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Analysis & Opinion
04.07.08 Russia Not Figuring Big In The US Presidential Election
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Eric Kraus, Ethan Burger, Anthony Salvia, Stephen Blank

Through this U.S. presidential campaign season, talk about Russia has been scarce. When Russia is discussed, the tone is more caustic than friendly. Where is the U.S. debate on Russia heading? What specific strategies do Senator John McCain and Senator Barack Obama have for engaging Russia? What role and place does Russia really hold in U.S. foreign policy interests and priorities? Is it good for Russia to be below the radar screen in the U.S. presidential election? Finally, how should Moscow react to signals from the Obama and McCain camps?

Last week, Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former US Deputy Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, said in Moscow that, fortunately to the U.S.-Russia relationship, Russia is not figuring big as a factor in the presidential election in the United States this fall.

Indeed, American voters are unlikely to be energized this year by calls “Who lost Russia?” as economic troubles at home and continued turmoil in Iraq figure much larger on the electoral radar screen.

Yet, both the Obama and McCain camps have expressed a strong desire “to get the relationship with Russia right,” indicating their belief that it is on the wrong track, and have outlined some specific proposals to engage Moscow on strategic arms control and non-proliferation. They criticized the Bush administration for “feigning friendship” with Putin and claim to know better how to advance American foreign policy objectives in an engagement with an assertive Russia.

On Obama’s side, interest in re-launching the strategic arms control agenda is bundled up with immense arrogance and proselytizing zeal when it comes to viewing the sources of Russia’s assertive international conduct.

The Obama people see Russia as trying to exploit the US weaknesses resulting from the American entanglement in Iraq; their big idea is to “create a context in which Russia will view its interests as more beneficial in a Euro-Atlantic relationship.” They seem to genuinely believe that “US helping to get Ukraine into NATO is a way to help Russia get to the Euro-Atlantic Community.”

McCain’s camp is no better. While promising to “deal with Russia that exists” and “focus on cooperation where possible and clarity where not possible,” McCain’s advisors are pushing the same lecturing approach to Russia as Obama’s people.

McCain’s interest in more arms control is welcomed, but his insistence that “democratic nations need to discuss policy as a smaller group first and agree among themselves before presenting their positions to Russia and others” (“League of Democracies”) is not likely to elicit cheers in Moscow.

There seems to be little interest in Washington in changing anything about its approach to Russia to move toward a more cooperative relationship. As a senior Obama advisor put it, “the possibility for a broader Russia-U.S. accommodation has been missed, we have cold peace now.”

Perhaps, this reflects the diminished status that Russia currently occupies within the range of U.S. foreign policy priorities. Clearly, the U.S. is a global power with strategic engagement in Europe, the Middle East, North East Asia, the Pacific and in the Western Hemisphere. Russia appears to be viewed as a second-tier solution to some of the global challenges the U.S. is facing.

Where is the U.S. debate on Russia heading? How is Russia viewed by McCain and Obama? What specific strategies do they have for engaging Russia? What role and place does Russia really hold in U.S. foreign policy interests and priorities? Is it good for Russia to be below the radar screen in the U.S. presidential election? How should Moscow react to signals from the Obama and McCain camps?

Eric Kraus, Director, Nikitsky Russia/CIS Opportunities Growth Fund, Moscow:

Be grateful for little favors – like France, Germany or China, Russia can get along very well without being at the centre of the U.S. presidential campaign. Russia is no longer a state in transition, but, rather, an increasingly well-established player on the global stage. After eight years of catastrophic misgovernance of the current administration, the next U.S. president shall have problems far greater to attend to, in particular an economy in dire straits, in part caused by soaring oil prices driven by a singularly incompetent Middle-Eastern policy, along with totally unsustainable levels of military expenditure.

Campaign statements are rightly viewed with some measure of skepticism; both candidates are forced to be all things to all men. On certain sensitive issues, such as Israel and Iran, the realities of power will certainly temper populist promises. Therefore, we can try to predict future policy only based on the perceived personalities and political orientation of the candidates.

McCain is a known quantity, representing a reaffirmation of the worst instincts of the Bush regime – a firm belief in the absolute superiority of the United States, with the use of military force seen not as the last resort, but as a continuation of policy by other means. His threat to exclude Russia from the G8 is laughable. First, countries can be excluded only by a unanimous vote; neither the French nor the Germans would be inclined to do anything quite so foolish; if sufficiently irritated, the Russians could retaliate by simply joining OPEC, which would welcome the world’s largest oil producer.

Mr. Obama, on the other hand, appears to be cognizant of the limitations of American power, and shows no signs of wishing to gratuitously create new points of confrontation. His multi-polar view of the world seems more appropriate to America’s current circumstances, and it is likely that he and Medvedev would find numerous points of agreement. Given the pressing need to decrease budgetary expenditures, the missile shield – perhaps the greatest single irritant in U.S.–Russia relations – will almost certainly fall by the wayside. Given the divergent interests of the two countries, we can expect not so much a strategic partnership as a cordial agreement to work together where it’s possible, and respect each other’s vital interests where it’s not.

