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Letter to Democrats on U.S.-Russia Relationship

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The following is a brief for a new US-Russia relationship that I pitched to the new Democratic Congress, but also to a wider audience. This is a serious international relations problem that the Bush administration has exacerbated. This piece recently ran in the National Interest.

Dear Colleagues:

Subject: Russia

Of a rather long list of foreign policy issues requiring close attention, none seems more urgent than the United States' relation to Russia. Why this should be the case a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War is, in itself, something of a mystery.

At virtually any period between 1947 and the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, if any serious thinker had proposed that we could form a strategic relationship with Russia but should refuse to do so, he or she would have been considered misguided at best and slightly deranged at worst.

Yet, that is exactly what has happened. The mystery is this: what forces are at work to demonize Russia, to isolate and alienate it from the West, and to continue to treat it as an enemy?

Few would dispute that Russia has, particularly in recent years, behaved imperiously and autocratically, but almost always in internal affairs and in the "near abroad" or neighboring states. Under Vladimir Putin, re-centralization of power has taken place. Only history can determine, however, the degree to which this behavior has been in reaction to Western, especially United States, actions or whether, as some allege, it is a reflection of the Russian character. But few can also dispute that a chicken-egg syndrome exists: the more U.S. actions isolate the Russians, the more they seek to recapture their independent great power status.

In recent months two developments on the U.S. side stand out. First is the policy of the Bush administration, largely promoted by Vice-president Richard Cheney, to adopt a confrontational policy toward Russia. Second, more surprisingly, is an unreflective reaction among foreign policy elites, particularly in the case of an uncharacteristically reactive report by the Council on Foreign Relations ["Russia's Wrong Direction," March 2006], to endorse this policy. Both reflect a degree of antipathy toward the Russians that has never been fully accounted for or rationalized.

The Council on Foreign Relations report might have included an executive summary that read something like this: "The poor state of the U.S.-Russia relationship is entirely the fault of the Russians who refuse to conduct their domestic affairs as we insist they should. We should hold the Russians to a uniquely high standard, though we refuse to reveal the reasons for doing so."

A wide variety of Russian experts, including Stephen Cohen at New York University, Anatol Lieven at the New America Foundation, and Graham Allison at Harvard's Kennedy School, have challenged what they perceive to be a concerted effort to alienate Russia from the West. Vice President Cheney, among others, has advocated the use of an expanding NATO as an anti-Russian military alliance. He and others have also proposed overt support to domestic political opponents of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Still, no argument is given to justify this extraordinary animosity. If it is lingering nostalgia for the relative clarity of the Cold War, then it should be clearly stated. If it is a desire for a tangible nation-state opponent, in a world of stateless nation terrorism, then it should be set forth. The best the Council on Foreign Relations can do is to decry the various failures of the Russians to meet our liberal democratic standards applied, for some unexplained reasons, uniquely to the Russians.

Any objective observer would be astonished to know that the Jackson-Vanik amendment, a measure denying most-favored nation trading status (now called normal trade relations) to Russia as leverage to liberate dissidents and refuseniks in the depths of the Cold War confrontation in 1974, still represents official U.S. policy 15 years after the end of the Cold War. Its repeal would represent an excellent beginning point in putting U.S.-Russian relations on a more productive track.

This letter represents an appeal to Democrats, now constituting a Congressional majority, to challenge this antipathy and to propose a more positive, constructive relationship between the United States and Russia, less in Russia's interest than in the strategic interest of the United States. Resurgent neo-realist foreign policy principles require us to resist both evangelical division of the world between good and evil and, again for mysterious reasons, irrational condemnation of Russia to the evil category.

What interests, if any, do we have in common?, should be our first question. It turns out there are several. First, we have an ongoing interest in reducing nuclear arsenals. Thanks to the persistent efforts of Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, and despite resistance by the Bush administration, we continue to work with the Russians to carry out long-standing steps to dramatically reduce nuclear warheads and delivery systems on both sides. A serious argument as to how rejection of this project makes us safer has yet to be offered.

Second, we have a mutual interest in defeating terrorism. Those interests have caused the Russians to conduct prolonged military actions in Chechnya and the United States to conduct equally prolonged military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, there are differences in methodology, with the Russians using much more brutal means, but the residents of Grosny and of Falluja may not see that much difference. Though opposing our invasion of Iraq, the Russians fully endorsed our invasion of Afghanistan (where they themselves had a rather unpleasant experience). If we are not fully exploiting Russian intelligence networks in pursuit of this common interest, it is to our detriment.

Third, there is the matter of oil. The Russians have it and we need it. During the first Clinton term, I urged our government to negotiate long-term oil purchase agreements with the Russians to help reduce our dependence on dangerously unstable Persian Gulf sources. It is not too late to pursue that idea. The Russians need massive Western investment in oil production facilities and the United States and its European allies need predictable oil supplies. High level diplomatic and commercial engagement with the Russians can prevent destructive Russian tendencies to nationalize their oil production facilities. There is no reason that arrangements such as we have had with the Saudis for decades cannot be replicated in Russia. But this will only occur in the context of stable, friendly relations between our two nations.

Fourth, we have high technology and the Russians need high technology, particularly in the fields of telecommunications, health care, and industrial modernization. A decade of experience in modernization of Russia's telecommunication system convinces me of two things: 21st century communications technology is key to Russia's emerging economy, and Russian science, though inadequately equipped, has much to offer the West and global markets. Russia represents a huge potential market for U.S. technology companies--its health care system is still abysmal for most Russians--and U.S. companies require encouragement to explore those markets.

