“Rarely has been there a time when getting relations right between our two countries and between our two societies mattered more than it does today,” said Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns at a CAP event last Wednesday on the Obama administration’s “reset” of relations between Russia and the United States. CAP Senior Fellow Brian Katulis gave introductory remarks at the event and Samuel Charap, CAP’s Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia, moderated the discussion. Charap’s new report, “Assessing the ‘Reset’ and the Next Steps for U.S. Russia Policy,” which analyzes the effectiveness of the reset and offers recommendations for U.S.-Russia relations going forward, was released at the event.
President Barack Obama has made improving the U.S. relationship with Russia one of his foreign policy priorities since taking office. U.S.-Russia relations were at their lowest point in 20 years following the Russia-Georgia war in August 2008. Each country viewed the other with suspicion, hostility, and distrust.
President Obama and his team believe that a robust relationship between the two countries is vital for the security of the United States and the world. “In an era in which common challenges—nonproliferation, climate change, energy security, the struggle against terrorism, and many more—demand common action more than at any period in human history, the United States and Russia have a lot more to gain working together than working apart,” Burns said.
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic efforts on Russia to date have produced practical results, Burns argued, the most important being “renewed nuclear leadership [and] … the New START agreement [that] reduces the threat of nuclear war.” But Burns emphasized how important it is to broaden U.S.-Russia cooperation beyond arms control and nuclear security, which, in light of the signing of New START and the success of the Nuclear Security Summit, have been at the center of the bilateral relationship.
He noted, however, that cooperation on nuclear issues also includes joint action to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “We and the Russians, along with the Chinese and our European partners, have begun serious work on a new U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution aimed at taking intelligent, targeted measures to try to change the calculus of the Iranian leadership and produce the negotiated resolution to which we remain committed,” Burns said. “That level of cooperation was unimaginable in the depths of U.S.-Russian acrimony at the end of 2008…we have come a long way in a relatively short term.”
Further cooperation between the United States and Russia, Burns argued, will only develop if the two governments and societies make an effort to understand each other. Emphasis should be placed on institutional cooperation and societal engagement. Burns noted that “we need a relationship that connects our societies and especially our young people in ways that can help shape a more hopeful future for both of us.” He further identified Russia’s drive for economic modernization as an opportunity for deepening the bilateral relationship by strengthening economic ties and re-energizing bilateral trade.
Many challenges remain, however, particularly the situation in Georgia and Russia’s refusal to abide by its international commitments there. Burns said that “21st century values and expectations and not 19th century views about spheres of influence should drive a frank dialogue over our interests in the world as a whole, as well as areas closer to home. We both have an obligation to help ensure that tensions do not erupt into violence again.”
Progress in the relationship is still fragile, Burns said. The establishment of a strategic relationship will not be easy, “but for the first time in a long time the possibilities before us outnumber the problems,” he concluded.
Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
William J. Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs
Samuel Charap, Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia, Center for American Progress
For Undersecretary William J. Burns’ remarks as delivered click here.