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Analysis & Opinion
12.11.10 Will Obama's Electoral Defeat Disrupt The Reset With Russia?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Ethan Burger, Edward Lozansky, Anthony Salvia, Ira Straus, Alexandre Strokanov

The Russian political class cringed last Wednesday morning on learning that U.S. President Barack Obama had suffered a humiliating political defeat in the mid-term elections, losing Democrat control in the House and barely hanging onto a razor-thin Democrat majority in the Senate. Russian leaders are worried over what the Republican political onslaught on Washington might mean for the fledgling reset in U.S.-Russian relations championed by the Obama administration.

One vulnerable target for the Republicans is the new START treaty which the Obama administration hopes to get ratified during the lame-duck session of the sitting Senate where Democrats control 59 seats and would need eight Republicans to vote for the Treaty.

This is now looking increasingly unlikely as the Republicans have already indicated they want a full debate over the Treaty. They have also proposed unacceptable amendments to the ratification resolution leading Chairman of the Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev to threaten to pull the Treaty off the ratification roster in the Duma. In the new Senate Obama would need the support of at least 16 Republicans - a daunting prospect.

Another likely victim of the Republican congressional victory could be Obama’s measured and cautious policy in the post-Soviet space, which has shown clear signs of respect for Russia’s legitimate, if not privileged, interests in the region. Republican control of the House and its Foreign Affairs Committee means that they would be in a position to pass provocative legislation to impose sanctions on Russia for its policies in the post-Soviet space or provide financial support and even military assistance to Georgia – something that would most likely disrupt the reset.

Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and its graduation from the Jackson-Vanik amendment could also be called into question by the Republican leaders.

The noticeable improvement in U.S.-Russian relations under Obama’s reset has turned into a serious political asset for Russian President Dmitry Medvedev who can point to few other foreign or domestic policy successes during his first term in office. The partnership with Obama has also boosted Medvedev’s fortunes domestically and strengthened his claim to the presidency in the eyes of the Russian elites.

Moscow is worried that Obama’s defeat in the mid-terms signals the electorate’s unhappiness with his policies, including his foreign policy, and that correcting these perceptions will also involve recalibrating Obama’s course with regard to Russia, particularly producing greater criticism of Russia’s deficit of democratic freedoms.

There is unease in Moscow over the growth of what one Russian legislator called “the rise of provincial radicalism” in the United States with Republicans turning to their “dark side.” There is a palpable fear that Obama could be a one-term president to be replaced by someone as monstrous as Sarah Palin.

Are these Russian fears over the future of the reset justified? Could the new Republican majority force Obama to review his policy toward Russia and yield to pressures that tally more closely with the Republican agenda? Is the new START Treaty dead in the U.S. Senate? What could be the Republican impact on U.S. policies in the post-Soviet space and cooperation with Russia on Iran and Afghanistan? Could the Republicans provoke a crisis with Russia over Georgia? Is the U.S. turning to the dark side of Republican provincial radicalism and what could that mean for American foreign policy in general and its relations with Russia in particular?

Edward Lozansky, President, American University in Moscow and World Russia Forum in Washington, D.C. :
The most impressive victory of the Republican Party in the last elections sent shivers not only through the White House and Democratic Party headquarters but through Moscow’s political establishment as well. Here, the fear is that the new Congress could try to undermine Obama's reset policy with Russia.

But although Obama undoubtedly comes out of this election severely weakened domestically, he is still pretty much in charge of U.S. foreign policy. Can he make some headway in this area to help the country and himself in view of the upcoming presidential campaign?

It will of course not be an easy task, given that America, which only 20 years ago was the world’s only and undisputed superpower, has suddenly found itself in a very precarious geopolitical, economic and financial situation. Now, the story of America’s difficulties can be recycled endlessly and fingers pointed at those who were to blame for the current sad state of affairs. However, discussing the things that need to be done seems a much more meaningful pursuit.
As far as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned, one piece of advice coming from the Cold War school is to follow the Clinton-Bush strategy, or perhaps an even more extreme one: that of isolating and weakening Russia through NATO expansion, building oil and gas pipelines bypassing Russia, exerting pressure on Old Europe for being too soft on Russia while encouraging New Europe to be even tougher toward the same. Other aspects of this strategy include sponsoring “color revolutions” along Russia’s perimeter under the guise of promoting freedom and democracy while at the same time building economic and political-military alliances with even the most dictatorial regimes in the post-Soviet space.

