Editors’ note: What follows is the fifth part of an exchange on Russian-Western relations following from David Kramer and Lilia Shevtsova’s monthly column at The American Interest Online (see especially their February 21 essay, “Here We Go Again: Falling for the Russia Trap“). On March 12, Thomas Graham responded with his essay, “In Defense of a Strategic Approach to Russia.” On March 29, Andrew Wood joined the conversation with “Russian and Western Views of National Interests.” On April 4, David Kramer replied to Graham with “The Debate Is On.” Further contributions are forthcoming.I am pleased that David Kramer and I have managed to attract our opponents to discussing Russia and U.S. policies with respect to it. I am even more pleased that Thomas Graham, whom I consider one of the most subtle and thoughtful Western analysts of Russia, responded to our article. Paradoxically, Graham’s response, entitled “In Defense of a Strategic Approach to Russia”, as well as his other thoughts on Russia, provide additional arguments in support of our position. We can only thank Graham for helping us to justify our views. Essentially, Graham’s essay is a manifesto for a foreign policy school of thought that we will call, using his term, the “American strategists.” The “strategists” determined Washington’s policy toward Russia during President Obama’s first term and will most likely continue to do into his second term. It is important to enumerate the ideas held by this school, since they reflect the way a large segment of the American political establishment looks at foreign policy. First, Graham’s main argument: that U.S. Russia policy should demonstrate “hard-nosed, consistent commitment to American interests.” One cannot agree more with this. Indeed Russia’s policy toward the United States should also be based on commitment to Russian interests. I will not argue with Graham’s definition of American interests. It is not a topic for a Russian citizen to opine on. But Graham somehow forgot to define American interests with respect to the outside world, apparently believing that these interests are clear enough on their own. Well, not to me. I would like to know to what extent the United States is committed to the preservation of the current world order and its post-World War II institutional architecture. I would like to know to what extent the United States is willing to support its reform. I would like to know whether Graham believes that continued support of the current model of liberal democracy is in America’s interests. Or, perhaps, he, like several authors of The American Interest and other critics of this model, thinks it should be revised. Graham does not discuss these issues. Having promised to clarify “America’s long-term national interests”, he immediately proceeds to define the mechanism of Russian-American relations: “the strategists’ ultimate goal is not cooperation for the sake of cooperation, but the creation of the balance of cooperation, competition and indifference that best advances American interests.” But what these interests are remains unclear. What if they contradict Russian interests so much that any sustainable cooperation between the two countries is impossible? Actually, later in his essay Graham discusses the challenges the United States faces on the global stage: “Maintaining strategic stability; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; combating international terrorism;” and so forth. But he says nothing of the need to rethink the fundamental principles of global politics. Thus, we can conclude that the author believes that preserving the global status quo and the current model of liberal democracy should be America’s main goals. But if indeed this is the case, then the United States cannot claim to be a world leader. After all, being a leader means supporting progress and renewal, not fighting a rearguard action to preserve an antiquated status quo. If this is indeed what he means, then let us reconcile ourselves with this conclusion and stop expecting the United States to offer us something it cannot offer. Graham’s next argument elaborates on his pragmatic approach to the American agenda. The author mentions “linkage”, which is “an inescapable component of U.S.-Russian relations.” He assures us that by this word he does not mean a crude quid pro quo—for instance, “sacrificing Georgia to Russia in exchange for its support on Iran.” But if not that, then what is “linkage” supposed to mean? It turns out it means “creating the atmosphere and shaping expectations to persuade Russia to act in ways that advance our goals.” In other words, Graham tells us that the United States does not necessarily have to sacrifice Georgia to Russia; it can simply pretend that it is doing so, and if Russia believes this (or plays along) it will in turn support the United States on Iran. Well, this is politics, I suppose, and unfortunately politics and Machiavellian tactics go hand in hand. However, what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander; Moscow will also seek to “shape expectations.” And the Kremlin is a much smoother operator when it comes to shaping expectations and disorienting its partners. This skill was on full display during the “reset” period, and during Medvedev’s presidency, both of which periods frustrated quite a few expectations in Washington. A reader might retort here that a strategic agenda cannot consist of hot air and games of “let’s pretend.” There has to be some “there” there—namely, at least a partial convergence of interests. What does Graham think about this convergence of interests? In his 2009 report for The Century Foundation, “Resurgent Russia and U.S. Purposes”, Graham wrote that U.S.