While the reset in the U.S.-Russian relationship has had its fair share of notable achievements, it’s time to develop a new framework for cooperation between the two nations.
Some in Washington believe that the "reset" policy with Russia endangered U.S. interests abroad. Photo: RIA Novosti
The Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, if nothing else, managed to do something that very rarely happens in Washington these days: It united both liberals and conservatives in contempt for a policy they believed naive, foolish and dangerous to U.S. interests abroad.
Relations between the two nations, despite the appearance of a diplomatic breakthrough over Syria, are now said to be at a nadir and it is the “reset” policy that often takes the blame. The Russians are said to have benefited at the expense of the U.S. on issues like missile defense and nuclear disarmament while America received little in return.
Neoconservative publicist Jennifer Rubin summarizes the current thinking about the reset, “We’ve gotten nothing and given up much in the last four years and given Russian President Vladimir Putin a pass on his internal repression.”
What the critics fail to see is that although the policy was flawed from the beginning, it was the correct approach to take at the start of Obama’s first term in 2009.
Consider the state of the U.S.-Russian relationship back then. In August 2008, the Bush National Security Council actually considered executing targeted military strikes against Russian forces during the Russian-Georgian War. That such an action was even considered tells us a few things about the Bush administration’s strategic and tactical planning with regard to Russia, none of which redounds to its credit.
The fact of the matter is that the “reset” policy has had more than its share of tangible achievements, including: the New START treaty, a new civilian nuclear accord, a revised and strengthened visa agreement, cooperation in supplying U.S. forces in Afghanistan through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), and an innovative agreement that encourages cooperation between Russian and American municipal and state governments.
This is certainly not to say that, despite a fair number of accomplishments, it should continue to be the framework that guides U.S.-Russian relations, for the inconsistencies in America’s approach to Russia are now too pronounced to ignore.
To take one example: On the very same day the Obama administration was thanking the Russian government for its help in tracking the Boston bombing suspects, the U.S. Department of State released an unnecessarily lengthy and hectoring report on the myriad ways in which Russia fails to meet the U.S. government's own (rather selective) standards with regard to human rights.
To take another: Many of the same U.S. lawmakers who voted last year for the Sergei Magnitsky Act – easily the most aggressively anti-Russian piece of legislation since the early 1970s – have expressed outrage as to why the Russian government hasn’t been at all cooperative with regard to Edward Snowden.
A post-reset policy ought to be one which emphasizes normalization and that, at the very minimum, would require two things. The first would be a recognition that a mature, great power-to-great power relationship means that Russia should no longer be on the receiving end of either America’s tutelage or largesse.
The Russian government has made it abundantly clear over the past 18 months that it no longer wishes to be a recipient of U.S. foreign aid, and given the troubling economic situation in the U.S., the Obama administration should be happy to oblige.
The second requirement would be a recognition that the U.S. and Russia have fundamentally divergent approaches towards their respective geopolitical challenges, yet several of these challenges are in their mutual interest to address.
Leading the list is the ongoing effort to secure Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons, followed closely by combating Islamic terrorism and promoting nuclear nonproliferation.
Over the medium to longer term, the U.S. and Russia will need to come to terms over the aforementioned NDN, containing a revanchist North Korea, and working toward a sensible and workable replacement for the Nunn-Lugar program.
There needs to be a recognition on the part of policymakers in Washington that, while the Putin government is not necessarily to everyone's liking, it is imperative that the United States – at the very minimum – finds a way to work with the Russians that avoids needless and counterproductive provocations like the issuing of ‘human rights’ report cards, threats to boycott the Sochi Games and bans on adoptions by Americans.
Nevertheless, the “reset” policy, despite the ample criticism it has received from both the Left and the Right, was something of a modest success. However, it should now be put aside in favor of a more realistic approach that eschews overheated rhetoric and focuses on issues of mutual concern.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.