In short, advocates of such a policy demand that Russia be seen as a clone of the Soviet Union. For champions of this approach, a slightly modified containment policy as well as continued ideological warfare under the neutral term of “public diplomacy” are logical and highly desirable.

Among this policy’s immediate goals are derailing the START treaty, building pipelines with little economic sense to transport the Caspian energy flow to Europe bypassing Russia, resisting Russia’s efforts to integrate into the European security architecture, bashing Russia for its poor human rights record, and so on and so forth. All this is presented as the best policy, putting America’s interests first. However, this approach appears highly dubious and even suspect on at least two counts.

First, given the situation America currently finds itself in. With astronomical national debt, close to ten percent unemployment, two endless and intractable wars, the rise of militant Islam, and myriad other problems, can the United States afford another Cold War and continue to claim to be the world’s policeman?

Second, even if the United States can still afford it, is it in the Americans’ best interest to add Russia to the already long list of enemies instead of luring it to the other side of the barricades, just as Old Europe is trying to do with some success? Instead of barking at Europeans for their willingness to engage Russia, obviously the biggest, most populous and arguably most powerful country in Europe, shouldn’t America join the process?

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is certainly not a paid Kremlin propagandist, but as the leaders of the former Cold War foes prepare to meet in Lisbon later this month he is saying that NATO sees Russia as a strategic partner and seeks to cooperate on missile defense. Presently NATO doesn't view Russia as an enemy, said Rasmussen, and there is an opportunity to turn a page in relations. President Medvedev responded in kind by saying: "We are pleased because it gives an opportunity to more attentively develop cooperation and create a more sustainable system of security in Europe and in the world."

And this is not just an exercise in diplomacy. His words were linked to real deeds, like providing NATO supply routes to Afghanistan, helicopters, military personnel training, participating in joint military operations there, moving closer to U.S. positions on Iran, on nuclear non-proliferation, and many other security issues.

Those who disagree with Obama's reset policy should be advised that it is not a betrayal of U.S. national interests, as some of the Cold War warriors are saying, nor is it an act of charity for Russia's benefit. It is essential to the security of the United States itself.

As for east Europeans who do not like the United States’ Russia rapprochement, it is the time to tell them that they should stop crying wolf and begging for protection from the Russian bear. Instead, they should build strong trade and economic links with Russia.

There have been some positive shifts in this area as Poland and Ukraine have elected leaders that represent a drastic departure from old confrontational policies. Even in the Baltic countries there is a tendency to realize that normal relations with Russia are better for their economy and security than continuous appeals to Washington for more armaments and funds.

The main theme of the reset policy is simple, commonsensical and probably effective: cooperation is better than confrontation, compromises have to be worked out whenever there is a difference in interests, and overall security is paramount. Naturally, these goals are not easy to achieve, they will require a sustained effort by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

The first test for Obama’s post-election situation is quickly approaching. The Senate, which now makes Obama something of a lame duck, has to vote on the ratification of the START treaty very soon. Moscow is pretty nervous on this score. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Russian Parliament’s International Affairs Committee, said it would withdraw its recommendation that the Russian Federation’s legislature ratify the U.S.-Russia START treaty until they are sure that the U.S. Senate is prepared to ratify it as well.

Should the Senate vote “yes,” it might be a good push to build up new momentum for the reset agenda. Should it vote “no,” we might as well get ready for a big chill in U.S.-Russian relations, which is bad for both countries and for mankind.

The old Cold War thinking leads to defense expenditures we cannot afford and which ultimately make America weaker. Both parties say that they want to reduce spending, and the major area for that is defense budget. START helps lower the deficit without weakening national security. In fact, it benefits national security by reducing the total number of nuclear arms in the world and by encouraging other nuclear nations to reduce their stockpiles. START has been endorsed by practically all living former American Defense and State secretaries, who obviously see the importance of the treaty.

If we could only rid ourselves of the memories of the Cold War!

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, Vermont:

Let’s begin with a simple question: what has this “reset” really brought to Russia so far, except for traditionally mixed rhetoric from Washington (sometimes nice words about Russia’s greatness and sometimes accusations of occupying a neighboring country) and lots of traditional promises, most of which were also made by the previous Republican administration of George W. Bush (Russia’s entry to the WTO, end of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, and finally cooperation in the civilian nuclear energy sector, or the so-called 123 agreement). The visible difference is that, instead of cars (that U.S. presidents brought as gifts for Brezhnev) we now have much smaller and cheaper toys like the iPhone, and instead of fancy dinners we see lunches with hot dogs (both presidents want to be seen as democrats and are eager to show their closeness to middle class people).

