In the aftermath of President Barack Obama’s White House meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev—and the bizarre spy scandal that followed—inside-the-beltway commentators have renewed questions about the Obama administration’s “reset” policy toward Russia. Some of these questions are entirely justified. But not all.
Questions about the Obama administration’s policy toward Russia fall into two general categories: “can the reset produce the results the United States needs and wants (or should want)?”, and “is the reset being executed effectively?”.
One recent example of the former is Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt’s column suggesting that “the engagement reset gives Russia’s dictators time, space and resources to further consolidate their power.” Concern over Russia’s lack of democracy is entirely appropriate, though it is not quite so clear whether Russia’s leaders are “dictators” or—as many argue—actually rather weakly authoritarian. (Despite Hiatt’s use of the term “dictators,” the second half of his quote suggests that he himself is not quite so sure about this either.)
Nevertheless, Hiatt’s central question, expressed in the title of his piece, “Can reset push Russia toward democracy?”, is flawed. Nothing the United States is realistically prepared to do can “push Russia toward democracy.” Even at the point of its greatest leverage over Moscow, under the Clinton administration, America failed at this task. The only people who can push Russia toward democracy are Russians.
More useful than Hiatt’s question is the converse: can Russia become a democracy if the reset fails? This seems highly unlikely. If the United States and Russia can’t develop a constructive working relationship after three attempts by three different presidents in each country, the main beneficiaries would be those in Russia who have opposed working with Washington all along. In that environment, U.S. support for democracy in Russia would be the functional equivalent of an American-sponsored effort at regime change. It would doom democracy advocates inside the country, whom Washington could do very little to protect (especially if Russia’s leaders are already “dictators” now). And it would indefinitely justify tighter internal controls in the face of “foreign threats.”
Russian leaders are more likely to accede to gradual democratization of their country if they believe that their relationships with the United States and major European powers are positive and stable than in a world of continuing tension and conflict. Robert Satloff made a similar case with respect to Israel this week at The Nixon Center: namely, that Israel’s government would be in a much better position to pursue negotiations with the Palestinians knowing that they have a strong relationship with the United States and, as a result, that they can be confident about their external security. Of course, there is no guarantee that engagement will lead to democracy in Russia, China, or anywhere else.
Whether the United States can get what it wants from Russia in other areas, like Iran and Afghanistan, or European security, is a complex issue—but it depends heavily on the second area where the reset has been criticized: its execution.
In fact, the greatest weakness of the reset policy so far is less in its aims, or its implications for democracy in Russia, than in its implementation. From the announcement of the administration’s missile defense plans, to its handling of the New START Treaty, and the spies, among other issues, the Obama administration seems plagued by missteps.
With respect to missile defense, the administration opted to avoid discussing its policy change in advance with either America’s allies or Russia for fear of leaks that could cause domestic political problems for the White House. As a result, the administration blindsided NATO allies, including the countries hosting the anti-missile radars and interceptors, and gave up an opportunity to seek concessions from Moscow.
On the New START Treaty, which does not really seem so threatening as some argue, the problem is less with the treaty itself—which is not a major agreement—than with the administration’s tangled efforts to satisfy the difficult to reconcile aims of Russia’s negotiators and the Senate Republicans needed to ratify it. The administration’s approach, essentially trying simultaneously to reassure Moscow that missile defense is not a threat and reassure Republicans that the treaty does not limit it, has confused both sides and may create a time bomb that could explode in either country—in the Senate, if New START is not ratified, or in Moscow, if the U.S. pursues missile defense plans to which Russia objects.
Regarding the spies, it is unclear why the administration chose to create a public spectacle almost immediately after an Obama-Medevedev summit. The spying seems like a largely (if not wholly) unsuccessful Russian fishing expedition on the basis of press reports—so what was the big deal?
Improving U.S.-Russian relations is a very important undertaking and could advance vital American interests around the world. But botching the “reset”—and accumulating many of its costs but few of its benefits in the process—is more dangerous than pursuing it. The administration needs to get its act together.
Paul J. Saunders is Executive Director of The Nixon Center and Associate Publisher of The National Interest. He served in the State Department from 2003 to 2005.