-Russian cooperation “will have to be built on shared interests and shared threats.” He subscribes to a different opinion today: The strategist . . . treats talk of shared interests as the basis for cooperation with skepticism. A close examination of any alleged shared interest reveals significant differences in assessments of the problem and saliencies for national interests that create obstacles for effective cooperation. Graham then goes on to cite specific examples proving how much Washington’s and Moscow’s interests truly differ in what are considered their traditional spheres of “shared interests.” Given that Graham acknowledges differences in the “supposedly shared interests” of the two parties, how does he envision his strategic framework? Does he still advocate continuing President Obama’s transactional approach and the “mutual give-and-take” policy he called for in his 2009 report? Not that long ago, Graham might have still believed that the transactional approach was possible. In early 2012, in interviews with ITAR-TASS, Business Gazeta and Voice of America, he talked about “a very positive evolution” of the Russian political system and “the dialogue between the government and the opposition.” He stressed that “the system will evolve toward greater openness, pluralism and effectiveness.” Using this definition of evolution, Graham claimed that “there are no insurmountable obstacles to reaching a common strategic understanding and a common goal.” However, by the time of his March-April 2012 article in The American Interest (“Putin, the Sequel”), he was forced to acknowledge that “Putin’s return will steadily lay bare the limits of the transactional approach to U.S.-Russia relations. . . . The problem is that the easy trade-offs have already been made. . . . Compromise will thus grow elusive, particularly in the absence of trust, and Putin’s return will strain whatever trust has been restored over the past few years.” I will quote Graham’s conclusion (which I completely agree with): “Putin’s return exacerbates the situation, for he symbolizes the stark differences in values, interests and outlook that still divide Russia and the United States . . . .” How is it, then, that the “strategists” hope for a successful strategic partnership with the Kremlin when they (as represented by Graham, at least) acknowledge that they have “to treat talk of shared interests . . . with skepticism” and admit that there are limited opportunities for tradeoffs? Can they really be relying only on America’s capacity for “shaping expectations”? I understand why Graham and other “strategists” may feel apprehensive about another approach—namely, incorporating the normative dimension into U.S. foreign policy. Their fears stem from the belief that, as Graham admits, it is hard to understand Russia, and that one cannot help to reform a system that one does not understand well. The strategists also “remember” the West’s failure to promote democracy in Russia in the 1990s. But let me correct that particular recollection: The United States and the West did not actually promote democracy in Russia in the 1990s; they supported a Yeltsin regime that had nothing in common with democracy. It is as if, in an attempt to justify their rejection of a normative dimension for foreign policy, the strategists are attempting to rewrite history. Graham is fond of quoting George Kennan. This time he quotes Kennan’s Spring 1951 Foreign Affairs essay: “The ways by which people advance toward dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign interference can do less good.” Even today these words remain as shrewd and thoughtful as they were more than a half-century ago. A lot of Kennan’s conclusions from that era could be still applied to contemporary Russia. However, it is perplexing that all these decades after Kennan uttered these words, American political analysts still admit that they cannot understand Russia even as they attempt to to engage in “strategic dialogue” with it. I would have thought that understanding would precede “strategic dialogue,” not the other way around. However, as for Kennan’s advice “not to interfere”, I am on the same page with Graham. I believe that the old “democracy promotion” formula has long since exhausted itself and become counterproductive. The normative dimension that I advocate entails merely that the West should practice the norms that it preaches. It is of course desirable that the West creates a foreign policy context that will facilitate Russia’s transition to freedom. If the West is not ready for this challenge, there is at least one thing that we Russian liberals expect from it: Don’t stand in the way of our struggle, and don’t legitimate the corrupt Russian regime! The strategists want the West to return to the old ways of exerting influence: exchange programs, business contacts and other “people-to people” initiatives. No one objects to these exchanges. Of course, we should foster them. But at the same time, it must be pointed out that these types of initiatives smack of the U.S.