Unfortunately, for the last year and half, since March 2009, the reset, which is a great idea and has my wholehearted support, did not produce much in terms of real and palpable accomplishments. We should note that in that period of time, the Democratic Party had the majority in both houses of Congress. Neither did the reset bring the Russian and American people closer to each other. I will provide just one example: to visit Russia for a week-long study tour, my students will have to pay $190 ($140 consular fee and $50 service fee) just to get a Russian visa, which is plain ridiculous. This is the most expensive visa that I ever have had to deal with, although I have visited about a hundred countries around the world. In its turn the U.S. visa for Russian visitors is expensive also (although it is valid for a year and slightly cheaper, but on the other hand is more difficult to get). Maybe the reset should start here and make it easier for people, in particular young people, like students, from both countries to visit and see with their own eyes life on the other side of what is now a “money curtain” that came to replace the iron one. But why is this curtain there and moreover growing? Just a few months ago it was possible to get a Russian visa for only $131. Perhaps President Dmitry Medvedev will explain it to my students.

Another shortcoming of this reset is the obvious lack of an economic component. Russian and U.S. business communities need to develop closer ties and get involved in many profitable and mutually beneficial projects. Unless this happens, the relations between the two countries will be at the mercy of their politicians, who regardless of their party affiliations have their “dark sides,” - provincial radicalisms etc. U.S.-Russian relations obviously are in need of a good economic foundation.

In regards of the new START Treaty I personally am not so pessimistic and I still believe that it will be ratified by the U.S. Senate during the lame-duck session in November 2010, or even later. It seems to me that the so-called Republican threat to the treaty is greatly exaggerated in the media. Both U.S. major political parties perfectly understand the necessity of some kind of agreement with Russia on this issue, and even if this version of the treaty is not ratified it would not be a tragedy, and work on a new treaty would begin soon after it.

The United States certainly does not need another crisis around Georgia, and I doubt that any change of U.S. policy towards this troubled Trans-Caucasian nation should be expected in Washington, as it did not really happen in the last two years. The United States needs people ready to fight for its interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and consequently the U.S. government will continue to support countries that provide troops for American wars, regardless of whether it is Georgian president Saakashvili or someone else.

Anthony T. Salvia, Director, American Institute in Ukraine, Kiev:

The Republican Party used to be reluctant to intervene in world affairs. Senator Robert Taft was a principled non-interventionist. His rival, President Dwight Eisenhower, espoused internationalism, but one tempered by a keen awareness of the threat posed to republican institutions by a burgeoning military-industrial complex. For better or worse, Eisenhower ended the Korean War, warned his successor John F. Kennedy against involving U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, and resisted calls to intervene in the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising.

All of that was long ago and far away. Now many Republicans are more Democratic than the Democrats, having embraced the warfare/welfare state of Wilson and Roosevelt with unwonted zeal. Influenced by so-called “neo-conservatism,” they advocate a militarized foreign policy, the spread of democracy (often a euphemism for progressive ideology), and the stamping out of evil wherever they find it no matter the cost in blood and treasure. This is not your father's Republican Party.

In view of the president’s leadership role in formulating foreign policy, Republican influence over U.S.-Russian relations will be limited in the two years leading up to the next presidential election. Nevertheless, the new majority can be expected to portray any effort by Obama to accommodate countries it does not like (Russia, for example) as evidence of weakness and a lack of patriotic zeal on his part. Thus, while they are probably not in a position to force Obama to ditch his reset of US-Russian relations, they are in a position to make him pay a stiffer political price for it than he has to date.

Beyond this, the Republican gain of six seats in the U.S. Senate could well complicate ratification of the START treaty with Russia., making it harder for the White House to obtain the required two-thirds majority. In addition, with the Wall Street Journal criticizing Ukraine’s handling of the regional elections last month, and the chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs Committee passing to a Russo-skeptic Florida congresswomen, the Republican leadership may well ramp up “democracy promotion” in the former Soviet Union. (According to the U.S. Constitution, spending bills originate in the House.)

