U.S.-Russia 2.1: Updating the Software

by Ann Dailey

The criticism that Mitt Romney faced when he called Russia the United States’ number one geopolitical foe demonstrated that the Cold War rivalry no longer occupies center stage. Still, you would struggle to find many in Washington who view Russia as a true partner. With Russia finally in the World Trade Organization, and as Western nations face growing security threats, it is more important than ever to develop closer economic and security ties with Russia. Given Russia’s stance on Syria and the crisis over adoptions, this argument will be a hard sell. However, the answer to Russia’s continued intransigence is not to abandon the “reset” policy; it is to work on Reset 2.1.

In 2009, Vice President Joe Biden coined the oft-misunderstood “reset with Russia” catchphrase. Although politicians in the United States, Russia, and other nations sought to define the term according to their interests, the goal was to make progress on key U.S. foreign policy objectives while candidly discussing areas of disagreement. Most recently, Vice President Biden lauded the reset’s success at the January 2013 Munich Security Conference; yet now, only weeks later, we are again at an impasse with Russia over Syria and the trumped-up crisis over adoptions.

Although Russia stoked Western leaders’ ire when it refused to back UN Security Council resolutions condemning Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, this should not have come as a shock to U.S. diplomats. Syria is a cornerstone of Russian strategic interests in the region, and until Western officials accept this, fierce disagreement will persist and spillover into other areas. The current dispute over adoption— precipitated by U.S. passage of the Magnitsky Act and the retaliatory Russian ban on U.S. adoption of Russian children—is just one example of this contagion.

Unfortunately, disputes such as these continue to harm the development of mutually beneficial cooperation in economics and security. With the potential for the U.S. shale boom to put downward pressure on global hydrocarbon prices in the future, the Russian hydrocarbons sector needs foreign direct investment to aid its exploration of the Arctic and the modernization of its refining capabilities to remain competitive. Paucity in Russia’s rule of law—as Royal Dutch Shell and Ikea have recently experienced—continues to hinder foreign direct investment in Russia and broader economic relations between Russia and the West.  The United States should leverage Russia’s need for aid in its hydrocarbons sector in order to seek closer cooperation with Russia on rule of law through the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission Rule of Law Working Group and by tapping into the influence it now has with Russia in the WTO.

In the security arena, U.S.-Russia cooperation remains hampered by mutual suspicion even as Western nations face increasingly transnational threats which demand collaboration with our Russian counterparts. We should seek areas of potential cooperation, even if this requires flexibility on our part. The upcoming Sochi Olympics are one such opportunity; Putin has staked his reputation—and billions of oligarchs’ dollars—on their success, and working with Russia to ensure security for the games could foster additional cooperation. Additionally, we should cooperate on emerging security issues—such as the Arctic and cybersecurity—which are not bogged down by history and geopolitics.

Such cooperation could help our countries move beyond our Cold War hangovers, but instead officials in our two countries let politics get in the way. In both the U.S. and Russia, rhetorical pot-shots at the other nation still gain points in domestic politics. We should acknowledge that the United States’ criticisms of Russia are valid, but so, too, are (some) Russian critiques of the United States. While Russia’s human rights abuses are more violent and involve greater state sponsorship, U.S. criticism of Russia can reek of hubris given the excesses of the post-9/11 era. This is not to say that Russia is right and the United States is wrong; rather, it means we should admit that we both have faults and seek to engage one another with fewer polemics.

In a world where the greatest threats to peace are terrorism, piracy, and climate change, not nuclear Armageddon, Russia can and should play a key role in combatting security challenges. However, when economic and security decisions are based upon Cold War emotional baggage and antagonistic political rhetoric instead of rational cost-benefit analysis, the pattern of U.S. marginalization of Russia followed by Russian backlash will persist. The row over adoption will continue to dominate headlines for days or weeks, and the Syrian crisis may continue for far longer. In spite of these challenges, the United States and Russia should drop their Cold War facades, admit that we need each other’s help, and acknowledge that we both benefit when the other is strong, peaceful, and prosperous. These are the foundations of Reset 2.1, and their construction cannot begin soon enough.

About the Author

Ann Dailey is a Master’s candidate at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Before attending SAIS, she worked in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy for three years.

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