-Soviet dialogue from the 1970s and 1980s. Allow me to quote Kennan this time. Reflecting on “cultural collaboration” between the two states, Kennan warned, “Actual manifestations of Soviet policy in this respect will be restricted to arid channels of closely shepherded official visits and functions, with superabundance of vodka and speeches and dearth of permanent effects”. By trying to isolate Russian civil society from its ties to the outside world and, most of all, from America, the Kremlin is returning to precisely the formula of exchange Kennan was describing in the “Long Telegram.” We need to understand why this type of dialogue did not stem the growing tide of anti-Americanism in Russian society—and why President Obama’s policies, which included all of the strategists’ recommendations, resulted in a sharp deterioration of the Russian-American relations. How could this have happened if the administration follow the strategists’ and Kennan’s advice to a tee? A few other remarks by Graham are worth addressing since one often hears Western analysts repeat them. He advises the strategists to avoid supporting “marginal” Russian opposition figures. I would answer that the Russian opposition needs no help from the strategists, who at any rate are busy playing the Kremlin’s games. Graham is also concerned that more and more Russians “are wary of being branded American agents or linked to marginal forces and failed leaders.” Here the situation is more complex. On the one hand, Graham is right; there are many such people in today’s Russia. On the other hand, he should also be concerned about an even faster-growing segment of Russian society. These people are unhappy with the current regime, and they are critical of the West (primarily the United States), believing that the West has become just another cog in the Kremlin’s corruption machine. Graham should be worried that the Western-oriented segment of Russian society has shifted to criticizing the United States. As for the Magnitsky Act, Graham’s opposition to it is in line with the arguments put forward by the Kremlin’s propagandists. The Act does not in any way “send Russians the wrong message about rule of law.” Quite the contrary; the Russians who are familiar with it believe that the United States has finally demonstrated that it cares about the rule of law. As for the argument that “Russians will be tempted to use this Act as a way of gaining a competitive advantage over their commercial rivals”, here in Russia we are more preoccupied with how Russian and American companies exploit their proximity to the Kremlin to advance their interests. We are outraged by the fact that the deal between Rosneft and Exxon Mobil (brokered by some influential intermediaries) effectively legitimized Rosneft’s theft of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s assets. But Thomas Graham knows all of this better that I do. On the whole, the Magnitsky Act will help rehabilitate American society by creating barriers to the Kremlin’s export of corruption. America needs this Act more than Russia does! In conclusion, Graham calls for “high level strategic dialogue to determine whether there are solid grounds for long-term cooperation.” But should I spend more breath restating the obvious? This dialogue is doomed to end the same way all the prior ones did. Who needs a “strategic dialogue” that is based on imitation strategy? Perhaps it’s needed for the experts and politicians in both countries who cannot function in the new paradigm and rely on such Potemkin village dialogues for financial assistance and job security. David Kramer and I do not urge Washington to stop cooperating with Moscow. We are merely trying to prove that tactical dialogue should not be called “strategic.” We understand that introducing normative dimension into the U.S. relationship with the Kremlin will complicate things. But things were always going to be complicated anyway. By returning the normative dimension, on the other hand, the United States would regain the trust and respect of Russia’s pro-Western constituency. It would be foolish, moreover, to believe that Russia is suicidal, that it would return to the Cold War as soon as the West stops cajoling it. The Kremlin elite thinks pragmatically. It doesn’t want to turn Russia into another North Korea. After all, they now have their beachfront condos in Miami to worry about! Graham concludes that strategic dialogue may fail. However, he comforts his American audience by saying that “that outcome would not be a tragedy—as long as it advanced American interests.” We should thank Graham for his candor; this is definitely better than illusion or misdirection. But I will be blunt: The Kremlin will hardly settle for being an instrument for advancing American interests. And Russia’s pro-Western segment will surely oppose Russia’s assuming this role. Indeed one expects they will do everything in their power to avoid it. A final thought: Why is it still impossible for American analysts to envision a foreign policy that takes into account American interests but that is also respectful, understanding and sensitive to Russian society, which is undergoing a painstaking search for a way out of its present conundrum? American “strategists” should always remember that the Russia that they want to have strategic dialogue with is not Russia as a whole, but the Kremlin’s Russia.
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Published on: April 5, 2013A Realist’s Response to an Idealist