While some Republicans would love to resume the encirclement of Russia, several factors will mitigate their ability to do so:

1) Republican non-interventionists are staging a comeback. The new Congress will include a healthy number of Ron Paul-style small government conservatives for whom foreign interventionism, and the military spending that enables it, are anathema. They can be expected to resist efforts to resume America’s push for global strategic predominance including “resetting Obama’s reset with Russia” (as a recent paper from the Heritage Foundation put it).

2) The United States is bankrupt. In view of looming pressure to reduce national security spending, Republicans may come to realize that they cannot afford to re-engineer the Middle East and encircle Russia at the same time.

3) Ukraine is no longer keen to serve as a club with which America can beat Russia. It has other fish to fry, not least promoting a new pan-European entente cordiale, which Ukraine helped launch with its declaration of non-aligned status earlier this year. As long as Ukraine is unwilling to play ball, U.S. options for encircling Russia are severely limited.

4) Europe is indeed moving toward a new entente, putting a definitive end to the division of the continent into hostile eastern and western sectors. French president Sarkozy met recently with German chancellor Merkel and Russian president Medvedev to discuss the creation of a new zone of European economic and security cooperation to supersede (though not annul) NATO. Europe will not look kindly on efforts to revive the divisions of the past.

The Republicans won the election, but do not possess executive power. That remains with the president, but he was repudiated. Republicans are loath to slash a defense budget on which many of their constituents depend; Democrats feel the same way about pet social welfare programs. As U.S. commentator Patrick J. Buchanan puts it: “The center has disintegrated. The result: a deadlock of democracy, with neither party responsible and neither accountable, as we drift toward the falls.”

The policy of encircling Russia was always a luxury rendered affordable by the economic bubbles of years gone by (and never did correspond to U.S. interests). In the event Republicans take the White House in 2012, and the Middle East remains the intractable mess it is today, and the global economy is beset by stagflation (entirely possible in view of current Federal Reserve policies), they will have their hands full. They may well come to appreciate Obama’s prudent handling of relations with Russia today, and to see in it the reflection of their fathers’ Republican Party.

Ethan S. Burger, Esq, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA:

Although my recent search on Google of “Tea Party,” “foreign policy,” and “Russia” yielded over 400,000 hits, I doubt that many U.S. citizens cast their vote last week in order to express their frustration over President Barak Obama’s handling of the country’s foreign policy toward Russia.

Nonetheless, the results will embolden many of Obama’s public and behind closed doors critics. Some specialists who in 2008 were glad to see a Democrat in the White House may feel free to share their views regarding what they see as a misguided Carter-esque foreign policy (i.e. that of the pre-Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan era, but without a genuine commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights).

The Russian political establishment has good reason to be alarmed about the composition of the new Congress. The belief that Russia is too important to be held accountable for its transgressions through meaningful action rather than words or “quiet diplomacy” is now subject to challenge. This will create a new dynamic.

The Obama administration clearly prefers to deal with president Medvedev than prime minister Putin, but does its preference have any meaningful impact on Russian policy making (or even on its traditional allies’ policies toward Russia)? Unless the U.S. government can achieve some genuine and longstanding foreign policy successes in numerous realms, its foreign policy team will be forced to adopt new methods. This may be unfortunate as political change in Russia occurs slowly and generally occurs after setbacks too great to ignore.

As a result, it will take longer for a new START agreement to win Senate ratification, but it remains highly unlikely that it will be defeated. Perhaps more Americans will be willing to question publicly why the U.S. should be supportive of Russia’s efforts to join the WTO when it does not honor many of its existing treaty commitments, pursues an opportunistic foreign policy, and its progress toward greater civil/human rights domestically is marked daily by troubling developments.

Ira Straus, U.S. Coordinator, Committee on Russia in NATO, Washington, DC:

1. The probable outcome is more mixed: some losses for the reset, some gains for it as well.
Probably, the risks to START, as outlined by Frolov -- maybe overstated. Most likely START will be used to bargain for commitments out of Obama on other nuclear matters not affecting Russia.

The probable gains:

Afghanistan. There will be more constancy in support of the war effort, less pressure for suicidal deadlines, a continued welcome from the U.S. (although not from Karzai) for such involvement as Russia may choose.
More support for and ratification of trade agreements around the world. This may not help Russia, but then again, maybe it will. The question should be treated as open. Why not explore it?

It'd be worth considering a dramatic-sounding proposal that would play well ideologically with the Republicans, such as a U.S.-Russian free trade agreement. This would serve to scrap Jackson-Vanik en passant, by changing the ideological context, rather than fighting endlessly within the old context that keeps reminding people of their Cold War positions.

