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Gorbachev's Great Expectations

By Anton Fedyashin

Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington last month as part of a tour inspired by the promise of a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations. The former General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party and first Soviet President met with American academics and officials, including President Obama and Vice President Biden. Throughout his trip, he argued that the United States and Russia share three fundamental goals, all of which will be impossible to achieve without working as equal partners: controlling nuclear weapons, dealing with Islamic extremism, and cooperating on environmental issues. But finding common ground from which to negotiate won't be easy.

Washington and Moscow will not agree on all the details, but Russian cooperation is indispensable on all three issues. The two countries have a long tradition of arms negotiations. Moscow has leverage over countries where the U.S. has lost credibility. And the Siberian forests, together with Brazil's rainforest, constitute the planet's second lung. The Obama administration has offered the Russians an open hand and Mr. Medvedev has reciprocated the kind gesture. Now begins the hard business of finding points of contact.

When the Soviets offered to eliminate all nuclear weapons from Europe in the late 1980s, Gorbachev argued, the Americans balked because that would leave the Soviet Union with a conventional arsenal that dwarfed Europe's defenses. The Russians and other countries are now in a similar situation vis-à-vis the U.S., whose conventional weapons and military budget eclipse all others. That promises to become a stumbling block in negotiations unless an overall demilitarization of politics takes place. Former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, and James A. Baker will discuss these problems with Gorbachev and others at an upcoming conference in Rome. And Defense Secretary Gates' new budget coincides propitiously with the beginning of negotiations on this issue. Simultaneously, the Russian military reform also aims to streamline and professionalize the army. Both Mr. Medvedev and President Obama will surely face stiff opposition from domestic quarters, but both proposals may ease mutual suspicions and prove to the upcoming nuclear generation that the "old school" is serious about arms control.

Mr. Gorbachev's central complaint, however, goes beyond specific current policies. According to him, the West's "victory complex" after the Soviet collapse has become an obstacle to solving global problems. Gorbachev was especially critical of President Clinton's assertion in 1997 that "with God's help," the twenty-first century will become an American century. Gorbachev maintained that the militarization of global politics since 1991 resulted from the zero-sum diplomatic mentality of the Clinton and Bush administrations. In the economic realm, old methods and outdated thinking, such as the blind faith in an unregulated market, led to the current global financial crisis. The Obama administration can reap windfalls by incorporating Russia further into international financial and trade systems including the WTO, which will in turn become powerful levers for influence on Moscow. The abolition of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act would be a welcome start down this path.

The Russian government also needs to change things. Judging oneself by one's own standard can result in a false sense of achievement. It is one thing to criticize abstract universalism and point to double standards. It is another to articulate one's identity constructively. Criticizing the West has proven to be a cheap and easy way to consolidate public opinion in Russia. Blaming the United States for the world's financial woes and seeking Western conspiracies behind instability in the Caucasus covers up their real cause, which is massive administrative corruption. As Georgian President Saakashvili discovered last summer, state-encouraged phobias can become self-fulfilling. The Russian government could extract a useful lesson from the one it meted out: defining oneself against others is a stunted form of individuality. Russia still needs to give positive content to its form and find its niche in the global market if it does not want to remain a natural resource warehouse. The financial crisis and the current détente with the U.S. offer the Kremlin not only the chance to prove that it is a dependable international partner, but also the opportunity for domestic reform and national reconciliation.

The Obama administration has a unique chance to regain the full confidence of states that would like to become its partners by abandoning the universalist ideology that characterized the previous administrations. It doesn't have to abandon America's ideals to do that. Western judgments of Russia's progress towards an open and democratic society have focused on Western ideals instead of Russia's own tradition. Russia has come a long way from Stalin's purges and the numbing Party-enforced conformity of the Brezhnev era. Encouraging Russia rather than judging it should become the State Department's dominant foreign policy vector. Indeed, it was a strange combination to encourage democracy in a country with one hand and surround it with NATO members with the other. By the second Bush term, allying oneself with U.S. interests meant certain political suicide for Russian liberals. The moral of this tale is that universalist projects lose their appeal when they are enforced. If the current détente lasts long enough the Russian liberals can once again look to the U.S. as a model. Indeed, as President Obama and Mr. Gorbachev have both argued, security and civil liberties do not have to be mutually exclusive. Quite the contrary, they cannot exist apart.

Anton Fedyashin is Assistant Professor of Russian History at American University.

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Comments (15)

Moonraker Author Profile Page:

I have to take issue with jbritt3 on the Putin issue. It is true that Gorbachev has severely criticized Putin's United Russia Party and for good reason. However, Putin's foreign policy conduct has been much less aggressive than that of the US over the past two presidencies. Putin has been authoritarian at home, but quite astute in his foreign goals, not all of which coincide with those of the US or the EU (especially its new Eastern European members). If there is anyone to blame for a return to the Cold War mentality, it was the Bush administration with its invasions, defense shields, and aggressive NATO expansions. Putin's and Bush's terms started out rather well until Rumsfeld and Cheney got their hands on the foreign policy levers. Russia is hardly to blame for the souring of international relations over the past eight years.

milesrider Author Profile Page:

Communism failed because the people of the soviet bloc no longer wanted communism. Gorbachev was the man who set the ball rolling with glasnost and other reforms carried out by his administration to democratise Russia. It is foolhardy to believe that it was Ronald Reagan alone who brought about the demise of Soviet Union, he happen to be in power when it came crashing down. And like all political leaders he bathed in the reflective glory of its demise.

niginam Author Profile Page:

"Gorbachev cannot point out that the humiliating Soviet collapse happened because Soviet Communism failed."

