Editors’ note: What follows is the eighth 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“). The exchange, a complete listing of which may be found below, has also provoked a lively debate in the Russian Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal.When I wrote my response to Kramer and Shevtsova in this debate on U.S. policy toward Russia I did not expect a chorus of support. I have not been disappointed. Four subsequent essays – by Wood, Kramer, Shevtsova, and Vogel—have raised a number of important counterpoints that merit responses. Let me begin with Wood’s thoughtful essay. I find myself in agreement on many points. Russia no longer lies at the center of American foreign policy, nor should it. More often than not, the United States deals with Russia in a multilateral context, in which Russia is not necessarily the primary actor—even the strategic nuclear equation is no longer the strictly bilateral matter it was during the Cold War and the immediate post-Cold War period. The United States should not acquiesce in Russia’s demand for a droit de regard or sphere of influence in the former Soviet space, where the United States also has interests. The United States should not buy into Russia’s view of itself or the nature of the international system, but it needs to take those perceptions into account as it formulates its Russia policy. The United States should not shy away from defending and promoting its values (although Wood and I might differ on the best way to do that). At the same time, I would add, Russia remains a key country for the United States on a range of security, regional, and economic issues. On some issues—notably those concerning weapons of mass destruction—U.S.-Russian leadership can be critical to galvanizing international action. Russia does have legitimate security issues in the former Soviet space, which we need to respect, although at times we will oppose the way in which it defends those interests. Overall, our task is to fashion a Russia policy that advances U.S. interests in an open, liberal international system and promotes security and prosperity for increasing numbers of people around the globe. As we fashion policy, Wood is right that the United States should not see Russia as a strategic competitor. But his view that Americans do not is at odds with my experience in the U.S. government since the Soviet Union’s demise. A substantial number of my colleagues, and perhaps a solid majority in the George W. Bush Administration, were vigorously competing with Russia for influence in Europe and the former Soviet space. They supported multiple pipelines out of the Caspian Basin as a way of eroding Russia’s influence. They pressed for the construction of the commercially non-viable Nabucco pipeline to blunt Russia’s use of energy as a geopolitical weapon in Eastern Europe. They pushed back against what they saw as a determined Russian effort to undermine American influence in Central Asia. And in the most visible case of all, the Bush Administration pressed for Ukraine’s and Georgia’s membership in NATO against Russia’s vehement opposition—and it insisted Russia did not have a veto over NATO decisions, until Russia demonstrated that it did: see the Russia-Georgia War, 2008. We can debate whether these and similar policies were wise or not, but they were consciously pursued in competition with Russia (at least in internal discussions, even if they were defended in public as the consequence of market choices or deference to the legitimate choices of democratically elected governments). This view of Russia as a competitor has been more deeply entrenched at the middle levels of the U.S. bureaucracy than at the highest. Neither the Presidents nor their most senior advisers in the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations have seen Russia as a serious competitor—even if many have thought ill of Russia. For them, Russia is a declining power, and once the ardor for reform died away in the later stages of the Clinton administration senior officials have not been inclined to spend much time thinking or worrying about the country. Flip through the memoirs of any senior Bush Administration official to see how little space is devoted to Russia. Theirs has been no more than a soft competition with Russia. While setting the broad principles guiding U.S. policy toward Russia, senior officials have delegated the interpretation and implementation of policy to lower levels, where the view of Russia as a competitor has been widespread and more passionately held. The gap between high-level statements expressing a desire for cooperation and on-the-ground, dead-serious competition has had a pernicious impact on the overall relationship, playing into Russian leaders’ paranoia and leading them to believe senior U.S. officials are duplicitous: Certainly the President could keep discipline in the American national security apparatus, if he wanted to. Alas, he could not—or would not—on a matter that was evidently not near the top of his concerns. As for a central issue in this debate in The American Interest, U.S. policy toward Russia’s domestic policies, specifically the attitude toward Putin’s