In the cascade of commentary on the current state of the U.S.-Russia relationship, perhaps the most appropriate summary might come from an unlikely source, the folk tale character Chicken Little: the sky does indeed seem to be falling. According to a former Russian prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, writing recently in the Washington Post, "Political relations between Russia and the United States have been steadily fraying . . . they have never been at such odds as they are today." The view of U.S. observers was in concert with this, with references by Russia scholar Stephen Cohen in a series of articles in The Nation to a "new Cold War."
If this is indeed so, why is it so? To cite from recent history: the first stumble down the slippery slope may be seen, ironically, as what ought to have been a potential major, if chiefly symbolic, turning point in bilateral relations, the long-overdue repeal of the Jackson-Vanik amendment. This hoary Congressional economic sanction against the Soviet Union (automatically and unfairly transferred to Russia at the Cold War's end) served as punishment for preventing Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union—a practice that had, of course, long since ceased. Fearful perhaps of being seen to do the right thing on Russia, the U.S. Congress tacked on to the repeal the "Magnitsky Act," ostensibly a principled stance against human rights abuses in Russia by targeting officials supposedly involved in the suspicious death in prison of the opposition figure Sergei Magnitsky. In fact, the act was a) unnecessary, as Justice Department sanctions are in place to prevent egregious human rights abusers from entering or doing business with the United States and b) judicially flawed; it provides for the blacklisting of people based on "data" and "information" from [unspecified] nongovernmental organizations in Russia—a clear violation of due legal process. The act is, in the words of Stephen Cohen, "a fit of sanctimonious lawmaking . . . a blacklist without due process." [The Nation, February 4, 2013] The Kremlin's response was a bill prohibiting American adoption of Russian orphans (this following some instances of serious abuse at the hands of the adoptive parents). Mere tit-for-tat, perhaps, but it is interesting to note, as Cohen does in The Nation article cited above, that whereas criticism was virtually nonexistent of the Magnitsky Act and President Obama's decision to sign it, President Putin was roundly castigated in much of the Russian press for his retaliation.
On went the ping-pong match of mutual recrimination, culminating, of course, in the Edward Snowden affair, with the National Security Administration's whistle-blowing contractor being first hunkered down in some secure transit area of Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, and then granted a year's asylum in Russia. The ping-pong ball flew back in Russia's direction with Obama's canceling of a scheduled summit meeting with Putin during the Group of 20 economic summit in St. Petersburg next month.
Be all this as it may, Chicken Little is wrong; nor, indeed, is this "the lowest point [in U.S.-Russia relations] since the fall of the Soviet Union," as Kathy Lally solemnly observed in a recent Washington Post article. The title of her article is here revealing: "U.S.-Russia relations turn chilly—again." The key word is, of course, "again," and it reinforces two simple truths: we have seen this before, and matters between the two have been worse. Let us pose the question: Is the current state of affairs actually worse than, or even as bad as, that which arose from the expansion of NATO to Russia's borders in the 1990s? Or the bombing of Russia's ally, Serbia, by U.S.-led NATO forces in 1999? On the personal level, there was the infamous photograph of Obama and Putin seated together at the June 2013 summit in Northern Ireland, each in a grim "I'd rather not be here," eye-contact –avoiding pose. But is this actually worse than the caustic exchange between Putin and then-President George W. Bush at the Beijing Olympics, when differences over Russian-Georgian hostilities provoked the description of Putin by Bush: "cold as ice"?
The difference between strains and stresses, past and present is important: NATO expansion, the Yugoslav war, the Georgia conflict, are all "big-deal" causes that truly divide; the current crop are largely symbolic and gratuitous. Is it not ironic that, in the context of the Magnitsky Bill, it was a prominent former Republican congressman, Ron Paul, who observed that "If Congress really is concerned about the human rights of prisoners, perhaps they might take a look at the terrible treatment of U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning."? We are, to be sure, in a zero-sum game—again—but the stakes are pretty paltry. One hopes and expects that President Obama, while garnering some political capital for "sticking it to the Russians" in canceling the meeting with his Russian counterpart, will keep his eye on the ball when it comes to the things that really matter—things like arms control, cooperation on international terrorism, and, yes, economic cooperation and improving the lamentably low trade figures, now that Russia has officially been listed as one of the world's "rich" nations.
This will mean accepting two things: first, grandiose speeches and imagery are not sufficient. The much-vaunted 2009 "reset" policy toward Russia sounded awfully good, but what did in fact result? The United States got the three big prizes it sought: cooperation in supplying NATO forces in Afghanistan; further sanctions on Iran; and Russia's agreement not to veto the UN Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya. What did Russia get in return? Further hectoring on human rights and the "spread of democracy." And with respect to another matter of critical importance to Russia, as Lally's Washington Post article points out: "The summit was called off, according to the White House, because there was no sign that any progress would be made on U.S. priorities of missile defense and arms control." [my emphasis]
This leads us to the second point: Russia too has genuine security interests, which we must take into account, and among those is missile defense. There is simply no point in harping on about this not being a threat to Russia; it is not how Moscow sees things. We must also understand that Russia has different, and entirely justified, concerns, over Syria, and specifically over a post-Assad scenario of jihadist extremism whose flames lick dangerously close to Russia's southern border. Add to this Russian fears of chaos in Afghanistan that spill over to Central Asia and we have a pretty impressive list of sleepless night scenarios. In his landmark work, Politics Among Nations, the political philosopher Hans Morgenthau advanced "The Promise of Diplomacy: Its Nine Rules." Under "fundamental rules," he urges that "diplomacy must look at the political scene from the point of view of other nations," and goes on to quote the great 18th century British parliamentarian, Edmund Burke: "Nothing is so fatal to a nation as an extreme of self-partiality, and the total want of consideration of what others will naturally hope or fear." [1954, 2nd. Edition] Russia's hopes and fears (and ambitions) may differ from ours, but, one would argue, this is more a difference of degree rather than kind.
In sum, and to repeat, we are not in uncharted territory here: there have been moments of historically high tension, graver than today. The dialogue must resume, for a couple of reasons: first, it—engagement—is, as we have just argued, the right thing to do. Second, it is the sensible thing to do, given the gravity of the challenges and Russia's singular potential contribution to their amelioration. Russia, after all, borders, and must deal with, virtually every nasty neighborhood on the planet, from North Korea to the Middle East. The stakes for Russia could not be higher. A mature and sensible approach here could reverse what has been, in Russian eyes at least, a 20-year pattern of triumphalist policy on the part of the United States—we won the Cold War, we'll call the post-Cold War shots, if you want to come on board, that's fine, if not, we'll proceed anyhow.
In an essay for the 2008 book To Lead the World: American Strategy after the Bush Doctrine (edited by Melvyn P. Lefler and Jeffrey W. Legro), Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor Stephen Van Evera writes: "What grand strategy should the United States adopt in the post-9/11 era? . . . The world's major powers should organize themselves into a grand alliance, or concert—along the lines of the 1815 Concert of Europe—to take united action against WMD proliferation, WMD terrorism and threats to the global commons. The United States should lead in creating and sustaining this new concert." To the extent that this ambitious concert is achievable, and for all the differences that exist and will persist, Russia would be an indispensable member. Our common strategic interests outweigh our differences; let's not allow the latter to prevail.