During the past several months, David Kramer, president of Freedom House, and Lilia Shevtsova, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, have written a series of sharp criticisms of the Obama administration’s Russia policy and outside experts who advocate a strategic approach toward Russia, as opposed to their preferred normative one. Their latest missive recently appeared on this website. A reasoned response is long past due.
Their critique boils down to the following: Whenever U.S.-Russian relations deteriorate, the strategists implore the American administration to avoid subjects that irritate the Kremlin and to seek cooperation on “big” issues. They call on the United States to change its policies but eschew making similar demands on Russia, implying that the fault for worsening relations lies in Washington. In the process, the strategists legitimate Russia’s authoritarian, corrupt regime and erode Russians’ support for a more open, democratic order. What Kramer and Shevtsova call for instead is a “normative” approach anchored in principles and values that avoids appearances of appeasing authoritarian Russian leaders and allegedly bolsters Russian society in its desire for a more democratic polity.
That critique is a poor caricature of a true strategic approach. It fails to grasp that approach’s rigor and complexity and the strategist’s hard-nosed, consistent commitment to American interests.
How in fact does the strategist approach the formulation of policy toward Russia?
He starts with a clear articulation of America’s long-term national interests, which provides the parameters for the formulation of policy. He asks how important Russia is to the achievement of each of our interests (indispensable, important, or negligible?), either because of the contribution it can make or because of the obstacles it can erect. He seeks to understand how Russia defines its own interests and priorities and why. Given the degree of Russia’s importance and interests, he then considers what the United States could reasonably do to give Russia incentives to help advance America’s goals or to reduce the obstacles to their advancement. Obviously, he puts most effort into gaining Russia’s cooperation where that is indispensable to our success, and he gives much thought to what we can do to help Russia advance its top priorities to the extent that they do not jeopardize the achievement of our strategic interests. Where it proves impossible to gain Russia’s cooperation, he looks for effective ways of circumventing the obstacles it can erect.
Contrary to Kramer’s and Shevtsova’s insinuations, the strategist’s 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. There is no prima facie reason that the balance has to be tilted in favor of cooperation. It is quite possible that at times America’s interests are best served by a competitive relationship. That was certainly the case during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was our main strategic rival. It may turn out to be the case in the present period of global turbulence, although that seems less likely. For the nature of the challenges we face in an increasingly globalized and multipolar world—maintaining strategic stability; preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction; combating international terrorism; managing (if not resolving) regional conflicts, particularly in the Middle East and Asia; guaranteeing energy security; countering piracy on the high seas; containing pandemic diseases; and so on—would suggest that cooperation with Russia, given its location, nuclear arsenal, natural resources, and human capital, would bring greater benefits than competition. Those two factors—our challenges and Russia’s potential—are also the reason we cannot ignore Russia, even if the intensity of engagement overall and on specific matters varies depending on circumstances.
The balance we strike with Russia will grow out of a complex set of trade-offs, coupled with a mix of incentives and disincentives, within and across the issues on which we engage Russia, either because we want to or because world events or Russia itself force the issues onto the agenda. As much as Washington would like to pursue issues in isolation “on their own merits” and more often than not believes that it does, everything is linked, particularly for Russian leaders. “Linkage” is an inescapable component of U.S.-Russian relations. This linkage need not be explicit, and it certainly does not entail crude quid pro quos (for example, sacrificing Georgia to Russia in exchange for its support on Iran). Rather, it is a matter of creating the atmosphere and shaping expectations to persuade Russia to act in ways that advance our goals.
The only question is whether the linkage is positive (we promise or threaten something to get something else from Russia) or negative (we refrain from or stop doing something to get something else). The negative form figured prominently in the first years of the “reset”, even if the Obama administration denied that in public. In effect, the administration made a conscious decision to downgrade relations with the former Soviet space, especially Ukraine and Georgia, and to temper public criticism of the Kremlin’s domestic politics to gain Russian support for the new START, UN sanctions against Iran, and the northern distribution route into Afghanistan. There were some positive forms of linkage as well, such as active support for Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Whether this set of linkages was appropriate is a matter of great debate, but the strategist would settle the question on the basis of a simple cost/benefit analysis. (And on that basis I believe it was appropriate.)
