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Shifting Gears on Missile Defense Marks a Shift in U.S. Policy Toward Russia, with Immediate Impact on Iran

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It is not clear how foreign policy strategy is being set in the Obama administration. But the execution has the appearances of a well-considered and tightly orchestrated dance. And when the music stopped this week, standing together on the stage, united in common purpose, were the Big Four of wars gone by -- the U.S., Great Britain, France and Russia.

The surprise this week was not the disclosure of a second, secret Iranian uranium enrichment site. Nor the ensuing condemnation and threats of collective action. What was surprising was the distinct voices that were heard. It was French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Brown whose declarations were strongest, with Russian President Medvedev joining shortly thereafter. Finally, an American president was able to speak a bit more softly -- and by the demonstration of common purpose suggest a bit more stick on behalf of the international community.

For the first time in a while, Iranian President Ahmadinejad seemed caught off guard. His normal swagger was muted, perhaps with the realization that his days of manipulating Russia against the West have ended. More perhaps with cold fear that it was he that was manipulated by Russia, and that his miscalculations may weaken him considerably in his battles to retain power at home.

Perhaps American foreign policy is coalescing around some basic realities of the world. There are real threats out there, and we do not have the capacity to fight them alone. The unilateralism of the past decade was defined less by our determination to go it alone into war than by the belief that we could fight all battles and recast all nations in our own image. Almost without exception -- perhaps China, as our lead banker, was the exception -- we demanded fealty to our image of democratic progress from all of our antagonists.

But when you are fighting on all fronts, your ability to build enduring coalitions on any one of them is diminished. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has long articulated this view. Yes, as he has suggested for the better part of a decade, Russia and the United States have more issues that unite them than divide them. And yes, when presented with the top five issues of concern facing the U.S. in the international arena -- perhaps including among them Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Islamic fundamentalism, drug trafficking and nuclear proliferation -- Russia was a potentially valuable ally in all of them.

But the problem was that Russia had their own top five list, and Lavrov has long complained that if there was to be a partnership, it could not be one-sided. Russia's concerns had to matter as well. Yes, Russia was prepared to be an ally in the Global War on Terror, but the Russian list had to be on the table. And they had a different list. Chechnya. Georgia. NATO. Missile defense. Encirclement. Status.

Russia's list was fundamental to the continued integrity of the Russian nation. Russians may be paranoid, but the simple fact is that people are out to get them. U.S. official policy has been and continues to be one of encirclement, while many prominent voices go well beyond that -- most notably Carter-era National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski -- and argue that U.S. policy should be the dismemberment of the Russian state.

The dismemberment of the Russian state is not so far fetched. Before the fall of the Soviet empire, the Soviet Union claimed a population of nearly 300 million people. Today, Russia is a nation of just over 140 million, and it is shrinking rapidly. With low birth rates, high infant mortality, short life expectancy, and minimal immigration, by mid-century Russia's population is projected to decline by more than 20 percent, to approximately 110 million.

The prospect of Chechen independence -- and the demands for independence that would likely ensue from other minority groups should Chechnya succeed -- further threatened the future of Russia. This fear explained in large measure Russia's vociferous objection to NATO's declaration of independence for Kosovo, and Russia's steadfast claim that the international community can only grant nationhood through the legal powers granted to the United Nations.

Russia's intransigence in dealings with the United States is rooted in its defense of national self-interest. For several years, Putin and Medvedev have been intent in their actions in international affairs -- from supporting Iran to instigating the Ukrainian natural gas crisis -- to force the United States to deal with them and their issues.

U.S. actions over the past nine months indicate that U.S. policy has evolved, and that we may finally be paying attention. The nuance is the distinction between what we say and what we do. The Bush administration talked about partnership and an alignment of interests, but took every opportunity to dismiss Russian concerns on the ground.

Now, the process seems to have been inverted. Vice President Biden -- an early and vociferous backer of the Kosovo action that was so objectionable to Russia -- has emerged as the voice of American support for the process of democratization and continued support for Ukraine and Georgia.

But Putin and Medvedev are realists, less moved by words than action. At the same time as Biden was talking the talk, the administration was walking a different path. During the early months of the administration, Russia threatened U.S. resupply routes into Afghanistan, and U.S. access to a key air base in Kyrgyzstan. One can imagine at that moment that the administration looked down the road at the real threats that loomed, and took a hard look at the facts on the ground. One can imagine that at that moment, they weighed the real impact on the ability of the U.S. to pursue its strategic goals and determined that Russia was -- as Lavrov long suggested -- better to have as an ally than face as an obstacle and an adversary.

It really was never a question. After all, for all the rhetoric -- whether from Biden, Bush or Cheney -- about U.S. support for Georgia or a common defense of Ukraine -- neither we nor our European allies have had or likely would ever have the willingness to go to war with Russia in their Near Abroad. Our actions may have been designed to tweak them and continue the great game wherever possible, but never with the intention of real escalation.

One question this week has been how long ago did the U.S. learn of Iran's second enrichment facility. Was it many months ago, and were the strategic moves to bring ourselves closer to an effective alliance with Russia -- such as shifting our policy on strategic missile defense in Poland -- in preparation for this next phase of the confrontation with the Iranian regime? Or was it simply fortuitous that the steps had been taken, and the groundwork had been laid that would allow Russia and the U.S. to stand together against a common threat?

Perhaps it doesn't matter. But it does matter that our foreign policy may be built less on rhetoric, and more on our capacity to build effective alliances against real, and common, threats.