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07.08.2006. Russia — U.S.: back to peaceful coexistence?

Unofficial translation

Last week, two important foreign policy papers were released in the United States. One is the president’s national security report, The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. The last such document was issued in 2003. The other, entitled Russia’s Wrong Direction: What the United States Can and Should Do, was prepared by the Council on Foreign Relations, America’s most prestigious foreign policy organization. The two documents of course differ in importance, but are crucial for understanding where U.S. foreign policy thought is directed, where the White House is heading, and in what direction the different groups of the policy-making elite are attempting to push the U.S. policy toward Russia.

The first thing that strikes the eye from reading the documents, especially the presidential report, is democratic messianism as a keynote of U.S. foreign policy. The words “democracy” and “freedom” occur several times literally on every page. Their spread is declared not only as the principal goal of U.S. foreign policy, but also a cure-all for all woes of the present world – poverty, tyranny, diseases, and terrorism, as well as the main instrument of ensuring U.S. security. Elements of political realism, the understanding that America cannot always be guided by high-minded ideals in its policy are there, but somewhere in the background.

One could, of course, cynically dismiss the calls for the spread of freedom, democracy and human rights as traditional election campaigning taking a valuable essay from the Democrats (the Republicans have always been more pragmatic, appealing to the realism of force rather than the idealism of freedom and democracy in the world). The description of the triumphant march of democracy in the world, showcasing the democratic “success stories” of Afghanistan, Georgia and Saudi Arabia (where Islamic radicals won the country’s first election on the municipal level) or Kyrgyzstan (where the situation is increasingly destabilizing and getting out of control), is bound to raise some eyebrows. For all the empathy for America’s suffering in Iraq and the tragedy of the Iraqi people, it is a bit of a stretch to call the civil war-ravaged Iraq a victorious democracy.

It is also somewhat surprising that the list of the most tyrannical regimes, including North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Belarus, does not include certain notorious regimes including in the FSU area. It is true, though, that some of these notorious regimes produce oil and natural gas.

Yet, even if we disagree with the U.S. president (due to Russian political experience or cynicism born from seven decades of abortive Communist messianism, a decade of quasi-democratic revolutionary chaos and the last few years of “managed democracy” without any ideas or ideals), I cannot but feel respect for the leader of a nation who is attempting to restore ideals in a world that is rapidly losing faith in them. I actually believe that the deeply religious George W. Bush feels a democratic messiah who is obsessed with the ideas and slogans that he is proclaiming, while the ruling elite (some of it believing in these ideals, some half believing, and some not believing at all) has to adjust to them. In pursuing a specific policy line, George W. Bush and his inner circle deviate from the proclaimed lofty objectives or use them for very practical purposes – i.e., advancing U.S. interests. Nevertheless, the United States does have ideals, sometimes acting to its own detriment in the name of these ideals, criticizing its SOBs and denying them support. It gets involved in a war, whose catastrophic consequences and implications for American interests were predicted by nine-tenths of experts. Where are those who kept saying at that time that the Americans started the war in Iraq over oil? What have the Americans gained except the loss of power, prestige and money? Thus far, other, oil-producing countries have gained from it, above all Russia.

American democratic idealism should not be underestimated, nor should the American leadership be judged by those who have lost faith. This is fraught with costly mistakes. 
Another important subject of the president’s message is the declaration of war (I believe, for the first time ever) on Islamic radicalism. All the right words about respect for the great and proud Islamic civilization have been spoken. But it has also been said that the fight against militant Islamic radicalism is the greatest ideological conflict at the beginning of the 21st century; that all great powers have joined forces on counterterrorism; and that this situation drastically differs from the 20th century, when the great powers were divided by ideology and national interests.

Bush said what many were thinking about but did not dare say aloud. Now it will be more difficult for Russia to ignore this reality, especially since we were the first to take up arms and, having paid a terrible price, won the battle in Chechnya –not yet war – against this most militant and belligerent form of Islamic radicalism and terrorism.
By their ill-judged intervention in Iraq the Americans have made this struggle far more difficult for everyone.

Russia’s history and geography, as well as many of its partners, have been pushing it into the battlefield of this new confrontation. We are faced with an extremely difficult task of avoiding this fate to the maximum degree possible. 

Predictably, Iran – said to be the evil of all evils: tyranny, Muslim radicalism, terrorism, and the proliferation of WMD – was declared America’s number one enemy. It looks like the United States has abandoned attempts (at least, for the next two years) to convince Tehran, and will try to use mostly coercion on it. This will hardly frighten Iranian radicals but will most certainly drive Iranian reformers into a corner. It would be wiser to fight not the Iranian leadership but Tehran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.

One provision of the National Security Strategy that has caused the most controversy is the option of preemptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to U.S. national security that can be used on any scale against regimes or terrorists who have acquired or seized weapons of mass destruction and are threatening, even if potentially, to use them. I was struck by the unanimously negative reaction to this provision in the Western media. I was even more stunned by criticism that came from Russia. Preemptive action to counter an attack is an axiom of military theory and practice. Those who did not follow this theory and built Maginot lines invariably took severe punishment. The need for preemptive strikes is all the more evident in our increasingly dangerous age.