Many in Washington have a visceral reaction to trade-offs, arguing that they represent unwarranted compromises of principle or appeasement of bad actors. They advocate cooperating only on shared interests (which presumably do not require compromises) and managing the issues on which we disagree. (The Bush administration’s more militant locution for that policy was “cooperate where we can, push back where we must”). The strategist, however, treats talk of shared interests as a basis for cooperation with skepticism. A close examination of any alleged shared interest reveals significant differences in assessments of the problem and saliences for national interests that create obstacles to effective cooperation.
Take Iran. The United States and Russia may both want to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, but what is a first-order priority for the United States ranks much lower for Russia. Moreover, we see different Irans. The United States sees an Iran that destabilizes the Middle East, supports international terrorism, and brutally oppresses its own people, whereas Russia sees a regional power that has respected Russian interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus and provides a market for Russian civilian nuclear equipment and conventional arms. As a result, the United States seeks crippling sanctions against an enemy, while Russia wants to avoid gratuitously damaging relations with an important and largely friendly neighbor. As every debate on sanctions at the United Nations demonstrates, the United States must make significant trade-offs or concessions to gain Russian cooperation on an allegedly shared interest. And Iran is hardly an exception. Analogous problems arise with regard to any other allegedly shared interest, be it stability in Afghanistan, energy security, non-proliferation, counterterrorism or something else. And so the search for the right balance of trade-offs, of incentives and disincentives, is an essential element of building cooperation even on supposedly shared interests.
Finally, the strategist understands that policy requires constant tending. He is not afraid to make adjustments, at times radical ones, if real events reveal flaws in assumptions, or if assessments or circumstances change. He is sensitive to the flow of events, and realizes that this current era of global turbulence will yield more than the normal amount of unforeseen events and unintended consequences. The only matter in which the strategist remains constant is in his commitment to American strategic interests.
At the same time, he is not indifferent to American values. He not only understands that any American foreign policy must have a normative dimension. He welcomes it. Promotion of our democratic values lies at the core of our national identity; it lies among our strategic interests. The only issue—one debated since the founding of our republic—is how best to spread those values. For his part, the strategist is guided by an ethics of responsibility and consequences, not by one of declarations and moral outrage. For that reason, when it comes to supporting democratic reform abroad, he approaches other countries with humility. George Kennan’s words written sixty years ago still resonate: “The ways by which peoples 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.” This is particularly true of Russia, which is too big and complex for foreigners to reform successfully. America’s concerted, hands-on but ultimately misguided and failed effort to promote democracy in Russia in the 1990s stands as an unintended monument to Kennan’s wisdom.
As much as we might want to see steady progress toward democracy in Russia, the strategist understands that its democratic development will be a long, winding process as Russians themselves work out the institutions and processes appropriate to their circumstances and exorcise their peculiar demons born of a long and troubled history. Rather than seek to pressure the government to democratize, the strategist seeks to expose Russians to our ways and values, through exchange programs, business contacts, and other people-to-people initiatives, in the belief that Russians will take the best and adapt it to Russian conditions, as long as our society looks like a success and deals with various challenges with wisdom and purpose. It follows that one of the most important steps we could take now to promote democracy in Russia would be to put our own house in order.
In addition, the strategist shuns feel-good rhetoric and moral outrage that has had little, if any, positive impact inside Russia for at least the past generation. He looks askance at measures intended to support marginal forces in Russia that claim to be democratic but somehow never generate much enthusiasm among the Russian demos and that are led by figures—the Kasyanovs, Nemstovs and Kasparovs—who had their chance at leadership in the 1990s and early 2000s and failed. He is more concerned about maintaining space for the growing number of Russians, particularly among the young, who want a more open, pluralist society and a more accountable government but understandably are wary of being branded American agents or linked to marginal forces and failed leaders. Supporting the latter requires that we be seen as refraining from actively interfering in Russian domestic affairs and mute our public criticism, except in cases of gross violations of human rights.
