Thursday, February 12, 2009

Where is the U.S.-Russia Relatioship Headed?

Gave my two cents to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty on the trajectory of U.S.-Russia relations after Manas and Munich. Brian Whitmore also integrated comments from Paul Saunders, Andrei Piontkowski and Sergei Rogov into his analysis piece.

Comments welcomed.

"I think that almost any American president will have to reject that logic, because that is not the way that we like to think about the world working," says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center think tank in Washington. "At the same time though, on a practical level it will be very difficult to do what we need to do in that region if Moscow is hostile."

I guess that means that the blockade against Cuba will be ending sometime soon.
Well, isn't Obama going to do that?
Chris Goldsmith ...

The passage you quote is indeed revealing.

It is I think precisely the 'way we like to think about the world working' which is the central problem with American geopolitical strategy. In recent years, it has been based upon the premises that the United States is 1. omnipotent, and 2. uniquely virtuous.

The assumption of omnipotence means that American policymakers commonly take it as self-evident that they can get their way on everything -- can prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, ensure that Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for jihadists, and incorporate Georgia and the Ukraine in NATO, etc etc.

A central prerequisite of effective strategy is working out the relative priorities of objectives, and the trade-offs between them -- the assumption of omnipotence makes this difficult.

Meanwhile, the assumption that the United States is uniquely virtuous is liable to slide over into the assumption that other societies cannot have legitimate interests in conflict with the United States. Accordingly the reconciliation of interests through bargaining and compromise can easily become rather difficult -- look at U.S. negotiating positions with Iran, for example.

It also leads easily to a propensity to demonise adversaries -- after all, if one's will is akin to that of God, then any opposition to that will is naturally to be seen as satanic. This does not make for an effective assessment of how other states are likely to behave.

Perhaps if American strategists thought a little about how to make things work 'on a practical level' and a little less about how they 'like to think about the world working', U.S. foreign policy might be rather more successful than it has been over the past few years. It might also help if they took a rather more modest view of what they 'need to do' in Central Asia, as indeed in other regions.

On a more practical and modest view Russia -- as also Iran -- is a country with which the United States has some interests and views in conflict, some common, and some complementary. Moreover, it would also lead to a realisation that its actual conflicts of interest with Russia are hardly of transcendent significance, in relation to other problems it faces.

With multiple crises facing the United States in the Islamic world, in addition to the small matter of a global economic crisis, what is the point in rotting up relations with Russia in support of an unattainable goal of preventing that country having any influence in its 'near abroad'?
Dear David Habakkuk,

What you described is a remarkably accurate description of the problem that Russia and the US (and the entire world) are dealing with. Thank you!

Piontkowski is one of RFE/Liberty's pet Russians, his credentials as an expert are highly dubious. Such people have done a lot of real harm. Good that this time he isn't much more than an awkward addition to a reasonably solid selection of opinions.
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