The unfortunate fact is that, despite its initial promise, the U.S.-Russia relationship has brought precious little real benefit to either country. With perhaps the best of intentions, thanks to its unconditional support of the Yeltsin government aimed at forestalling the danger of Communist revanche, the Clinton administration became closely associated with a decade of deterioration and despair far worse than was necessary, or occurred in the other transition countries. Furthermore, it would perhaps have been asking too much of human nature to expect the Western powers to refrain from taking the most advantage of the weakness of their old adversary. Thus, despite formal promises made to Yeltsin, NATO was eventually extended up to Russia’s Eastern borders, while Russia’s strategic interests were systematically ignored.

Obama’s likely victory in the U.S. elections would be an unexpected bit of good news for much of the world – Russia included. After the needlessly confrontational policies of the recent years, some d?tente and a more realistic recognition of the limitations on power would be very welcome.

Ethan Burger, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, and Scholar-in-Residence, School of International Service, American University, Washington, D.C.:

There is an aphorism that a country gets the government it deserves. Like to all “absolute statements,” there are some exceptions to this rule (I presume that the term “country” should be understood to mean the people residing in a given state). If this was indeed the case, it frankly would be difficult to predict who will be the next U.S. president.

The U.S. electoral process needs an overhaul (perhaps the elimination of the electoral college along with districts for choosing who sits in the U.S. House of Representatives so that incumbents did not enjoy unfair advantages would be good places to start), but it is almost certain that this will never happen. Thomas Jefferson felt that the U.S. Constitution should be re-written every 25 years or so – too bad no one listened.

The American electorate (as opposed to the American public, since not all those eligible to vote do so) is focused principally on (i) domestic economic conditions, particularly the price of gasoline and home heating (i.e. energy policy), (ii) immigration policy, (iii) national health policy (or e.g. health insurance or the absence of it), (iv) individual and corporate tax policy, and (v) national security – the principal areas of concern being Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism in general.
In addition, certain other issues are sometimes used by the major parties to galvanize their political bases: (i) same sex marriages/partnerships (generally, the older an individual is, the less tolerant s/he is likely to be), (ii) laws/rules relating to abortion, (iii) gun ownership/regulation (the latter two issues operate a bit like proxies for the future supreme court appointments), (iv) social security, (v) environmental protection (including global warming), and (vi) the impact of globalism on the country (including unemployment, the foreign trade deficit, and the national deficit).

Most Americans tend not to recognize that the above issues are interrelated. Indeed, Strobe Talbot's assessment seems to be right on the mark. Russia’s ability to export energy will have significant geo-political impact. If Russia is dealt with as an international pariah, it will almost certainly play a disruptive role with respect to the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe, and Central/East Asia.

Fortunately, it seems that both Senators McCain and Obama appreciate the importance of maintaining a dialog even with those countries the leaderships of which we do not fully approve. At the same time, both recognize the importance of promoting the rule of law, human rights, and media freedom in Russia. The major variables in my head are (i) how to encourage positive legal/political developments in Russian policy, both domestically and internationally, without counter-productively interfering in processes they can only influence at the margins and (ii) avoid unhelpful rhetoric or provocative actions the consequences of which are not appreciated in Washington. The U.S. should not abandon its principles nor allow private companies to determine U.S. foreign policy, but, at the same time, it must develop a deeper and more realistic understanding of Russia’s political dynamics.

Anthony Salvia, Special Advisor to the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Reagan Administration:
I should like to respond to the question of what place Russia really holds in U.S. interests and priorities.

The U.S. foreign policy elite has a coherent global strategy entailing the following elements: hegemony, where possible; where not, acting to prevent others from enjoying the degree of hegemony in their backyards that we enjoy in ours; viewing the Eurasian landmass as the grand strategic objective of policy, meaning access (as free as possible) to its fabulous wealth, which means, in turn, preventing anything like Russian predominance in its own bailiwick – hence, the need to dragoon Ukraine into NATO quite against the will of the local population. It’s called divide and conquer. It’s the only way the Anglo-Saxon maritime power can prevent the Eurasian land powers from coalescing against it and expelling it from the continent. In realizing these objectives, the U.S. is able to draw on its democratist ideology to give a moral gloss to efforts to reconstitute inconvenient governments.
Seen in this way, two major points emerge:

1) U.S. policy is geo-strategic in nature, with an ideological component that can be wheeled into action when needed. But, the ideology clearly serves the geo-strategy, which is paramount.
2) Russia is in Washington’s crosshairs.

Still, there’s another way of looking at it.

Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice avers that, in U.S. foreign policy, there is no distinction between ideals and self-interest. They are one in the same. Democracy is good even if it results in bad things (such as the election of Hitler or Hamas, or the firebombing of Dresden or legalized abortion.) It is a good in itself. More than that, it is the ultimate social good. U.S. foreign policy is its values, and the U.S. will stop at nothing to assure that its values prevail.

Seen in this way, two major points emerge:
1) Ideology trumps geo-strategy. Indeed, it is geo-strategy.
2) Russia is still in the crosshairs.

For Dr. Rice, the world community comprises of two kinds of states: those that share U.S. values – progressive humanity, if you will – and those, such as Russia and China, who are consigned to a lesser status because their relations with the U.S. are “rooted more in common interests than in common values.”

In Dr. Rice’s New Realism, the real has been entirely supplanted by the ideal, and the world (including the nations that make it up) is reduced to an abstraction. Thus, she can call, as she does in this very article, for the inclusion of Turkey in the European Union without batting an eyelid over the contradictions: the Islamist regime in Ankara is busy whittling away at the secular nature of the Turkish constitution while the country’s military warily eyes developments it finds alarming; the Turkish armed forces continue to occupy a portion of an EU member country in violation of a UN resolution; the central government continues its persecution of the Kurdish minority. By what right should Turkey be admitted to the charmed circle of progressive humanity? And, if the U.S. is so fond of democracy, what’s it doing interfering in the internal affairs of the EU in the first place?

The contradictions abound. Concerning values, does India really have more in common with the U.S. and the EU than Russia? Are internal political arrangements really the sole definition of values? Japan has had virtually uninterrupted one party rule since the end of World War II, but everyone makes allowances for the fact that Japanese society is more unitary and organic than most other ones. That’s as it should be. But then why are no allowances made for the fact that Russia is emerging from 70 years of brutal totalitarian dictatorship in which millions perished? Serbia has a fully functioning democracy and is Christian to boot. And yet the United States is backing its breakaway province of Kosovo, a politically thoroughly dysfunctional entity given over to drug running, sex-slavery, and ethnic cleansing? Does the U.S. really have more in common with Kosovo than Serbia?

Such are the contradictions that crop up when you proceed in a trance toward the radiant vision of a secular materialist utopia. You don’t notice a thing because you believe that you know.

I believe Obama and McCain can be expected to persist in the pursuit of democratism. Both have called for the creation of Leagues of Democracy.

That’s too bad, because it means the U.S. will not be terribly receptive to the adult, realistic and thoroughly compelling vision of a new global politics being promoted by Russia.

Russia is calling for the revival of the pan-European civilization through the forging of an entente cordiale between the three main parts of pan-Europe – the U.S., EU and Russia. It says this is the best way, the only way really, to meet the challenges posed by the rise of Asia and militant Islam. Moscow is no doubt right about that, but there’s little evidence that Washington, still in thrall to the vision of liberal apotheosis at the end of history, will get it anytime soon.

Professor Stephen Blank, the US Army War College, Carlyle Barracks, PA:

Russians should not be surprised at the lack of interest in Russia for the election campaign. Russia, though they may not like it, is not that important to American foreign policy that it should occupy the first rank of immediate issues (nobody is talking about China, which is more important than Russia, either). Secondly, Russia’s clear adoption of an anti-American posture and regression to a police-based autocracy has made it clear that Russia regards America not as a partner, but as an adversary, if not the main enemy as does the military. Under the circumstances, there is little incentive to take Russia at its own valuation or to make gratuitous concessions to its aggressive policies.

Thirdly, neither side in the campaign, to judge from their rhetoric, has any idea of a clear Russia strategy. Rather, what they have are rhetorical talking points, in many cases based on wishful thinking or a lack of thinking and ideological posturing in its place (excluding Russia from the G-8 or somehow persuading Moscow that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia is in its interest).

Fourthly, the campaign (not unlike the previous ones) reflects the fact that neither side has understood that values-based foreign policy is bound to lead America to a dead-end; this should be one of the great lessons of the catastrophic policies pursued globally by [U.S. President George W.] Bush, but it is not the case. Perhaps ideologically-driven thinking is too embedded in the U.S. tradition to hope for a policy based on a clear discussion of interests, which are only then followed by values. But, given such a political culture, Russians should not be surprised at what is happening. If we don’t discuss China, why should we discuss Russia?

While, in many respects, there is much to criticize about this mode of campaigning, it would be well for Russia to learn that it is not as important to America as it thinks it is and adjust its policies accordingly. (There also is no doubt that many elites think that America is no longer as important to Russia as was heretofore the case). Therefore, there is no need to reply to whatever signals may be emanating from either campaign. Often such “signals” are floated by self-interested figures who want to pump themselves or their agenda up and do not represent anything but themselves. Secondly, responding to one or another side’s “signals” before the election is an inherently risky course. If such signals are sent, they should be received cordially, but left in abeyance until they are followed up or not followed up, as the case may be by the next administration.

Finally, if Russia wants to be taken seriously by America, it will have to adjust its policies lest it be taken seriously in a way that it cannot afford to be seen.
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