Russia and Obama's Second Term

January 30, 2013 Topic: Great Powers Region: Russia

Russia and Obama's Second Term

There is little potential for a broad strategic dialogue between Washington and Moscow.

Before and after Obama’s second inauguration, a slew of articles in both Russia and the United States explored the outlook for U.S.-Russian relations in the next four years. Although these articles touched on many topics, a few are particularly relevant to providing an understanding of the character of bilateral relations. Embedded in them are a few myths and plenty of wishful thinking about prospects for improvements in the U.S.-Russian relationship.

I shall begin with what I consider the most interesting viewpoint professed for many years by one of the best experts on Russian relations, Tom Graham. Back in December, he and Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published an article in The International Herald-Tribune exploring the multiple problems bedeviling the U.S.-Russian relationship, such as the U.S. Congress’s Magnitsky Act, the Russian decision to cease cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and the Russian ban on adoptions by American citizens. The authors argued that these problems stemmed from a lack of strategic dialogue and the two countries’ inadequate understanding of each other’s strategic interests. Placing such problems in a strategic context would improve Russian-American relations, they argued, citing as areas for potential strategic dialogue such strategic topics as China, cooperation on Arctic development and the fight against Islamist terrorism.

First, the problem here is that it is unrealistic to expect large, sovereign countries to share strategic interests with other countries that aren’t focused on a troublesome third country. Over the past fifty years, the sole example that comes to mind of a successful strategic dialogue is the American strategic outreach to China during the Nixon administration. It was initiated by Henry Kissinger, whose firm employs Tom Graham. The success of this dialogue can be explained by the perception in both the United States and China that the Soviet Union represented a threat to the existence of both; hence, their readiness to join forces against a common enemy.

Second, two countries can have convergent vital interests only if both are roughly equal in resources and power. Otherwise, the weaker one experiences a loss of sovereignty as a result of its smaller economic and military-political potential, and that negates the strategic character of the relationship.

Consider the widespread perception in the 1990s and at the beginning of the twenty-first century that Russia and the United States could forge a strategic relationship. It never happened because the United States felt it was so strong and self-sufficient that strategic cooperation came down to the American expectation that Russia should bend its own vital interests and submit to American foreign policy. Only then could peaceful, constructive and effective cooperation ensue. Graham and Trenin discuss, for example, current U.S. and Russian strategic interests with regard to China. But isn’t there a greater convergence in Russian and Chinese interests on the matter of containing Washington’s arrogant and unilateral foreign policy that attempts to dominate the world?


Regarding the development of Arctic resources, the United States’ refusal to sign the Convention on the Law of the Sea betrays a U.S. lack of interest in dividing Arctic resources in a way that coincides with international law. Rather, Washington wants to keep its hands untied for any action in the Arctic.

Strategic dialogue necessitates a certain level of trust between parties. But the talks between the two countries on the antimissile shield that the U.S. wishes to install in Europe testify to the lack of such trust. Americans insist that the shield is designed to parry hypothetical Iranian missiles; but a succession of U.S. presidents and other high-level officials also insist that the idea of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. They declare that, should Iran continue to advance down the road to a nuclear weapon, the United States or Israel would destroy the program’s infrastructure.

With the emergence of a multipolar world, the need arises for power balances in various regions. Thus do we see countries attempting to protect their national interests by forming ad hoc coalitions instead of full-time alliances, whose time has passed, in the view of many analysts. This is why strategic dialogue, while perhaps notionally desirable, is not really feasible because it is difficult to determine which questions are tactical and which are strategic. For Moscow, a matter of strategic discussion with the United States is U.S. interference in Russia’s internal affairs. Another is America’s interference in countries in the post-Soviet sphere. But it is difficult to imagine any U.S. administration engaging in serious discussions on such matters without being attacked domestically for betraying U.S. national and geopolitical interests. It is obvious that there cannot be entirely cooperative or entirely competitive relations between two large countries with intersecting and conflicting interests.

Such a black-and-white approach can only exist between states engaged in total and open confrontation—as the Soviet Union and the West were during the Cold War—or in cases of a weaker country forced to yield its interests to the will of a stronger partner because of an economic or military-political dependency. This is the defining characteristic of the relations within NATO, whose European members depend for military protection largely on the United States. And yet within this framework there are conflicts even absent a confrontation with a third power (as with the USSR). Consider, for example, the clashes that arose with George W. Bush’s Iraq war, when Germany and France went against the wishes of the United States.