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Obama Buries the Reset

The “reset” policy with Russia that was one of the Obama administration’s signature endeavors in its first term came closer to death this week, as the United States pulled out of a key working group on civil society in Russia. The decision came after weeks of heightened tensions between the two countries, beginning with the passage of the Magnitsky Act last month. Since then, Russia has increased crackdowns on civil society groups at home, and inflamed tensions with the US by measures like the ban on American adoptions of Russian kids. The WSJ reports:

The move, though mainly symbolic, is the latest sign of a deepening chill in relations between Moscow and Washington that has taken hold sinceVladimir Putin returned to the presidency last year. While both sides insist publicly they want to continue cooperation, officials and analysts say Washington is likely to turn its focus away from an increasingly prickly and uncooperative Moscow.

Tensions have built steadily over the past year or so, particularly since Mr. Putin blamed Washington for supporting anti-Kremlin protests that started in December 2011 and became the largest public challenge in his 12-year rule. Moscow’s unwillingness to step up pressure on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad also has frustrated the U.S.

Like their predecessors in the Carter years, the Obama team has been torn between the demands of the international realpolitik they think America needs and the attachment to human rights they cannot live without. Maximizing cooperation with Russia on issues like the war in Syria and the Iranian nuclear issue demands that we shut up as Putin jails his opponents, cracks down on civil society and generally consolidates authoritarian rule as best he can. If we don’t pay Russia’s price on human rights, the Kremlin retaliates by making life as difficult for the United States as it conveniently can. That makes it harder for the Obama administration to achieve its goals in the Middle East without the use of force and with the blessing of the United Nations Security Council.

This is another version of the problem that the United States faced in the 1970s when the policy of detente with the Soviet Union led to what many people on both the left and the right considered an immoral tolerance for Soviet human rights abuses. For Carter, the struggle ended unhappily; he was unable to get another nuclear deal, the human rights situation in the Soviet Union and its satellites did not change, and the Cold War heated up when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.

Fortunately, Russia is a less important global player today from an American point of view and so the failure of a Russia policy isn’t as crippling as it was a generation ago. Nevertheless, the reset has failed, and we have lost the modest benefits that would come from a better relationship with Russia without being able to do anything effective about improving its policies on human rights.

One point to note here: the inability of the American human rights movement to think in strategic terms (turning a blind eye, for example to Russian abuses for a while might well create conditions more amenable to ending the slaughter in Syria) has yet again complicated the life of an administration which would like to reduce the risks of conflict without abandoning the cause of human rights. The human rights community, like many green organizations and like some other idealistic civil society agents in the United States, often operates more on instinct and emotion than on anything else. If civil society in the 21st century is going to avoid the dismal mistakes that so marred its record and undermined its authority in the 20th, it is going to vent less and think more.


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