It is tempting to view the differences between the manifesto of the Democrats and the Republicans in the November presidential election in the United States as differences between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.
Perhaps, that is what President Vladimir Putin had in mind when he said in the RTV interview earlier last week that he would deal with Mitt Romney as he would with Barack Obama – with the caveat, of course, that “our effort will be only as efficient as our partners will want it to be.”
The point is, there is a long historical, “institutional” memory about Russian-American relationships and the forces of history continue to be at work. Boris Yeltsin’s forceful overtures for Russia’s integration with the West were rudely rebuffed by the United States, which, instead in a spirit of “triumphalism”, went about shoving things down the Russian throat on matters such as the NATO’s eastward expansion.
The strange part was that the US administration didn’t blunder into such a mindless policy when it had the biggest single opportunity in all of modern history to co-opt Russia and lead it genuinely into the common western home. Simply put, the US consciously didn’t want to exercise that option. There was a fascinating exchange between the then US President Bill Clinton and his key point person on Russia Strobe Talbott circa 1997. They were probably jogging together in Moscow where they had reached from different directions for yet another summit with Yeltsin. Clinton reached Moscow via St. Petersburg where he had come across for the first time a young official by name Vladimir Putin, while Talbott arrived separately.
As recorded later by Talbott in his masterly work The Russia Hand, Clinton confided in Talbott that he had a premonition that the US was pushing Russia too hard and getting it to lump too many diktats from Washington so much so that he was apprehensive that a point was reaching when it would become too much for Yeltsin’s Russia to take the humiliation anymore.
The so-called “westernists” among the Moscow elites would do well to remember the Clinton-Talobott episode, which, ironically, took place while they were sauntering in the city suburbs named after Lenin. Things aren’t very different even today.
True, Romney has chosen to indulge in tough talk on Russia, lambasting Obama for his alleged “flexibility” on Moscow. Romney thinks apparently that Obama’s “reset” agenda was one big concession he made to Russia that reflected weakness of spirit in front of the US’ cold-war adversary. Romney said, “The idea that he [Obama] has some flexibility in mind for Russia is very-very troubling indeed… Under my administration, our friends will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see little less flexibility and more backbone.”
Then, of course, there was this hugely funny remark by Romney that Russia was America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Probably, it was this last remark to the CNN that created an impression that Romney as all vapor and little substance when it came to foreign affairs, and led Russian experts to conclude that his Russia rhetoric was mostly heated election talk. If Romney’s intention was to create nervousness in the Russian mind, he certainly ended up achieving just the opposite. No serious politician would want to appear fuzzy and naïve and that is what Romney seems to have managed – in the Russian eyes, at least.
However, the big question remains: Is Obama really a “flexible” US president on his Russia policy? The 2012 Democratic National Platform, which is something of an election manifesto for Obama, does devote much attention to Russia. It points out that in achieving the crucial objectives of the US foreign policy in the Obama.2 administration aimed at preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons – specifically, reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles, preventing nuclear on-proliferation, securing loose nuclear materials, etc. – Russia “has been, and will remain” a key interlocutor with which there is a “very real interest” that the US shared.
The manifesto asserts that Obama’s “reset” policy produced “significant cooperation” with Russia. It then went on to single out two areas – the efforts to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, “stopping additional proliferation” Iran and North Korea, and, secondly, Russia’s support for the Northern Distribution Network “that supplies our troops in Afghanistan”. Interestingly, Obama listed as a positive gain for the “reset” that while extracting Russia’s cooperation in the select areas crucial to US foreign-policy objectives, Washington also retains its prerogative to voice directly and candidly with the Russian government its viewpoints on where they differ (presumably, such areas as Russia’s record on freedom and human rights) and to “strongly criticize Russian actions that we oppose, such as their support for the Assad regime in Syria.”
When it comes to the contentious issue of the missile defence, the manifesto actually takes off the gloves: “We believe that the United States and Russia can cooperate on missile defence, but we have also made cleat [to Moscow] that we will move forward with our system, beginning with the steps we have taken to deploy it in Poland, Turkey, and Romania.” Plainly put, the manifesto tells Moscow off disdainfully. Quite obviously, the US doesn’t see the compulsion to make any concessions to Russian sensitivity.
