both sides, as well as justifiable reluctance to share sensitive information.  But the contribution such cooperation could make to American security is considerable.

Third, the U.S. and Russia should take the lead in creating an Alliance against Nuclear Terrorism.  This new Alliance should address North Korea, Iran and other nuclear aspirants; the dangers of "loose nukes"; and the non-proliferation regime.  Specific elements should include joint threat assessments and coordinated strategies, including agreement that if non-proliferation measures are successful and if North Korea and Iran comply, regime change will not be pursued.  More broadly, the U.S. should seek Russian cooperation in establishing new standards for the security of nuclear weapons and materials, cleaning out weapons material at research reactors in third countries, and strengthening institutions like the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Finally, U.S. leaders should recognize that economic modernization is Russia's number one national priority that it is likely to remain so for some time, and that a successful relationship must help Russia achieve this goal.  This is not a call for charity or foreign aid.  Moscow has much to bring to the table as the world's largest producer of energy (oil and gas) and a reservoir of extraordinary scientific and technical talent.  The expansion of economic cooperation with Russia can to be one of the most effective means available to build a "positive" constituency for the U.S.-Russian relationship in both Russia and the United States.  Accordingly, President Bush should make Russia's removal from the largely symbolic constraints of the Jackson-Vanik Amendment a genuine priority.  The administration should also exercise greater leadership in advancing bilateral trade with Russia and remain supportive of Russia's WTO accession process, though the burden is primarily on Moscow in meeting the appropriate criteria.  Moreover, if Russia cooperates in stabilizing post-war Iraq, the U.S. should be "imaginative" in honoring Russian interests there.


The Commission on America's National Interests and Russia is an outgrowth of the Commission on America's National Interests, chaired by James R. Schlesinger and co-chaired by Robert F. Ellsworth, Bob Graham, Pat Roberts and Brent Scowcroft.  The Interim report of the Commission was released in September 2003; the Final Report of the Commission will be issued next spring in an effort to inform debate during U.S. presidential and congressional campaigns.  For a complete text of the Interim Report, visit 

Essay Types: Essay