Horse Trading as Foreign Policy: Dangers of the Bush-Putin Summit

On the eve of a summit between Presidents Bush and Putin, U.S.-Russia relations are, despite the blip on Iraq, on a high note. There is every reason to believe the meeting at Camp David will be billed as a foreign policy success. Unfortunately, behind the glad-handing and talk of “strategic partnership,” the current U.S.-Russia relationship is an example of the serious dangers inherent in a U.S. foreign policy that emphasizes bilateral deals as the mechanism for achieving national security objectives.

Over the past three years, the Bush Administration has gradually dismantled multilateral arrangements and reduced international relations to a set of bilateral relationships. All other countries must bargain directly with the United States—the sole arbiter of international affairs. As a result, countries like Russia now focus their attention on the United States to an almost unprecedented extent. They base their policies on perceptions of U.S. interests and a crass calculation of how much they “have to offer” to further those interests. In return, they expect America to go along with their pet policies—even when, as in the case of Russia, these policies violate international standards and damage their own long-term political and economic development.

Coming into the summit, the Russians think they have a strong bargaining position. Their economy has been growing for four years. U.S. and international investors are finally returning to the Russian market after the financial meltdown of 1998. Most important, high oil prices have led to an energy-sector boom. Believing it has found a new role as the world’s “Energy Superpower,” Moscow is marketing itself as an alternative to the Middle East as a reliable oil supplier.

The Russians feel equally confident about their political value to the U.S. In contrast to France, Germany, and Turkey, Russia escaped the flap over the war in Iraq with no major damage. In the war on terrorism, Russians think the United States has finally embraced their perspective. The U.S. government has now designated Chechen terrorist Shamil Basaev a threat to American interests. Russia and the United States have even found common ground on weapons of mass destruction after decades of disagreement. Russia has stated that it shares American concerns about Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons and is willing to go along with U.S.-led efforts to press Iran on this issue. Russia has accepted North Korea’s rogue potential and is participating in U.S. negotiations with Pyongyang.

Russia’s belief in its new importance to the United States has been fostered by a small group of people in and around the Bush Administration. Eager for international allies, they welcome having Moscow as a perceived partner in the war on terrorism. For those who seek to squeeze Saudi Arabia or enhance the position of American oil companies in Russian energy deals, the idea that Russian oil will increase U.S. energy security is a useful tool.

But, in fact, Russia’s potential contribution to U.S. economic and political interests is modest at best. The U.S. stake in Russia’s economy overall is negligible. The United States exports less each year to Russia than to the Dominican Republic or Costa Rica. Of total U.S. direct investment abroad, the Russian economy currently claims less than one half of one percent. Russia also cannot supplant the Middle East in oil exports. It is still a small and weak economy, dangerously over-dependent on energy revenues. And politically, while it certainly has a role to play in the war on terrorism, Russia cannot provide what the United States wants most right now—money and large numbers of troops for Iraq. The most important thing Russia can do is “not be France,” a spoiler on key issues.

The real story is the political price of the U.S.-Russian “partnership.” While it may seem cheap right now to the United States, there are costs down the line. Consider Chechnya. During the 2000 U.S. presidential campaign, candidate Bush advocated cutting financial assistance to Russia to punish it for its brutal military campaign in Chechnya. Today, President Bush has allowed Russia to sweep Chechnya under the carpet as an irritant in relations. Even though the costs of the war are clearly high—80,000 troops deployed, countless casualties, a massive refugee crisis, huge sums expended. The White House is only thinking about short-term consequences, not the long-term effects on Russia. The war may be a human tragedy and have dealt a serious blow to Russia’s decade-long transformation, but it will neither bring down Putin’s government nor lead to the disintegration of Russia.

Cutting a deal that allows Russia to bury its future in Chechnya is not the kind of foreign policy success we should want replicated. Unfortunately, Russia is only one of the more publicized examples of behind the scenes quid pro quos (not every country’s leader gets to come to Camp David after all). Many lesser states are engaging in the same kind of bargains with the United States, taking license to crack down at home because they supported war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The question is where does this lead us? If Russia and Chechnya are anything to go by, nowhere we want to be. The Administration’s horse-trading is counter-productive to U.S. national interests. It will result in the creation of a pool of U.S. client states that feel free to ignore their most critical challenges. These countries will be liabilities rather than assets. They will be a far cry from the network of politically and economically stable states that the U.S. needs to really fight the war on terrorism.

Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill are Senior Fellows at The Brookings Institution and authors of The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold.