President-elect Barack Obama has promised the American people "hope" and "change"-so is there hope for change in U.S.-Russian relations and the direction of American foreign policy? This question was addressed on Friday, November 21, at a Nixon Center panel discussion featuring Dimitri K. Simes, President of The Nixon Center and Publisher of The National Interest, Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2001-2005, and Sergey Kislyak, Russian Ambassador to the United States. Barbara Slavin, Assisting Managing Editor of the Washington Times, moderated the discussion.
Simes began by noting that while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice compared Russian actions in the August Russia-Georgia war to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and others drew parallels to the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, some recent accounts by independent monitors support the Kremlin's claim that Georgia was in fact the war's aggressor. Yet few in the American media or foreign-policy community seemed to consider this possibility during the early stages of the conflict, he said, with some even speculating that the war would dictate the future of U.S.-Russian relations, rendering "business as usual" between the two nations impossible. According to Simes, Russia's reputation as a "bully" and Western distrust of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were sufficient reasons for many to ignore the facts and jump straight to such conclusions. For Simes, the suggestion that the war could become a defining factor in the U.S.-Russia relationship was particularly disturbing at a time when the United States needs Russian cooperation to address vital security challenges and pressing global problems.
The lack of serious debate or attention to the truth displayed in the United States during the crisis highlights a number of troubling trends in our foreign-policy decision-making, argued Simes. For one, major decisions have been made on the basis of misleading or even false information-the most notable example of late occurring when the mere possibility of Saddam Hussein's ties to al-Qaeda or possession of weapons of mass destruction was enough to start a preemptive war against Iraq in 2003. The tendency to divide the world into "good guys" and "bad guys" and to create policies on this basis demonstrates a failure of interest-based thinking in American foreign policy.
While critical of the United States handling of the situation, Simes found some of Russia's conduct equally alarming. For one, Simes condemned as "deplorable" Moscow's failure to prevent the looting and killings of ethnic Georgians by South Ossetian and Chechen militias. Also disconcerting was the fact that Russian troops moved so close to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. And, as Vershbow pointed out, Moscow did not help its case in the West by throwing around rhetoric about ethnic cleansing and comparing the war to 9/11. He suggested that the Kremlin's intimidating treatment of its neighbors and Medvedev's statement that Russia has "privileged interests" in its backyard provided the backdrop against which many Americans viewed the conflict.
Kislyak, however, defended his nation's actions, voicing disgust over what he called the "covert, cruel attack against Russian citizens" launched by Saakashvili and arguing that Moscow's only goal in moving into Georgia proper was to deny Georgians the capability of another attack by destroying the facilities that could allow them that opportunity. He made clear that Russia "is not in the business of regime change" and that the war had nothing to do with geopolitical issues in the region. In analyzing his country's reaction, Kislyak said that he asked himself, "What would the Americans have done?"
Indeed, as Simes reminded the audience, the United States invaded Grenada in 1983 using a potential threat to American students as part of its justification, and six years later invaded Panama after an American serviceman was killed. And when American ally Israel attacked Lebanon after three Israeli soldiers were killed by Hezbollah forces in 2006, the United States vocally supported Israel's right to self-defense-yet it painted Russia's response to the killings of its peacekeepers by Georgian forces as "disproportionate." Given America's own history, Simes wondered, "What is so unusual about the Russian reaction?" This double standard "implies an attitude that we can do whatever we want" and there will be no consequences, said Simes. And while we hold others to different standards and criticize or even punish them on that basis, we still expect them to deliver on issues of mutual concern. The panelists observed that Washington has a tendency to assume the Kremlin will offer its help on common interests no matter the state of U.S.-Russian relations.
But that's not the way things work in international relations. Kislyak noted that the United States can't have it "both ways," working both against and with Russia. Though the countries do have shared interests, such as preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Moscow is fully capable of working with Tehran on its own. And addressing the claim of some American experts that "business as usual" between the two countries could not go on after the crisis over Georgia, Kislyak declared that Russia has no interest in business as usual with the United States, as it has not served the relationship well.
Specifically, Kislyak expressed disappointment that at the first post-Soviet test of a true crisis between his country and the United States, all of the mechanisms created to deal with such a situation failed. The NATO-Russia Council, which the Russians were told would be used as a vehicle for discussion in the time of crisis, was blocked by the American side. Vershbow echoed Kislyak's frustration over this breakdown, advising that we must use all means at our disposal in dealing with conflicts. All three panelists seemed to agree that the United States' response to the crisis, including signing a missile-defense agreement with Poland which the United States has repeatedly claimed has nothing to do with Russia, further contributed to a growing distrust between the two nations.
The missile-defense system, which exemplifies the tendency toward suspicion and overreaction in the relationship, will likely prove to be one of the earliest major challenges for the Obama administration in dealing with Moscow. While Vershbow argued that the United States should pursue its goals but address Moscow's "legitimate concerns" over the system, perhaps delaying deployment of the system for a year while finding ways to work together, two senior former-Reagan administration officials in the audience expressed the sentiment that the system is based on outdated policy and has no strategic rationale. One called the entire debate "farcical," arguing that there is no real current threat of an Iranian ballistic-missile attack, nor does the system pose any danger to Russia. The reaction of both sides appears to be based more on emotion than on realistic assessment, again evoking Simes' earlier call for more realism in the relationship.
So how can Barack Obama and his foreign-policy team avoid making the same mistakes in the U.S.-Russian relationship? Vershbow suggested that the new administration needs to once again make Russia a priority in and of itself. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he said, a notion developed that Russia no longer mattered. And for its part, Russia became convinced that the United States was out to weaken it. He urged realistic assessment of the current relationship and of the future rebuilding process. Kislyak offered some optimism, asserting that Russia is "looking forward" to the new administration's policies and is interested in an honest and mutually respectful relationship with the United States. And both Simes and Vershbow noted that if the United States is able to concentrate on mutual interests, there is room for the two nations to work together. But Simes also pointed out that Medvedev's recent trip to Venezuela and Peru sends the message that American "games" on Russia's periphery can easily lead to similar antics on ours. He advised the Obama administration to ask itself if America needs a new confrontation in U.S.-Russian relations-and if so, at what costs?
Brooke Leonard is an Assistant Director of The Nixon Center.
Vershbow was speaking in his personal capacity, not as a State Department representative.