By Ivan Eland
In response to Barack Obama’s unintended public candor about his greater post-election flexibility on missile defense negotiations with Russia, Mitt Romney reflexively declared in an interview with CNN that Russia is the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe,” adding that Russia “always stands up for the world’s worst actors.”
However, Romney is pandering to the gallery for the election rather than looking at the facts of recently improved U.S.-Russian relations. And it is significant that more than two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, and despite the improved bilateral relations, American politicians can still demagogue the issue by dredging up the American public’s lingering fear of Russia from the Cold War.
Recently, the Russians, contrary to Romney’s implication, have helped the U.S. pressure Iran on its nuclear program. Also, the Russians have provided an important alternative supply route for U.S. supplies going into Afghanistan, which recently has become even more vital since Pakistan closed its supply line during a dispute over the American killing of Pakistani soldiers. Furthermore, Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization will bind it to rules of open world commerce. Finally, and most important, the U.S. and Russia agreed to significant bilateral cuts in long-range strategic nuclear warheads, which makes the world safer because together the Americans and Russians hold 95% of the planet’s nuclear weapons.
Are there still issues between the two nations? Yes. But in the post–Cold War world, the American view has often been “it’s my way or the highway.” American politicians, like Romney, often characterize any Russian deviation from American desires as enemy-like behavior. Yet, after 9/11, George W. Bush declared that any nation not for America was against it. By those standards, Russia, also fearing Islamist radicalism in its own country and on its borders, came down firmly in the U.S. camp.
And improved U.S.-Russian relations have occurred despite the broken American promise not to extend eastward a NATO alliance hostile to Russia in exchange for a united Germany after the East Bloc collapsed. Also, after the country of Georgia started a war with Russia, the Western media seemed to forget this fact, as Russia was condemned for its limited invasion and withdrawal from that country.
The U.S. and Russia have also disagreed on the repression by Syria, a Russian ally, of a pro-democracy rebellion. The Russians are leery of supporting U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning or sanctioning Syria because they fell victim to a U.S. bait-and-switch during the recent war on Libya. Rhetorically, the United States and the West wanted a U.N. resolution giving legitimacy to a bombing campaign to protect the Libyan opposition from Moammar Gadhafi’s threatened onslaught. Yet the air campaign went far beyond the objective of that resolution and ousted Gadhafi from power. In addition, the Russians are probably right about economic sanctions: they probably will not motivate Syria to stop the oppression but instead will likely cause more Syrians to rally around the autocratic regime in defiance of external pressure.
As for U.S. missile defense, it is an unneeded, expensive, and ineffective system that is an unnecessary irritant to U.S.-Russian relations. Although American missile defense sounds, well, defensive, it destabilizes the nuclear balance because countries fear that their nuclear deterrent forces could be nullified. Although the United States says that the system, based in Europe, is directed against the threat of Iranian missiles, the Russians fear that it could be expanded to attempt to nullify their nuclear deterrent force. Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund summed it up best on PBS: “The president is building a missile-defense system that doesn’t work against an Iranian threat that doesn’t yet exist with money we don’t really have.”
Finally, because the United States feels that Vladimir Putin has lower democratic standards for ruling Russia than the U.S. would like, America likely will continue to be suspicious of Russia because it is not in the category of “liberal democracies.” But that is far from being America’s number-one foe, as candidate Romney claims in harking back to Cold War rhetoric.
There are many issues on which the United States and Russia can cooperate. The U.S. can drop the outdated Cold War Jackson-Vanik law inhibiting the normalizing of trade relations; if it doesn’t, U.S. companies can be discriminated against when Russia enters the WTO. If America at last agrees to such normalization, then the U.S. and Russia can more fully develop their commercial relationship, which would raise the cost of any future bilateral conflict. They can also continue to cooperate in negotiations to dissuade Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Lastly, the U.S. could trade unneeded missile defense and further reductions in long-range strategic nuclear warheads for cuts in short-range tactical nuclear weapons, which Russia has many more of than does the U.S. The Russians might take this deal to get rid of missile defense and because their deployable strategic warheads will decay down past the recently negotiated START limit of 1,500 warheads.
So instead of claiming that Russia is Public Enemy Number One, perhaps Romney should avoid inflaming the most important bilateral relationship the United States has in the world; the only other nuclear superpower in the world is still Russia. Instead, realistically, he and the United States should look on Russia as an important country with its own interests and security needs, which might not always coincide with those of the United States. That is why we have negotiations. They are superior to irresponsible campaign rhetoric.