Odom's Russia: A Forum

Odom's Russia: A Forum

Mini Teaser: Seven seasoned observers react to William Odom's interpretation of post-Soviet Russian reality, and Odom replies.

by Author(s): Martin MaliaJack Matlock, Jr.Jerry HoughGeoffrey HoskingAlexey PushkovRobert LegvoldHenry TrofimenkoWilliam E. Odom

Presumably, the power that is relevant to U.S. foreign policy is that which can affect American interests. Defining these interests and assigning priorities among them is a tricky exercise on which reasonable people can disagree. Nevertheless, one interest normally trumps all others: the defense of a country's territory against attack from abroad. On that score Russia is more likely to help than harm the United States, and these days we need all the help we can get.

Don't forget: The Cold War ended with Russia's help. (The Soviet Union was not Russia writ large but a Communist empire that Russia's leaders helped demolish.) When the Soviet Union disappeared from the geopolitical map, the United States became the unchallenged military power in the world, so much so that other states could no longer pose a plausible threat to American territory. Only non-state actors--terrorist networks, to be precise--can do that, by employing forms of asymmetrical warfare that operate below America's deterrence capabilities. The sort of defenses and alliances that were necessary during the Cold War have become of limited utility in dealing with the new threat. Russia, however, irrespective of its success or lack thereof in creating a stable, democratic society; was and remains relevant. It has been a target of these same malign forces and its geographic location provides indispensable assets for combating the most direct threat to American security.

That is why, ultimately, debating whether Russia is a "great power" is a pointless exercise. We need cooperation with Russia to secure our most fundamental security interests. If such cooperation were not in Russia's interest it would be futile (or too costly to other interests) to try to enlist it, but it is in Russia's interest. It would be irresponsible to reject security cooperation with Russia just because it has not yet and may never mirror image our own political and economic institutions.

I DO AGREE with General Odom that past U.S. policy toward Russia has been mistaken, but the mistake was not the one he cites. The very limited economic support the United States offered Russia could not have been decisive in creating a transformation that at best will take more than a generation and, for better or for worse, it was not the most important element of Clinton Administration policy. Far more important, mostly for worse, were other decisions: NATO enlargement; bombing Serbia without Security Council approval; and the erratic use of military force to solve problems for which force was ill suited.

The fundamental flaw in Clinton Administration policy was the absence of a strategy to meet the challenges of the post-Cold War world. Too many obsolescent Cold War practices were continued. American economic and military strength fed the illusion that the United States was invulnerable and could use its military forces to whatever purpose it chose so long as it limited American casualties. The administration failed to build the sort of alliances needed to meet the terrorist threat and dissipated American power by intervening in disputes with little relevance to its security, but that created or nurtured pockets of determined and dangerous enemies.

Finally, General Odom exaggerates Russia's current defects. His is the attitude of a hanging judge prepared to accept any allegation of wrongdoing as valid, while ignoring contradictory or qualifying facts. Indeed, the caricature General Odom draws of current conditions in Russia forms a precarious platform for his confident predictions. That caricature is reminiscent of others based on partial evidence and the "straight-lining" of temporary trends out into the distant future. Examples abound: the predictions in the 1970s that Japan would outstrip the United States in GDP by the 1990s; the "new paradigm" theorists' overblown projections of stock market valuation during the price bubble in technology stocks just a few years back; and the estimates, right through the 1980s, that Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union was so entrenched that it could not be seriously undermined from within. The prediction that Russia is "trapped" into some "weak state" syndrome has no more logical validity than one positing th at Russia will gradually adapt its institutions to support a capitalist economy and an open society.

Neither outcome is inevitable, but several things should be clear. One is that only the Russians themselves can build the institutions and develop the attitudes they will need to fulfill their potential in a globalizing world. The second is that it is in the interest of the United States, its allies in Europe and the entire world that Russia become a full and responsible member of the civilized world community. The third is that U.S. policy can influence developments in Russia at least at the margins. Russia is much more likely to become a modern, productive and friendly state if its leaders see the country's future served by close association with western Europe and the United States. But they are likely to sustain that view only if the United States and its allies take Russian interests into account and cooperate in dealing with common problems.

This is not a prescription for treating Russia as an exception, or for excusing those shortcomings still apparent in its governance and some of its actions, but only for continuing policies that have proven successful in the past in other cases. We did not exclude Portugal, Spain or Turkey from NATO membership on grounds that they were no longer "great powers or that they were insufficiently democratic. The fact that Portugal was a member of the Western alliance played an important role in the evolution of a stable democracy when Antonio Salazar passed from the scene. Spain's basing agreements with the United States while General Franco was still running a fascist dictatorship helped rather than hindered the subsequent inclusion of Spain in NATO and the establishment of democratic institutions there. Would we or Turkey be better off today if we had refused to ally ourselves with that country because its armed forces razed Kurdish villages and intervened in Cyprus? In fact, the U.S.-Turkish alliance has helped preserve a secular government in Ankara and has encouraged political solutions in Kurdistan and Cyprus. Are there not useful lessons here when we consider relations with a Russia that, like the United States, faces the threat of terrorist attack?

General Odom wrote "Realism About Russia" before September 11 and, to be fair to him, I have written my critique as I would have on September 10, 2001, not going beyond views I have expressed publicly for nearly a decade. Let the reader judge whether the world today better fits his concept of realism or my perception of reality.

Jack F. Matlock, Jr. was formerly U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

1 Odom also exaggerates its extent. It was hardly "massive": the grant aid could have come out of Bill Gates' after-tax income without significantly affecting his lifestyle. The IMF infusions (at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer) were loans, half of which have already been repaid.

Jerry F. Hough, Duke University:

FOR THOSE OF us who were engaged in debate with General Odom twenty years ago, his recent article in The National Interest brings a smile to the lips. Then, too, he was convinced that the Soviet present and future were determined by its past. Then, of course, he saw the Soviet Union as a strong state, dominated by its military and driven by that military to world domination. The dovish argument that the Soviet elite "only" wanted defense and equality with the West he denounced as naivete; the possibility that social forces within the Soviet Union would produce evolution he dismissed out of hand.

As General Odom sees it, Russia is still incapable of any improvement or evolution, but now it is eternally a weak state, and its military officers are absorbed only with personal gain. None has any sense of national pride, professionalism or desire either for defense or national expansion. Defense against a rising China no longer occupies the thinking of any Russian, although in the past the historic fear of Tatars was said to make all Russians paranoid about China.

There is no question about the policy of Russia's current rulers. Anatoly Chubais, along with other Leningraders like Putin working with him, simply use the state to steal. These men do not seek economic growth because domestic stagnation gives them more oil, fertilizer, and natural resources to export, and they can easily receive a percentage of the proceedings for their personal gain. They do not invest their money at home, but keep it safely abroad.

In the short run, at least, this development is much more advantageous to American foreign policy than General Odom acknowledges. The United States can and does bribe Russian leaders to accept virtually anything--the expansion of NATO, an American sphere of influence in Serbia or Uzbekistan, assistance in Afghanistan, modification of the ABM Treaty, and so forth. The United States should not be criticized for sugarcoating what it is doing by treating Russia as a great power; that is, after all, a small price to pay for the privilege of suborning Russia's national interest.

Essay Types: Essay