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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