Agenda for Obama’s upcoming visit to Russia

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Agenda for Obama’s upcoming visit to Russia
Published 12-12-2012, 07:49
Shortly after Barack Obama’s re-election as President, the White House announced that he had accepted an invitation from Vladimir Putin to visit Russia. Against the backdrop of deteriorating US-Russia relations, Putin’s gesture of goodwill and Obama’s positive response offer the opportunity to open a new chapter in bilateral ties. The challenges of dealing with the ongoing global economic crisis, the turmoil in the Middle East and the safe-management of the rise of China, among other urgent issues, are more likely to be met if relations between Russia and the United States improve.

Surely, we should all welcome what appears to be the willingness on the part of both sides to work toward such an improvement?

The exact dates of the visit have not yet been confirmed, but both governments would be wise to consider proposals from US and Russian businesses, think-tanks, NGOs, and all others who have constructive ideas on how to shape up a positive summit agenda.

At the same time everyone should be aware of the attempts to scupper this summit. A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine, an affiliate of the Washington Post Company, has led the attack by offering Obama the following piece of advice: "Don’t Go There!”

The reasons given for cancelling the summit are all too familiar; they might just as well have been copied from Mitt Romney’s campaign talking points. There is no point repeating them here, but it is worth mentioning that the same magazine gave the members of the Pussy Riot punk group the Number 16 ranking on its list of this year’s 100 top global thinkers, right after Ben Bernanke but well ahead of such important figures as Nobel Prize Winner Paul Krugman, billionaire Warren Buffet, Senator Rand Paul, and even Brookings Institute fellow Robert Kagan.

It is only to be expected that the Foreign Policy offensive will be followed up by a vicious campaign to derail the summit. That is why this and following panels will seek to come up with new ideas and proposals for those in the US and Russia who will be in charge of preparing the summit agenda.

Questions:

  • Would the US be wise to admit that it should seek cooperation with Russia and China on global security issues rather than blaming them for undermining its efforts?
  • Would America’s key European allies welcome such a development?
  • Now that Obama’s "reset” has run its course, what will be the new paradigm in US-Russia relations?

The topic for the Discussion Panel is provided by Vlad Sobell, Expert Discussion Panel Editor (New York University, Prague).

Experts' Panel Contributions

  

Edward Lozansky
Edward Lozansky is President at the American University in Moscow, Professor of World Politics, Lomonosov Moscow State University.

One of the disadvantages of Russia's foreign policy is the almost invisible role played by the public in the process of working it out. Only rarely do we hear think tanks, NGOs, and even foreign policy experts voicing new ideas that might be of help to Foreign Ministry officials. Despite the clearly perceptible development of Russia's civil society it is still largely focused on discussions and criticism of domestic affairs, whereas foreign policy remains a state monopoly, just like in Soviet or Czarist times.

True, from time to time we hear calls from the top, including from Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his deputies, for Russia's public organizations and even individuals to play a more active role in discussions of international affairs, appeals to come forward with new initiatives and ideas. So far, however, we have not seen much activity on this front.

This puts the Russian side at a disadvantage compared to the United States and Europe. There are hundreds of think tanks in the West, funded for the most part privately in the US and by governments in Europe. Such think tanks act as fountainheads where new ideas are generated and thrashed out to help officials formulate both tactical and strategic foreign policy decisions.

Having said all this we have to state, paradoxically, that Obama's first term ends on a pretty low note. One is left with the impression that both the Congress and at least some part of Obama’s administration are intent on obliterating all the improvements in US-Russia relations achieved since the disasters of G.W. Bush's times.

The "Magnitsky Act” which was recently passed by Congress clearly undermines the Rule of Law, contradicts American values, makes a mockery of the basic tenets of American justice and does not serve long term US interests. Take, for example, the Bill’s provision that being included on the "black” list can be based on "evidence” provided by NGOs rather than due legal process.

Not only does this violate the basic "presumption of innocence” principle but, as Ron Paul (R-TX) rightly observed, it strongly resembles the "people's tribunals” set up under the Stalinist system at which "evidence was considered irrelevant.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent outbursts also make quite a dubious contribution to her legacy. First she goes to Prague and demands the cancellation of a $10 billion deal for a nuclear plant to be built there by Russia. She couples this demand with the need for the Czech Republic to wean itself off its dependency on Russia for fuel.