current crackdown, I find Wood inconsistent. On the one hand, he implies that the United States has little influence on what happens in Russia. In any event, he writes that Putin’s crackdown is “internally generated, not a response to outside pressure, American pressure least of all.” On the other hand, he notes that “what we say and do matters in Russia.” Which is it? I would say that it is the latter and that our words and actions, while hardly the primary reason, have played at least a small role in reinforcing Putin’s authoritarian inclinations. The Kremlin did not have to be paranoid to be at least somewhat suspicious of what the triumphalism in Washington over the “color revolutions” portended for its goals. The Magnitsky Act raises similar concerns, and it has already inclined the Kremlin to deal more harshly with the systemic opposition. If our goal is to advance the cause of democracy in Russia, then we must take care that our actions do not in fact limit the space for its progress. Here Heinrich Vogel’s admonition that Russia’s leaders “will not surrender to moral suasion” and that “tough talk and ‘push-back’ … can be counterproductive” is right on the mark. Vogel also makes a number of salient points about the challenges to democratic reform in Russia today and about America’s deficiencies as a moral leader. But he seems to despair that little of positive impact can be done, given the current state of the West, Russia, and the world in general. For that reason, it is understandably difficult to discern a policy in his ruminations. Reforming Russia is going to take “a lot of tedious and often frustrating work”, he notes. To be sure—but that does not provide much guidance to policymakers. Finally, Moscow will find less than persuasive his claim that the strongest argument in response to its apprehensions of “indecent foreign intentions” is “the globally proven evidence that only compliance with international standards and rules of behavior will generate economic growth and political stability at home, trust of partners abroad, and world-wide reputation as a great nation.” The Chinese, among others, are making a good effort to prove Vogel wrong, and the Russians do pay some attention to what the Chinese are up to. While Vogel does not offer a policy prescription of his own, he finds my reasoning about national interests “academic”, “way above the battlegrounds of politics”, and of little interest to politicians. My call for a “balance of cooperation, competition and indifference” pursued through a “balance of trade-offs, incentives and disincentives” is in his view “too elegant to be practical.” I cannot speak to Germany, but in the United States, while politicians may influence it, policy is made in the Executive Branch, where the national security apparatus is dominated by professionals somewhat removed from the day-to-day political whirlwind. In this environment my formula is not academic; it is the way the process is supposed to work and, more often than not, in fact does work. During my two decades of government service, officials did weigh incentives and disincentives, consider alternative outcomes and seek to balance their policies on specific issues with their broader goals. Obama’s reset is an apt, recent example. Deliberate steps on missile defense, the former Soviet space and other matters were meant to induce Russia to help the United States advance its goals on nuclear weapons reductions, Iran and Afghanistan. For the first two years, the reset was a success. That it must now be re-thought does not mean it did not emerge from a sober deliberative process. The world is complex; policymaking is hard. Course corrections are not necessarily signs of error or failure; they can be evidence of wisdom in dealing with changed circumstances. Finally, Kramer and Shevtsova. The term “strategic dialogue” was apparently something of a red flag, if unintended, for both of them. Instead of responding to their specific points, let me offer a framework for thinking about Russia today. The starting point is the current state of the world, which has entered a period of historic flux of uncertain duration that will last until a new global equilibrium emerges. The global distribution of power is shifting; the elements of power are changing; technological advance is remaking the environment. Those developments have far-reaching implications for both Russia’s domestic structure and U.S.