Some people would argue that it is Gorbachev to blame for the collapse. Actually, more and more people now blame Gorbachev.
Gorbachev now is doing damage control of some kind and tries to play a dove of peace. Please!

jbritt3 Author Profile Page:

It is hard not to notice that this post refers to Gorbachev's views when the subject is shortcomings in American and NATO policy, but not when addressing Russian attitudes and government policy. Dr. Fedyashin, an academic safely ensconced at an American university, must speak in his own voice on this subject, and somewhat indirectly at that.

This is the problem. Even an eminence like Gorbachev, one of the decisive figures in modern Russian history, cannot address Russian problems in plain language. As Putin's government attempts to cultivate nostalgia for Stalin, Gorbachev cannot point out that the humiliating Soviet collapse happened because Soviet Communism failed. In the face of abundant evidence that NATO expanded in the 1990s because most of Russia's neighbors to the West hated and feared the Russians for what they had done during the Soviet period, Gorbachev must play to the Kremlin's view that innocent Russia is the victim of a Western conspiracy. So far from judging Russia, the last three American administrations gave Russia rather a pass on all the trouble and suffering that country brought on the world.

Productive negotiations on subjects like the enviroment and nuclear arms reduction are certainly possible in these circumstances; the difference in Allied and Russian perspectives is hardly as great now as it was before Gorbachev's time in office, and useful agreements with Russia were sometimes reached even then. It is much more difficult now, however, to keep such negotiations private, and the Russian government's grim determination to portray itself and its country as a permanent victim is likely to make constructive negotiations more difficult.

Incidentally, one notes that in this post Dr. Fedyashin does not mention Vladimir Putin's name once. It would be pleasant to think that this means Fedyashin believes Putin will not be a factor (an important factor? The dominant factor?) in determining the Russian government's positions on important issues. But that sounds too good to be true.

GaryEMasters Author Profile Page:

If you accept the "Great Deception" the USA and Russia never were enemies, but co conspirators after the Second War. How else did we avoid nuclear war? Now we both need to balance China in a cooperative structure.

niginam Author Profile Page:

Very interesting piece. It is a fresh view and I couldn't agree more that Russia needs to be engaged. US and Russia face common threats that they can work on defeating together. Both countries must start seeing each other as partners in these issues.

dkovelsky Author Profile Page:

Profession Fedyashin has become a joy to read in our new era of stimuli response to events. I have read both his analysises and I look forward to reading more of his carefully reasoned and thoughtful pieces. We need more like him in our newspapers.

chander2nyc Author Profile Page:

Outstanding piece. I believe Professor Fedyashin's analysis is insightful and very helpful. I am especially impressed with his ability to articulate fair criticism of both the American and Russian positions while offering constructive suggestions for moving forward. In an age of shrill divisiveness and blatant ignorance in our public debate, Professor Fedyashin's voice is a welcome change.

robin1231hotmailcom Author Profile Page:

related issues
see web pages with search words viz "kamal karna roy " et al. 2.15. 2009 new york

timscanlon Author Profile Page:

We are all prisoners of MAD, and will be forever as far as the lot of us alive today are concerned. In the meantime, the biggest missile threat Russia faces is from religious nuts, not the USA.

There's plenty of room for better relations on any number of hard subjects if we are willing to work at it.

manishyt Author Profile Page:

i strongly agree that Russia is NOT a natural enemy of the United States. In fact,the two countries face the same strategic challenges. The question is does Russia realize that?

manishyt Author Profile Page:

Russia – What Part Of This Don’t You Get?

Determined to wage yesterday’s war, President Putin is reenacting an imaginary Cold War, but this time with Russia tying America to an honorable draw. Well done, Mr. Putin. Now, exactly what have you gained? Are any of Russia’s strategic interests strengthened? In your obsession to heal your Cold War past, have you secured Russia’s future?

Auster Author Profile Page:

I could not agree more with Professor Fedyashin. The US and EU ought to engage Russia on many levels instead of provoking it by surrounding Russia with NATO members. The Jackson-Vanik amendment has outlived itself long ago, but the US government still holds on to it as the last leverage against Russia, and what a weak “instrument” of power it is. The US has lost many opportunities after the end of the Cold War to engage Russia on different levels and make it dependent on the West. Russophobia is profound in the US, making one believe that the Cold War is not over yet. That is why Gorbachev’s optimism about Obama’s administration and criticism of Clinton’s and Bush’s administration are so refreshing. People forget how excited and optimistic everyone was when the Berlin wall fell. Undoubtedly, painting Russia as an enemy is a wrong path to take.

ORNOT Author Profile Page:

That fact that "Mikhail Gorbachev came to Washington last month as part of a tour inspired by the promise of a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations--- Makes me think, how strange! Over the years of the Cold War when a Russian was disposed, he was never heard from again.

Now the struggle seems to be that Mr. Medvedev (Mr?) is trying to get out from under the control of Putin. Remains to be seen the results of that, but Gorbachev is a good sign.

owing2 Author Profile Page:

A ray of hope does exist; my current study is Russian history from Peter the Great to Gorbachav.
Professor Steinburg and the Teaching Company have tteamed for a series of lectures. We must understand the background to judge Russia properly; we need scholars and historians to make policy not hawks and doves who continue in ignorance.

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