Given those concerns, the strategist would not support the Magnitsky Act, however much he might agree that the Russian government should conduct an honest, impartial investigation of Magnitsky’s jailhouse death and bring those responsible to justice. In the rush to pass this act, the Congress and the Act’s advocates failed to give due consideration to the unintended consequences. First, although the U.S. government is well within its rights in denying Russian officials visas, the freezing of their assets simply on the suspicion of guilt seems to run contrary to our own sense of due process and sends to Russians the wrong message about the rule of law. Second, Russians will be tempted to use this Act as a way of gaining a competitive advantage over their commercial rivals (every major business in Russia has its people inside the government), and the U.S. government will be placed in the position of adjudicating those rivalries based on less than complete information. Finally, the Kremlin’s reaction to this act will only narrow the space for democratic reformers in Russia; indeed, it already has. Some might argue that we do not bear responsibility for that reaction, and it only underscores the authoritarian animus of Putin’s Russia. But the reaction was entirely predictable in general if not in its specifics, and certainly those who passed the act bear some moral responsibility for the predictable reactions that followed. In short, it is far from clear that the Magnitsky Act has advanced, or will advance, the cause of democracy in Russia, despite its advocates’ claims and aspirations.
Relations deteriorated sharply after the passage of the Magnitsky Act, but it was hardly the cause of the downturn, which began at least from the time Putin announced his decision to return to the Kremlin in September 2011. So what does the strategist propose now?
The fundamental problem is that there is no new agenda for relations. The last act of the reset was the completion of negotiations over Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization at the end of 2011. Since then, sharp differences over how to handle the unrest in the Middle East, particularly in Syria; missile defense; a sense that U.S.-Russian cooperation in imposing sanctions on Iran has reached an end; and growing acrimony over Russian domestic developments have dominated the public arena. That the two countries might be continuing less visible cooperation on a range of secondary issues makes little immediate difference to the overall state of relations.
Neither side has a clear idea of the way forward, although both clearly do not want the current deterioration to lead to an outright confrontation. Russia in particular realizes that it continues to need U.S. investment, technology, and know-how to help it build a reasonably competitive economy to sustain its great-power aspirations. At best, one could hope for a toning down of the anti-American rhetoric coming out of Moscow and some restraint in the Russia-bashing the Congress engages in from time to time. That would allow for a calmer discussion of the issues on which the two countries remain divided. Even then the competitive aspects of relations will predominate for some time, perhaps for Obama’s entire second term. The grounds for extensive cooperation on high-profile issues are hardly evident at this point.
This is not a tragedy, as long as the competition is kept in bounds. But Moscow and Washington should use this time of drift in relations to see if they can develop a common strategic framework for relations. The great flux in global affairs makes this an appropriate time for both countries go reassess the challenges to their national interests going forward.
The mechanism for doing this would be a high-level strategic dialogue to determine whether there are solid strategic grounds for long-term cooperation. In its initial phase, it would focus on three broad issues: (1) drivers and trends that will shape the global environment over the next 10–15 years and plausible scenarios for global developments; (2) the implications of those trends and scenarios for the national interests of each country; and (3) an examination, based on (1) and (2), of the overlap in strategic challenges that each country confronts. The next step, if there is sufficient overlap, is to determine how Russia and the United States can mesh their interests so that each country advances its own strategic interests. The end result would be a strategic framework to guide leaders as they make decisions on current matters and to provide indications of the policies that should be developed and launched now to advance strategic cooperation.
It is of course possible that a strategic dialogue would reveal unbridgeable differences in outlooks, in the understanding of the challenges ahead, and in national interests. It might suggest that competition will inevitably define U.S.-Russian relations more so than cooperation. No strategist would deny that. But we should at least make a good-faith effort to determine whether there is a basis for strategic cooperation before resigning ourselves to competitive relations. And that outcome would not be a tragedy—as long as it advanced American interests.