So what, does Russian military doctrine not provide for such actions? If this is indeed the case, our strategists must be fired on the spot. But as far as I know, such options have never been precluded, and all our possible adversaries know about this. I am sure that the General Staff knows what it is doing.

It is another matter that the United States is attempting to usurp the right to preemptive actions, saying that (other) nations should not “use preemption as a pretext for aggression.” Oh, come on. If there is a direct threat to a country’s vital interests and national security, no one will ask Washington what to do.

The presidential report put forward a positive program to control WMD proliferation. Russia would be ready to subscribe to it almost without reservations. Russia is naturally interested in playing a key role in its implementation. Indeed, without Russia no such program can be effectively implemented.

Finally, the report offers a vision of Russia that the White House would like to convey to America, the world, and Russia herself. The report reiterates that there should be no rivalry between the great powers, stressing the importance of Russia for the United States and the world, and expressing readiness to work closely together in areas where our interests coincide, and take problems in stride where they don’t. This is from the old, “positive” lexicon. But there are also some new notes. For example, it is stated that some recent trends (in Russia) point to a diminishing commitment to democratic freedoms and institutions. Russia is urged to move forward, not backward. The report also contains a veiled threat that relations could worsen should Moscow hinder democratic development not only at home but also in neighboring countries. The presidential report does not proclaim a turnaround in Russian-U.S. relations, yet it definitely implies such a possibility.

By contrast, the report issued under the auspices by the Council on Foreign Relations puts a much greater thrust on the possibility and even the desirability of a turnaround in Russian-U.S. relations.
I will not attempt to review the report out of respect for the Council that I have been cooperating with for 30 years, and out of respect for the experts and politicians who took part in preparing it with many of whom I have been linked by professional and friendly relations for decades. I will only say this. The report highlights the need for a deep and frank dialogue between the elites. This dialogue is almost non-existent now. At least, there is less of it than during the Cold War era. I would hate to think that many of the report's astounding evaluations were caused by ideological bias. They obviously resulted from simple misunderstanding.

I will mention some of the basic points of the report.
The Russian economy is developing very successfully. This is pleasing, yet many people in Russia would not share this degree of optimism. At the same time it is stated that in domestic policy, Russia is backtracking on the democratic gains of the past. Corruption is growing. Over-centralization of power at the expense of building modern state and public institutions is approaching a critical point indicating the decline in the efficiency of state governance.

These assertions have a very substantial element of truth. If I wrote a report about the development of Russia's domestic policy, I would have thrown in a few more serious critical remarks. 
The problem with the report in question, however, is that it presents practically all aspects of Russia's domestic policy in a black light, it’s all gloom and doom, creating the impression that the 1990s saw the thriving of democracy, while the middle of this decade is characterized by its demise.

The authors refuse to face up to the fact that Russia, which no one has ever really helped to reform, is going through a natural period of counterrevolution and conservative consolidation after the chaos of the 1990s. And it is rather strange to hear criticism coming from people who publicly approved of the use of tanks guns against the Russian parliament in 1993, who supported the methods by which Boris Yeltsin was elected in 1996, who granted loans to the bankrupt government in 1998, who stood by the Kremlin in 1999, when it had virtually lost touch with reality and become ineffective, to the level that the state was visibly disintegrating. I was with or on the side of those who had used tanks and who provided that support, but I felt ashamed not only for myself and for my country but also for leaders of the democratic world, including the U.S. president, who had openly backed the execution and the methods of governance that were practiced at that time.

While being sad about the backsliding on some democratic principles and disagreeing with many aspects of Russia's domestic policy, I will make a heretical point for a person of democratic and liberal persuasions. When all is said and done, Russia has never been at the same time a more thriving or freer country than it is now. We were only a little freer in the turbulent 1990s, while just a handful of people had a normal life, let alone prospered at that time.

The report makes gloomy forecasts, stating that Russia's future is unpredictable. Now, when was it more predictable? A stagnation/authoritarianism scenario is possible, but it is equally possible that within the next several years, the country could return to more modern and effective development. On the other hand, we are practically past the Weimar period of our history, while retreat to a totalitarian or ultranationalist regime is extremely unlikely. 

The description of Russia’s foreign policy produces an even stranger impression. The authors of the CFR report say that this policy, except perhaps for Russia's cooperation on Iran and WMD nonproliferation as a whole, is becoming almost completely anti-American.

Of course, Russia feels more confident, perhaps even over confident, and protects its own interests, not conducting the servile “what can we do for you” policy of the first half of the 1990s that some of the Americans must be feeling nostalgic for now.

But calling Russia’s present policy anti-American? Here are some of the manifestations of “hostility” mentioned in the report. It turns out that we are pushing China into a confrontation with the United States by selling arms to it or conducting joint military exercises. We support antidemocratic regimes in Central Asia and ousting the United States out of the region. As far as the last-mentioned point is concerned, I believe that the Americans were pleased to leave Uzbekistan, shifting responsibility onto Russia. But then the Russian president supported the deployment of the U.S. and NATO base in Kyrgyzstan. What are we expected to do – overthrow bad or very bad local regimes and pave the way to chaos, radical Islamism and drug barons?