-Russian relations. With regard to domestic structure, Shevtsova calls Putin’s Russia autocratic, and I take her to mean “autocratic” within the Russian tradition. Historically, Russian autocracy has been a monocentric, highly personalized system, in which informal networks take precedence over the formal institutions of rule, power and property are inextricably intertwined, and a narrow elite extracts resources from the rest of the population to advance its own, or the state’s, interests. To be sure, there are vast differences between Putin’s and, say, Peter the Great’s Russia, but the system has managed to adapt itself to changing socio-economic circumstances—and survived a revolution or two—without altering its essence. Moreover, from the standpoint of the state, it has been a remarkably successful system, allowing Russia to play a large role on the world stage although for most of history Russia has been poor, poorly administered, and technologically backward by European standards. That Russia continues to punch above its weight today is evidence that the system has not yet exhausted itself. The question is whether this period of historic change now puts the system qua system at grave risk. It faces two formidable challenges. First, economic globalization requires that Russia be more integrated by an order of magnitude into the global economic system than it has been historically if it is to compete successfully. That in turn requires that Russia adapt itself to the norms that govern the global economy, which are largely set by the West. These norms include the rule of law and respect for private property and the sanctity of contracts. Second, economic competition today now puts a premium on the quality of a country’s human capital. The system must pay much greater attention—again, by an order of magnitude—to the welfare of the Russian population. It could squeeze the peasantry in a headlong rush to industrialize in the late 19th century or under Stalin. It could coerce workers, within limits, to produce more after it had industrialized. But can it squeeze or coerce people to innovate, or will it find that it has to cajole and entice them? In this light, the important question is not whether Putin will stay on in 2018, but whether the system can adapt to these new circumstances without changing in essence. The United States would like to see a change in essence. To that end, it should amplify the pressure for such change by, for example, drawing Russia deeper into the globalized economy, ensuring as free an international flow of information as possible, and pressing the frontiers of technological advance. We also urgently need to fix our own society to provide a model of success for emulation. But we should leave to Russians the management of the internal politics of this change. It is, after all, their country. And why shouldn’t those who believe in democracy have some confidence that in the end the Russians will make the right choices, without mentoring and interference from the West? With regard to U.S.-Russian relations writ large, this period of historic flux challenges both the United States and Russia to reconsider their roles in the world. Each country faces what is for it a novel situation. This is the first time since the United States emerged as a great power more than a century ago that it faces a world that is multipolar and globalized. The past approaches to foreign affairs are no longer appropriate. The isolationism of the first half of the last century is untenable in our interconnected world. The organization of our policy around a single grave existential threat, our practice from the Second World War onward, is impossible in an increasingly multipolar world in which few countries are wholly friend or foe. The United States will have to take a more subtle and nuanced approach. It will have to work more closely with a broader range of powers to build stable structures of security and economic prosperity around the globe. As for Russia, this is the first time since it emerged as a great power 300 years ago that it finds itself surrounded by states and regions that are more dynamic than it is, economically, demographically and geopolitically. It is no longer the dynamic core of Eurasia radiating power outward; rather, Europe and East Asia act as poles of attraction for the former Soviet space, including Russia itself, and various countries and non-state movements are projecting power into the very center of Eurasia. If it wants to restore the traditional flow of power outward, Moscow’s primary challenge is to restore its dynamism. These challenges, clearly visible now but not a decade ago, call for a renewed effort at strategic dialogue. Each country needs to consider how current trends—and the world likely to result a decade or more hence—will impact on its national interests. Each needs to consider what role the other country might play in meeting upcoming challenges or expanding opportunities. Why not do at least a bit of this reassessment together? A strategic dialogue, one that looks to the long-term, could help break down stereotypical thinking so obvious in much of the discussion about U.S.-Russian relations in both countries. It could lead each country to see the other in a different, more positive light. Whether it would lead to more enduring constructive relations is an open question, but what do we have to lose by making the effort? Previous Essays: “In Defense of a Strategic Approach to Russia“, Thomas Graham (March 12) “Russian and Western Views of National Interests”, Andrew Wood (March 29) “The Debate Is On“, David Kramer (April 4) “A Realist’s Response to an Idealist”, Lilia Shevtsova (April 5) “Relations with Russia and the Pursuit of Greatness”, Heinrich Vogel (April 18) “The Values Trap”, Nicolai N. Petro (May 10, 2013)
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Published on: May 21, 2013A Response to the Critics