Fifth, Russia is neighbor to several Islamic states, former Soviet republics, and whether one subscribes to a Huntingtonian thesis of civilization clashes or merely civilization frictions, Russia occupies an unrivaled strategic position on the margins of a cultural divide. Further, it occupies a strategic position in Northeast Asia, particularly with regard to North Korea and China. Russia allied with the West and sharing a common international agenda can only be in our interest.

As the noted Russian expert Dimitri Simes has repeatedly pointed out, its geo-strategic location places Russia in a unique position to exert influence on critical matters such as Iran's nuclear ambitions. According to Professor Simes, "exactly like the United States, Russians wonder what will be the immediate purpose of the Iranian nuclear enrichment program."

The list above is merely illustrative of the common interests the U.S. and Russia share. Several principles might be evoked to produce a constructive bi-lateral relationship. Our relationship should be based upon mutual self-interest, not altruism. We do not develop a working relationship as a favor to the Russians but as an advantage to ourselves. Russia is by history and culture a Western nation and should be integrated into the West. The U.S. and Russia share security interests and concerns. We are a market for Russia's natural resources and Russia is a market for our technology. An isolated, anti-democratic Russia increases our insecurity. Russia's development as a market democracy will best be achieved by engagement not rejection.

Except in recent years when American foreign policy assumed a theological aura, we have consistently sought self-interested relations with nations with whom we did not always agree. The late Jean Kirkpatrick is notable for having distinguished between authoritarian states, with whom we could collaborate regardless of their undemocratic natures, and totalitarian states with whom we could have nothing to do. Even today, in the era of a foreign policy based on good and evil, we maintain productive relations with highly authoritarian states (including former Soviet republic) that are guilty of no more undemocratic behavior than Russia.

We have seldom if ever demanded absolute conformity with strict standards of behavior as the price for bilateral relationships. Yet that seems to be exactly what the Bush administration and the Council on Foreign Relations report presume. Once again, why this is peculiarly the case with Russia remains a mystery never fully explained.

To expect Russian subservience to any foreign power, and particularly its chief Cold war rival the United States, is seriously to misunderstand Russian history, culture, and the Russian character. At few points in U.S. history, prior to the end of the Cold War, have we adopted the kind of imperious attitude toward other nations that has characterized our international relations in the 21st century. This arrogance of power has not coincidentally arrived at the same time as a form of neo-imperialistic project that has overtaken our foreign policy.

Few nations rival the Russians in the category of nationalist sentiment. Though younger Russians, or at least those with income, are internationalist and cosmopolitan, outside Moscow and among older generations "Mother Russia" is still a palpable phenomenon. Dictation of domestic behavior and performance, especially by the triumphant United States, is a sure prescription for popular resistance. In most cases, the issue is not what is preferable, best, and right but who is dictating it. U.S. policy makers, including incumbent Democratic Congressional majorities, must resist the temptation to reduce the Russians to school children whom we are called upon to instruct.

The new realities of the 21st century require us to seek all the help we can get. These realities include: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; jihadi terrorism; failed and failing states; tribalism, ethnic nationalism, and religious fundamentalism; the decline of nation-state sovereignty; integrating markets; climate change; and the threat of pandemics. These realities share two characteristics: they cannot be addressed by military means alone, and they cannot be resolved by one nation alone, including the world's only superpower. We are going to need all the help we can get. We do not have the luxury of dismissing other nations who share these concerns and who have the potential to add value to our efforts to resolve these challenges.

It is not in America's national interest, and particularly its security interests, to go it alone or to rely on ad-hoc "coalitions of the willing" composed of minor powers at best and rallied only in extremis.

As co-chair of the United States Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, my fellow commissioners and I agreed unanimously that we focus particular attention on three regional powers as critical to future world stability. These were China, India, and Russia. We urged the new Bush administration in early 2001 as well as subsequent administrations to expand ties to these nations, to increase their positive contributions to regional stability, and to encourage them to undertake economic and political leadership in their own venues. No systematic effort has been made to implement these recommendations. Indeed, in the case of Russia exactly the opposite has occurred.

In a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, "A Nuclear-Free World," George Shultz (former Secretary of State), Brent Scowcroft (former National Security Advisor), Henry Kissinger (former Secretary of State), and Sam Nunn (former Senator) advocate an ambitious agenda to achieve the goal of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPF) to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. It is impossible to envision this agenda being achieved absent Russian cooperation. Russia will cooperate in this and similar ventures if they prove to be in Russia's own interest. But it is much easier for the United States to engage the Russians, or any other key player, if relations are positive and productive. Those in power must be required to acknowledge a fundamental human truth: it is much easier to achieve cooperation if a basis of understanding and collaboration already exists.

Congress does not make foreign policy. The Congressional party, particularly in opposition, is hamstrung if shut out by the Executive branch from offering advice and consent. But Congress can use its unique parliamentary platform to educate the American people on the importance of a constructive and engaged relationship with Russia. That is what I advocate here.

To the degree it is in our interest to do so, Administration officials should be encouraged to develop a positive U.S.-Russian relationship or, if they refuse to concur, to defend in the public arena their justification for not doing so. In recent years this has not happened. It is not too late for the 110th Congress to undertake this project.

The United States does not have the luxury of creating unnecessary conflicts. We have enough to deal with as it is. It is patently not in our interest to demonize and isolate Russia and it is patently in our interest to integrate it into the West.

Gary Hart

Kittredge, Colorado

January 2007

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