As the Obama administration takes stock of its foreign policy in 2010, and begins to make adjustments and corrections, one I hope tops the list would be the recommendation to banish the term "partnership" from any future discussion of U.S.-Russian relations.
Every American president since Ronald Reagan has sought a "partnership" with Moscow-something short of a full-blown alliance, but considerably more than just plain friendship. Trying to craft an entire agenda of policies that both Moscow and Washington can support, however, has proven far more difficult than simply uttering the ritualistic phrases that have become an expected part of any high-level Russian-American meeting since the end of the Cold War. Do we seriously believe that the promise of the 1993 Vancouver Declaration signed by both Russian President Boris Yeltsin and American President Bill Clinton, committing both countries to uphold "a dynamic and effective United States-Russian partnership," has been fulfilled? Does the joint statement made by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov back in July 1998 that the Cold War had been replaced by a "mature partnership" between the two countries still ring true today?
The problem is simple: not only are many Russian and American interests today out of alignment, the political realities in both countries work against any effective partnership being developed. This is because there is a major difference in how partnership/partnyostvo is defined in Washington and Moscow. For any American administration, a "partner" of the United States helps to advance the U.S. national interests, especially through burden sharing. We look at the world and believe that a partner should be assisting us in meeting the most critical national-security challenges we face-Afghanistan and Iran in particular. Russia's efforts to use the critical northern transport route to Afghanistan as a point of leverage, and its unwillingness to apply the kinds of pressure against Tehran we know could be employed, are not the acts of a true partner. From Moscow's perspective, Washington's continued indifference to some of Russia's most vital security and economic interests in its neighborhood-and sometimes active opposition to them-are likewise not what one expects of a partner. "Ruka ruku moyet" (One hand washes the other) is at the fundamental definition of what partnership consists of, in the Kremlin's view.
The solution, however, is not to assume that the opposite of promoting partnership is an adversarial, hostile relationship. There is no need for a "new Cold War" with Russia. But it requires a refocusing of diplomatic efforts away from finding broad-based solutions in favor of targeted quid pro quos, in which what each side expects to give and receive is carefully laid out-and where other, divisive issues are quarantined away. This latter approach can be particularly difficult for Congress to accept, given its predilection for wanting to interject issues with no immediate relevance to the subject under consideration (a bad habit that extends even to domestic legislation). But successive presidential administrations have already been doing this, with some success, in the bilateral U.S.-China relationship. Consider the de facto arrangements between Presidents George W. Bush and Hu Jintao on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific summit in 2007: Beijing got an apparent commitment from Bush that he would attend the Olympic Games in his capacity as a "sports fan"; China agreed to become more flexible on issues related to North Korea and Sudan.
The dream of a U.S.-Russia partnership is hard to give up. Fred Ikle, writing in The National Interest twenty years ago, raised the possibility of a Russian-American "defense community" that would replace the hostility and suspicion of the Cold War. But the harsh political reality is that neither Washington nor Moscow can accept partnership in the way that the other side defines it. Continuing to work for an illusive "partnership" is only going to bring frustration in its wake.
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.