U.S.-Russia relations at the end of the Bush administration reached their lowest point since the Cold War. The Obama administration hit the so-called “reset button” in an attempt to turn the page, but many commentators panned this overture as a policy of appeasement or a misguided attempt to ignore the troubled past of the relationship.
“What these critics don’t understand is that the reset is not a Russia policy. It was an opening tactic intended to improve the poisoned atmosphere of the relationship that Obama inherited from his predecessor. The administration wanted to ratchet down the tension and create an environment in which the two countries could discuss issues of shared interest and manage disagreements,” said Fellow Samuel Charap at a CAP event on the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship last Wednesday.
Charap was joined by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, CAP Senior Vice President of National Security and International Policy Rudy deLeon, and CAP President and CEO John D. Podesta for a discussion of President Barack Obama’s summit with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in Moscow on July 6-8. The event also marked the launch of Charap’s new report, “After the ‘Reset’: A Strategy and New Agenda for U.S. Russia Policy.”
Charap outlined at the event a comprehensive strategy for engagement to follow the reset tactic: building a stable partnership with Russia in order to work on important foreign policy goals such as nuclear nonproliferation, Afghanistan, and climate change; preparing for any challenges that Russia might present from political confrontation to deteriorating socioeconomic conditions; integrating the country into international institutions in order to promote democratic practices and the rule of law; ensuring security and stability in the post-Soviet region; bolstering our energy security and that of our allies; and encouraging the development of a democratic Russia that respects human rights, political pluralism, and the rule of law.
Charap described this approach as a progressive strategy for U.S. Russia policy, because of its emphasis on international engagement, a cooperative approach to global security, the importance of building strong alliances, and promotion of fundamental American values. It reflects core American ideals and furthers U.S. interests, and asserts that there is no conflict between the two.
Charap also gave his forecast for this week’s summit. The focus of the meeting will likely be on traditional security issues such as arms control, nonproliferation, Afghanistan, and North Korea, he said. Iran will probably not be a headline issue because of the political situation there. Non-security issues such as the economic crisis, energy, and business relationships will also get attention, but they will be a second billing. Areas of contention such as missile defense and NATO enlargement are unlikely to be emphasized, as both sides will focus on areas of agreement. Cohen and Charap both praised this agenda, though Charap’s report emphasizes that it is critical it to expand the relationship to overlooked non-security issues, such as cooperation on climate change.
Charap also remarked that although this week’s summit presents an opportunity to chart a new course, Russia remains a difficult partner. “The bilateral relationship will always be a mixture of competition and cooperation. And the restrictions on political pluralism reflect a values gap that has often complicated cooperation,” he said.
Cohen agreed, saying, “We don’t have trust. We still have great suspicion about their ambitions. They have great suspicions about ours. But they are going to play a critical role in the 21st century… We have to make sure that we do everything we can to make them a partner and a potential ally. And someone that is dedicated to the same stable world order we’d like to see.”
Cohen also saw the Russia’s cooperation as essential for curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “Russia will have far more leverage than we will,” he said, pointing to historical ties and serious commercial interests between the two countries. “The question is are they going to be willing to exercise that leverage in their dealing with Iran?”
Cohen argued that Russia could benefit from Western investment, and that the European Union and United States could assist in diversifying the country’s economy, which is dependent on natural resources and has suffered during the global downturn.
He also reflected that, “If we approach other countries and treat them with respect, understanding that we’re going to differ and that we may have very contentious issues … then I think there’s great hope for the future.”
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