A Way Forward for the U.S. and Russia

November 15, 2013 Topic: Security Region: Russia

A Way Forward for the U.S. and Russia

Examining the forces in play.

When meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in October, Henry Kissinger mentioned with his characteristic humor that after trips to Russia he brings the Russian point of view to the American leadership, but that in the United States such information does not always help him. This is unfortunate. For Kissinger has much to offer Americans when it comes to Russia.

In the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy where Dr. Kissinger was awarded an honorary doctorate, the maitre of diplomacy gave a lecture on his favorite topic—the World Order. Paying tribute to the Westphalian system as the basis of international relations, he stressed the need to preserve its principles in the present context that was practically a call for sovereignty and sovereign equality of national states in twenty-first century. Silence reigned in the auditorium of the Academy—to hear this from an American was an unusual thing. He went further—referring to today's close organic global relationships all over the world in all spheres of life, he suggested that each state should retain its national character, remember its history—of course, all this should be in constructive terms, taking into account the balance of interests and cultures of other countries. But even that was not all—pronouncing at the beginning of the lecture the word "exceptional,” Kissinger subtly smiled and at the end of the lecture said that the United States, Russia and China must not represent a threat for each other—with the coming of the new era and the new challenges they should reassess their capabilities and global role and work together for their shared goals. Take that: the world is neither unipolar, nor multipolar with the United States-Russia-China triangle adapted to the present times in a neo-Westphalian world.

Despite the popularity of terms such as globalization or international community, the blunt fact remains that the appraisal of events or phenomena by major world powers are often seriously at odds with each other—and, respectively, their approaches to policy. The positives are obvious—the ongoing development of knowledge, technologies and world trade, the growing multifaceted links between states and peoples, the extensive spread of reliable information, the enhanced influence of the rejection of force in policy decisions in conflict resolution—and much more.

However, the existential threats to mankind have become global, and the matter is not just military threats, wars and armaments. Militant supporters of the "new world," to which Mr. Kissinger, judging by his speeches and articles, does not belong, believe that the rule of law and legal conscience, molded in the past, should be eliminated, and that war, regime change and generated conflicts are normal means to achieve geopolitical goals. In the field of "soft power", namely, the arrangements for the domestic life of peoples, the struggle of philosophies and practices is bloodless, but no less radical. The offensive against the nonmaterial foundations, principles and norms of the existing civilization is being conducted—the matrix of conscience and notions about right and wrong are being changed, the still-existing bases of private, family, social and political life of people are being desacralised and cancelled. Norms of behavior considered outre, or even criminal, yesterday are being encouraged today. The nature, scope and systemic consistency of the innovations suggests that a global project against civilization is under way.

What about the economy? Here the inadequacy of global finance and the economy adds up to category of the negative—the paradigm of property and wealth remains dominant in the sphere, but no one is going to change it. Crises in the economy classically lead to temptations in world politics. Proclivity to conflicts—where more, where less—is present in virtually all regions of the world except, perhaps, Europe, North America and, in general, the CIS. For a number of states, including Russia, the dangers of instability in the Middle East, the war in Syria and tensions around Iran will be compounded by new security threats—with the withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan in 2014, the traffic of Afghan heroin to Russia is expected yet to increase—as well as the flow of the warriors of Jihad and Caliphate, who received a tough training in Syria, to Afghanistan and on to Central Asia and Russia. Specific questions arise—whom does the world owe all this? Why is the New World Order being built by the new Al Qaeda fighters? The American vision of the world situation, and prospects—is fundamentally different from the Russian one. Unlike the Russians, the Americans believe that all events and developments are positive changes, the struggle for a better world, and America is on the right. As Thomas Graham wrote in "Izvestia", leadership is a part of the national DNA of Americans. However, he admitted that in the past decade there have been mistakes in the foreign policy of the United States.

With regard to the Russian political genetics it appears that because of the catastrophic consequences of revolutions and coups in the twentieth century, a rejection, or at least a very cautious attitude to the concepts of "turnover," "revolution," "new order" and so forth, became a part of the Russian national DNA.