Again, the manifesto makes a pledge for “bolstering the strength and vitality of NATO, which is critical to the security of the [European] continent and beyond.” Unlike the perceptions of most Russian experts, Obama administration seems to think that the Afghan war has actually strengthened NATO’s “fighting skills and enhanced its ability to cooperate at the political level.” In fact, “This proved critical to the alliance’s timely, unified, and effective response in Libya.” Therefore, the US envisages that the NATO is gearing up for new pastures of intervention to meet the challenges of the 21st century. There is no trace of interest here in collective security in the vast space that separates Vancouver from Vladivostok (across the Atlantic).
What the manifesto brings out is that the “reset” will remain selective and single-mindedly geared to advance the US’ strategic interests. There is no trace in it of any sensitivity to Russia’s core concerns and vital interests – not even in Russia’s backyard of the territories of the former Soviet republics. At the same time, there is a cold-blooded evaluation of where it is that Russia could be of use to the US in advancing its global strategies. In sum, the “winner-takes-it-all” approach of the Bill Clinton era more or less lingers on.
Alright, the NATO and the US will pay hard cash for the services rendered at the Ulyanovsk “hub”, but then, there is nothing like free lunch. Alright, there is no immediate agenda of NATO expansion, but then, the western powers are barely coping with economic crisis of an existential nature, which leaves little scope for such epochal moves. (All the same, the European Union continues to be in pursuit of the strategic goal of keeping Gazprom under lock and key in the western energy market.)
On Afghanistan, as Putin noted with sarcasm, “If there is anything on the table [of US-Russia discourse], it’s the issue of assisting them [US] in withdrawing their troops and hardware from Afghanistan through our transit routes.” In a stunning remark, Putin drew a parallel between the current US strategy in Syria and the policies adopted by the Ronald Reagan administration during the s-called Afghan jihad – namely, the courtship and manipulation of the forces of radical Islam as instruments in the pursuit of geopolitical objectives.
So, given the remarkable consistency in the US’ “post-cold war” policies toward Russia, is there nothing to choose between Obama and Romney? Yes, the conclusion needs to be drawn that Romney’s tough election rhetoric is in political terms an attempt that is intended to differentiate himself from all that Obama represents – on the beaches, in the air and in the hills.
Differ for differences’ sake
Indeed, there are striking similarities between the foreign-policy platforms of the Democrats and the Republicans, which would further corroborate that the US has only one foreign policy. Thus, the Democrats and the Republicans have both inserted God and Jerusalem into their manifestos. They outdo each other in stressing their support for Israel. The entire section of the Democratic platform on the Middle East situation virtually is devoted to underlining that on a 24×7 basis, Obama will safeguard Israel’s security. Both manifestos endorse a two-state Palestine settlement and enthusiastically welcome the tidings of the Arab Spring.
While both manifestos preach a cooperative relationship with a peaceful and prosperous China, they also envisage an “American century” with the US leading with the “strongest military in the world.” Unsurprisingly, they both pledge to ensure that Iran will be prevented from getting nuclear weapons – Republicans do not even brook Iran possessing nuclear weapons capability.
Some areas of foreign policy where the Democrats and Republicans seem to have genuine differences are: climate change (Republicans are unsure of its gravity); defence budget (Republicans abhor spending reductions); global economy (Democrats stress a collective response by the international community); development assistance (Republicans count their pennies) or human rights (Republicans are less messianic). The major differences occur in two areas: the role of the United Nations and international law and organizations (where the Democrats profess commitment to multilateralism); nuclear non-proliferation (where the Republicans place primacy not on global disarmament but on pragmatic calculations of the US’ “interests, and the safety of our friends”).
Finally, on Afghanistan, there may appear some major differences, but this is an optic illusion in reality. Thus, the Republicans allege that Obama is ambivalent and lacks “determination”. They also disfavor a negotiated solution. But then, arguably, this isn’t probably going to be such an irreconcilable difference in the fullness of time, because it is ultimately going to be the interplay of several “extraneous” factors that seem beyond the control of the US, which would determine the shape of things to come in Afghanistan.
Of course, the Republicans are terribly displeased that Obama just like that threw out of the window of the Oval Office the banner with the inscription “war on terror.” But, interestingly, mindful of the American public mood against foreign wars, they don’t pledge to retrieve it, either – not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq or Somalia – even while professing American exceptionalism.