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U.S.-Russia Relations — Noblesse Oblige

Are U.S.-Russia relations still mainly shaped by a Cold War mindset?

September 28, 2003

Are U.S.-Russia relations still mainly shaped by a Cold War mindset?

After 9/11, a happy new world seemed to be emerging in U.S.-Russian relations: America’s tactical need to see Russia as a natural ally against the Taliban corresponded almost identically with President Putin’s need to look westward in order to free Russia from its cold war past. On the backbone of that calculation, a new relationship should have been born.

Now, partly due to time pressures which gave the Bush Administration time to deal with only the most pressing issues.

Partly out of a belief that the United States is the single superpower in the world (and that, by definition, gives us Americans the right to view the world only through our own lens) — and partly because U.S. foreign policy is still managed by a generation that cannot free itself from cold war fears — the Bush Administration’s attitude towards the Russian Federation appears to be quickly descending into the realm of noblesse oblige.

Pragmatic policy options have been ignored. What has arisen in its place is at best a policy of benign neglect — and at worst disdain. The list over the last two years — not complete by any means — of sensitivities disregarded and possibilities overlooked by the Bush Administration in its dealings with the Russia Federation may be fateful.

There is the Jackson-Vanik amendment, that cold-war relic which bars normal trade with communist countries who forbid free emigration. Even though Russia is no longer communist and has allowed free immigration for years, this law still applies to Russia.

Although the amendment now has little practical impact, it is a symbol to the Russians of how the United States will not let the past go.

In November of 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush pledged to President Putin to “graduate” Russia from this 1974 trade restriction, as a reward for Russia’s support in Afghanistan. Of course, for Mr. Bush to accomplish would require his willingness to expend some of his valuable political capital in Congress. This is a route he has so far chosen not to take.

Then there is the issue of Russia’s aid in fighting the Taliban. Russia gave its consent for a U.S. military presence in it “backyard” in Central Asia, believing in some respect that this would be a temporary presence. It is not.

The Russians also thought that U.S. troops could help prevent terrorist links into Russia. They have not.

And most destructively, the U.S. war against the Taliban war has caused a tidal wave of drugs to flow into Russia from Afghanistan where poppy growing is a major cash crop of the Afghanistan war lords. This is a problem that Mr. Putin warned against during his last trip to Washington in November of 2001.

And then there is the issue of containment. By all logic, George Kennan’s famous strategy — formulated to deal with the Soviet Union — should have come to a successful end quite some time ago. Instead it continues, maybe not in America’s mind – but definitely in Russia’s perception.

For example, there is the growing U.S. presence in Georgia. Publicly there are only 200 U.S. soldiers there — plus intelligence people.

Furthermore, there is the announced transfer of U.S. troops from Germany closer to the borders of Russia — to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Poland.

Least comprehensible is the lack of aggressive action from the Bush Administration with regard to Russia’s weapons of mass destruction. There is a huge and real security problem with Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

In order to help secure these weapons, the U.S. Congress established the Nunn-Lugar program in 1991. Strangely, in a manner similar to Jackson-Vanik, the Bush Administration has chosen not to use its political capital in Congress to obtain full funding for the Nunn-Lugar program.

The Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program had been designed to provide assistance for dismantling — or safely storing — the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union which were now in the hands of the newly established countries Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

In many ways, it is as if the Bush Administration believes that our once prime antagonist has simply transformed itself into a semi-irrelevant nation. Of course, if this were possible, we would also need to believe that the 45-year struggle of the Cold War was a historic mistake.

The 20th century has taught us otherwise. Great powers in defeat do not disappear. They eventually resume their positions either benignly — or maliciously — depending upon how they are treated in their defeat.