Indeed, Russians know only too well what may be going on under the guise of slogans "freedom," "human rights," "revolution," "new world," "a better future.” Russia's historical experience helps it today to discern the real interests of other international actors. Its discernment means that it does not rush to support radical change in any sphere, whether it’s a change of a regime which suddenly turned out to be guilty of something or scrapping cultural traditions or norms of behavior.

Russia's approach—law and realism—was achieved through much suffering and most severe tests. The existing world order and international law are not perfect, but they are necessary to protect and promote the legitimate interests of states.

Differences between the Russian and American approaches is clearly visible in the case of Syria.

It is essential for Russia to know on what basis the settlement in Syria will be implemented. Russia neither idealizes nor demonizes the government of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow calls on foreign actors not to interfere in the internal affairs of Syria and to give the Syrians the opportunity to solve their problems themselves.

The administration of President Obama, by contrast, assumed the role of an arbitrator, identified the culprit, drew a "red line" and was going to use force irrespective of the norms of law and positions of other states. Today, however, such things are not as easy to enact as was once the case. President Obama should be given his due—he took the difficult decision to abandon attacks on Syria and supported legal approach that allows to set an accurate picture of the chemical-weapons incident and only after that issue a verdict. Will his administration be consistent in this or will there be new twists in its policies? It is hard to be optimistic. The Syrian opposition carried out a “personnel coup d’etat”—moderates have been pushed aside, policy and military operations were headed by the jihadist heirs of Al-Qaida, the United States and the "new great powers," Qatar and Saudi Arabia, continue to provide money and weapons to fighters. Two dozens of the some fighters’ detachments, mostly mercenaries, whom the United States considers as opposition and supports directly and via regional partners, decline to participate in the settlement talks. What is in store for Syria—a full-scale war of extermination, a division into the Alawi, Salafi and Kurdish zones or can there still be breakthrough solutions? Whether the Russian-American agreement on chemical weapons in Syria will set a precedent for other settlements depends largely on Washington. It would be a pity if this strategic opportunity will be missed because of the pressures by pro-Israeli and Saudi lobbyists.

The stakes for the world peace in Iranian and Afghan questions are no smaller than the Syrian stake. In some parameters, the Iranian situation is reminiscent of the Syrian one. In America and Israel the demonization of the country, its regime and leaders goes on, as well as the statements about the possibility to strike militarily, to change the regime, increase sanctions. The Saudis are active on Iranian issue: for them the Shiite Iran is both a geopolitical rival and ideological enemy (the Sunni theocracy against the Shiite theocracy).

In recent years, Barack Obama has been able to shun obtrusive advice and pressure to launch missile attacks on Iran, but should it be taken that with the start of the American-Iranian exchanges at the top and other levels, the threat of war has disappeared? How would the American administration behave if someone "from the outside” organizes a major terrorist attack "under the Iranian flag" or an attack on the targets in the Unite States or Israel in order to place Obama in a desperate situation?

The situation in Afghanistan is a vital issue for Russia. In 2013, the RISS has repeatedly appealed to this theme, held an International Conference on "Afghanistan-2014" which was attended, among others, by a member of the United States Embassy . There were other contacts with the Americans. US behavior in the Afghan issue has many ambiguities. The only area in which the thirteen-year occupation of Afghanistan produced a major achievement was the narcoeconomy, the production and export of heroin having increased dozen times. The picture of the Afghan situation after the withdrawal of foreign troops causes no optimism—the formation of a new system of power is likely to be fraught with conflicts. The CSTO is getting ready for the worst scenarios. But even if the Kabul government, the “new Taliban” and the command headquarters of the remaining American troops agree on the division of interests and on interaction and cooperation, the narcoeconomy is likely to remain intact. Russia is not happy about that—the new Afghanistan can become even more dangerous than the current one. Afghan drugs in Russia have already killed many tens of thousands people. No understanding with the US on the Afghan question is in sight. Is it a partnership? There is a feeling that the stated objectives of the United States in Afghanistan are at variance with real politics, which follows some other plan. What kind of plan?