Other, more remote possible gains derive from greater flexibility in strategic concept. For example, Medvedev could welcome the evolving semi-alliance of the United States with India, as complementary to Russia's relations with both countries. He could revive the project of a U.S.-Russian-Indian triangle, which was discussed among Russian democrats in the late 1990s as an alternative to Primakov's China triangle; it would upgrade the cooperation on the three powers' shared problems in the Islamic space in-between them, and would have the symbolic significance of uniting the countries that in Cold War times were the core of the First, Second, and Third worlds.

Foreign policy is overwhelmingly in the hands of the president, not Congress. Policy in the CIS will remain in Obama's hands. And Obama needs the reset just as much as Medvedev does. It is Obama's only significant foreign policy success, amidst a sea of failures – Iran, where the outstretched hand brought contempt and increased aggressiveness; China, which too has become increasingly aggressive; Latin America, where bad has gone to worse; even Europe, where the Obama effect proved of no benefit, and good opportunities have been wasted. The only positive thing he can point to has been the increased unity of the international community vis-?-vis Iran; which has meant, mostly, Russia, i.e., the reset.

2. About "provincial radicals" in America: Here Frolov’s concern is well-justified, and shared by many Americans. But remember the context of American history. Provincial radicals have come close to power in America many times, occasionally rising to hold real power – George W. Bush, Andrew Jackson – but never with the devastating effects felt when similar groups have come to power in eastern European countries such as Russia.

Provincial radicals largely set the tone for the country in 1776, and ever thereafter we've had lots of provincial radicals around trying to ape them. Provincial radicals came to power in much of America during the Revolution, and afterwards largely returned to power with the triumph of Jefferson's Republicans; but they coexisted with and alternated with older elites. Not that no price was paid; one could judge the civil war of 1776 to 1783 a heavy price, along with the repressions which the radicals imposed during that war, repressions far more severe than in any of America's later wars (no one remembers that nowadays, when ignorant senators and journalists on the liberal-left give us an endless stream of alarmed comments about how we're losing our liberties through wartime restrictions, contrasted to the supposedly pristine, pure civil liberties records of our Founding Fathers). One could add later costs -- the second civil war in the 1860s was a long-term consequence; a century of enemy relations with England; the disastrous isolationism of the 1930s. Yet all this pales when compared to the costs of most revolutions.

Today's Tea Party movement is another belated consequence of the idealization of America's bout of provincial radicalism in the 1770s; its ego-identity model, the Boston Tea Party, wrecked the prospects of conciliation between the colonies and Britain. Will we have a new revolution and civil war? No. Very few of even the wildest Tea Partiers would wish for that. They may idealize the most radical people of 1776, but in reality, fortunately, they have little in common with them. They have been utterly peaceful and law-abiding.

Violence in demonstrations continues to come almost exclusively from the far Left, provincial radicals in their own way and also acolytes of 1776, who vent their violent inclinations consistently against meetings for international cooperation. It is there that one finds the truer heirs to the Boston Tea Party, trying once again to set off a spark that would bring down the world order and plunge us into civil war. Terrorist violence and wishes for civil war continue to come almost exclusively from the far Left – notice the Greek Left at the moment with its letter-bombs and crippling strikes and demonstrations – alongside Islamist extremism. Islamism, despite its seemingly Rightist religious fundamentalism, has had a mutual semi-adoption relationship with the Western far Left.

Russia may find greater support from America's provincial radicals than from the older American elites for its difficult pacification efforts in the Caucasus. American provincial radicals often come from American activist churches, which have international charities and outreaches that give them some experience of the external world's conflicts. They report internally on their experiences in pro-Christian terms untroubled by any sense of relativism; they are anti-Islamic in terms that would be horrible for direct policy-formation, but are an antidote to the denial of the reality that has so often led each power, America and Russia, to fail to support the other in its conflicts with Islamists.

The Tea Party radicals in Congress are a minority faction of the Republican Party, which in turn controls one house of Congress; they add up to a fraction of a fraction of the several Federal institutions. They fancy themselves heirs to the American Revolution; they also, most of them, fancy themselves conservatives, and align with the existing Republican conservatism. A rising radicalism always has its dangers, well worth bringing up among us Americans, who need to act intelligently to prevent a further rise to a position where it could do real damage; for our foreign partners, well worth assessing accurately, without exaggeration -- assessing it primarily in its present condition, not primarily in its worst-case potential.
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