A Russian “Reset Button” Based on Inclusion

February 23, 2009

Three weeks ago, Joseph Biden, U.S. vice-president, made headlines by proclaiming the Obama administration’s intention to “press the reset button” in U.S.-Russian relations. Next week, Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, will sit down in Geneva with Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, to figure out what that metaphor means.

While there are plenty of specifics to talk about, the overarching concern in Washington and European capitals is that Russia is cracking down at home and throwing its weight around abroad. Not surprisingly, many are worried about a new cold war. However, that is not a useful way to think about what is happening.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia does not embody or promulgate an alternative model of political and economic governance; it has no real allies, even – and perhaps especially – in its own neighbourhood. Despite its formidable nuclear arsenal, it is no longer a military superpower. Moreover, there is less braggadocio in Moscow these days than there used to be about Russia being a “petro-superpower”, given the combined effects of the global recession, the fall in oil prices, the evaporation of foreign currency reserves and the flight of foreign direct investment.

In Davos last month, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, put on a display of defiance and blame-storming in public, but in private he was far more sombre – as well he should be. A Russia that is less cocky and more self-consciously vulnerable about its standing in an interconnected world could go in one of two directions: it might become more repressive and bellicose, or it may recognise that a state’s success and security is directly proportional to its ability to make a virtue out of global interdependence.

The challenge for the United States and Europe is to encourage Russia to move in the latter direction, including in its internal evolution. That will not be easy, given Russian resentment of lectures from abroad. Leaders from countries based on democracy and the rule of law must be true to those principles in the way they talk to Russians. But they should focus on engaging Russia in multilateral agreements and structures that involve norms to which it must adapt if it is to be a leading player in a consensual, rule-based international order.

The resumption of treaty-based arms control – a priority of the Obama administration that Moscow welcomes – can help. So can another of Mr Obama’s goals: strengthening international institutions. At the worldwide level, there is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (in which Russia is an observer) and the World Trade Organisation (for which Russia is an applicant), as well as the Group of Eight leading industrialised nations, which in the face of the financial crisis is morphing into something substantially larger.

At the transregional level, there is the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe – of which Russia is a member, though a recalcitrant and sometimes obstructionist one. There are, in the super-region that encompasses the United States and Canada and stretches across Eurasia, some 20 organizations. Many came into being after the cold war, with overlapping memberships and missions and a shared commitment to co-operation and mutual benefit. They range from bodies that Russia belongs to, such as the Council of Europe, to ones with which it has an affiliation, including the European Union.

In the far east, there are opportunities to build on Russian, European and U.S. participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum and the outreach activities of the Association of South East Asian Nations.

So in a very real sense, the political (as opposed to the geographic) “west” has Russia surrounded. That is a fact – and a formulation – that makes many Russians nervous, or worse, since “encirclement” is the English version of the word that they use for “containment”. But what is called for is emphatically not the cold war strategy based on a global chain of military alliances aimed at deterring or, if necessary, defeating Soviet expansionism. Of those pacts, only NATO survives precisely because it has – whatever the Russians may fear and say – taken on a post-cold war identity and mission.

Revitalising the NATO-Russia Council should, over the longer term, ease Russia’s neuralgia about the alliance. In the near term, the council could provide a forum for dealing with troublesome issues such as the Bush administration’s plans to base anti-missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic and the Russian threat to counter those deployments with offensive rockets in Kaliningrad.

The Russians have provided an opening for renewed diplomacy. Since last summer, President Dmitry Medvedev has been calling for a “new Euro-Atlantic security architecture”. So far, except for rehashing old complaints and the unacceptable claim that other former Soviet republics fall within Russia’s “sphere of privileged interests”, Mr Medvedev and Mr Lavrov have been vague about what they have in mind.

That creates a vacuum that the United States and its European partners can fill with their own proposals. The theme of those should be accelerating the emergence of an international system (of which NATO is a part) that is prepared to include Russia rather than exclude or contain it, and to encourage positive forces in Russia that want to see their nation integrated in a globalised world organised around the search for common solutions to common problems.