We stand admonished for the dialogue with Hamas. I for one do not believe that a country that has suffered so much from Chechen terrorism should have hastened to open negotiations with a terrorist organization even if legitimately came to power. But in his message, the U.S. president told Hamas basically the same thing as did the Russian authorities: Recognize Israel's right to exist, conduct a responsible policy, and we will work with you.

Cooperation in the energy sphere, although not very effective but still highly positive, is described as anti-American. Even the delay in the construction of an oil pipeline to Murmansk is seen as an anti-American move.

It is proposed that this narrow cooperation be narrowed further, not expanded. 
And this is the strangest thing of all. A narrowing and downgrading of cooperation is being proposed in a situation where the United States has considerably weakened because of Iraq, while the new agenda – the Greater Middle East, WMD proliferation, the integration of new giants into the world system, energy and other global challenges – requires closer cooperation than ever before. The United States is obviously not in a position to deal with these problems single-handedly, while its traditional allies cannot or do not want to play a global role.

By far the greatest sin of Russia’s foreign policy, however, is the “politically motivated” energy blackmail of Ukraine. I do believe that there was a political ingredient in the gas price hike, but there was even more bad politics and corruption in the decade-long practice of selling natural gas to Ukraine at below-market prices. For the past few years we had been subsidizing the Ukrainian ruling class to the tune of more than $4.5 billion a year – probably 30 times as much as what the United States had provided to Kiev. So, is the transition to market prices, abandonment of paternalism, and the treatment of Ukraine as a completely sovereign state also anti-American policy?

What is especially striking is that the authors of the report fail to see a number of important spheres where Russia and the United States are closely cooperating. We have consistently supported the U.S. peace operation in Afghanistan, and we closely cooperate on the North Korean nuclear problem. During the crisis around Iraq, unlike many U.S. allies, Russia did nothing to undermine Washington's positions. Moscow warned in advance that it saw the action as ill-judged, and it proved right. Hardly anyone will describe Russia's present policy on Iraq as unconstructive.

The report is not entirely negative. It calls for constructive cooperation in nonproliferation and a number of other spheres, but on the whole both its tonality and recommendations are negative.

Yet whereas the report is rich on criticism, it is rather short on advice. It recommends cooperation only in areas that are beneficial for the United States. It also proposes predicating U.S. policy toward Russia on the level of its democratic development. (On this point, however, most Republican authors expressed disagreement, arguing that only anti-American moves in foreign policy should be countered.) 
In this context, the report offers a curious list of instruments to pressure Russia.

First, downgrading the level of cooperation within the Russia-NATO Council. Now, we thought that our cooperation with NATO helped the organization by providing it extra legitimization.

Second, revival of the G7 within the G8 – preliminary consultations without Russia, which somewhat downgrades her status. Well, psychologically, this is not a very nice prospect, but Russia today is little reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the late-Gorbachev era or of Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. Moscow is more confident and no longer sets much store by outward signs of respect. Furthermore, the G8 is a little weak and not as yet in a position to fill the emerging vacuum in international relations. The group’s enlargement to include India, China and possibly Brazil is high on the agenda, so the threat of reviving the G7 within the G8 does not look credible enough. Meanwhile, the G7 within the G10, which is bound to come about sooner or later, would look very strange indeed.

So what conclusions should we make from the analysis of these two reports?

First, we have reached a limit in political conservative evolution. If we cross this line, we will give the “knights and pages” of the Cold War in the West an excuse for worsening relations with Russia. These people feel lost; they cannot live without an enemy nor are they able to acknowledge past mistakes. They will be playing into the hands of our own “knights and pages” who, driven by their parochial mentality and old stereotypes, would like to fight against America, not fight for Russia, pushing the country into ruinous isolationism.

We cannot allow the creation of an “unholy alliance” of the most backward elements within our policy-making class. They or their predecessors have already caused us colossal damage by playing into each other's hands during the real Cold War.

Second, we should not be too cynical toward the democratic rhetoric of the United States or Europe, as we are sometimes cynical toward such rhetoric in our own country. Many people, including political leaders, believe in what they say, and if we want to be together with the developed and relatively free world, we should start playing according to the common rules of the game not only in word but in deed.

Third, we should not be afraid of criticism. We should not get complacent. Still, we are acquiring a sense of motherland and the state. Criticism should be heeded; the views of “knights and pages” should be taken into account, but we should go our own way, modernizing, strengthening and democratizing the country for our own benefit and therefore for the benefit of the entire civilized world.

Finally, we are being pressured, both at home and abroad, to return into the prehistoric era of the Cold War or “peaceful coexistence.” We must not yield to his pressure either politically or intellectually. We have gone through the tragedy of confrontation. We should not get involved in a farce.

// Rossiyskaya Gazeta