Then off to Dublin where she does her best, or worst, to prevent Russia from achieving economic integration and custom union within the post-Soviet space. "Let's make no mistake about it. We know what the goal is and we are trying to figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it," – said Clinton. Neither more nor less but if this is not Cold War language, one wonders what else it might be.

Earlier she pledged continuing financial support to the Russian opposition which is presently an odd mix of communists, nationalists, neo-Nazis, gays and yes, pro-western liberals, but the latter are in a clear minority within this opposition. This is, in the teeth of the Kremlin's strong objections to US meddling in Russia's internal affairs.

Then again, Ms. Clinton called Russia's stand on Syria "despicable." This sounds quite curious, in view of the recent admissions that according to New York Times "The lone Syrian rebel group with an explicit stamp of approval from Al Qaeda has become one of the uprising’s most effective fighting forces.”

It is also an open secret that US and NATO weapons sent to Syrian rebels via Saudi Arabia and Qatar fall into terrorist, jihadist hands. That's not only despicable - it is also very dangerous and not only for the Middle East region but for the rest of the world as well.

One wonders how all this fits in with the spirit of Obama's "Reset." That spirit, by the way, is ever so eloquently expressed on Clinton's State Department site: "The United States and the Russian Federation reaffirm that the era when our countries viewed each other as enemies is long over. Recognizing our many common national interests, we are resolved to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries to contribute to our future progress and shared prosperity."

This could not be put better. I for one vote for every word there but it's truly a pity that these fine words do not correspond to the actual deeds.

Well, the good thing is that we will see a new US foreign policy team soon that may be better suited for the job. However, as pointed out earlier, both Washington and Moscow need all the help they can get from the two countries' public. I therefore view the discussions on this panel and its purpose as very timely.

Let us come up with some good ideas that might turn the quote above into reality.


Sergei Roy
Sergei Roy is Former Editor-in-Chief, Moscow News.

Making an enemy of Russia, and especially of Russia's people, not just the government, is a self-inflicted wound. America's official policy toward Russia, its proclaimed goal of imposing its own ideas of freedom and democracy on Russia is a sure way to make most Russians mad. To assume that the 63 percent of the people who voted for Putin do not know their own minds is surely maddening. It's insulting. Humiliating. In fact, it is racist: Americans are posing as a superior race divinely inspired to civilize those benighted Russians.

Once upon a time, at age fifteen or sixteen, when one was still capable of making earth-shattering discoveries about human relations, I wrote this bit of doggerel: "All life is beginnings, All life is ends. People meet enemies, People part friends.” It did not take too long to figure out why these long-forgotten lines keep buzzing in my head these days.

It is the end of the year, the time for making admirable resolutions for improving self and the world in the coming twelvemonths. It is also the beginning of the second term for Obama and not quite the beginning of a third term for Putin - personalities No. 1 and No. 3 on Forbes' list of the world's most influential individuals in this year of grace 2012.

Now to this business of people meeting as enemies only to become friends later. The first meeting between Putin and Obama was, well, not quite hostile but definitely cold. Strained. Obama saved all his ability for establishing rapport for Medvedev - for whom he, what seemed like all America, and the Western-supported, fringe opposition in Russia - then rooted. In conversation with Putin, he barely spoke at all, just enough to satisfy protocol. Nothing friendly about that meeting, oh no.

That sort of cold-shouldering is not easily forgotten, and it would be futile to expect a drastic change in the personal chemistry within this duo. But what one does expect, or at any rate devoutly hopes for, is a more positive atmosphere in the talks between the two men. Less confrontation, more emphasis on issues where joint action will make the world a safer place. 

At the risk of sounding jingoist, I'd say the ball is in Obama's court. It is time for him to justify that uproariously funny decision of the Nobel Committee to award him the Peace Prize when he had had no time to lift a finger either for war or for peace. I understand that the word "peacenik" has derogatory connotations in certain circles. Well, choose a different word, but do something to promote peace, not war.

Item, Syria. There is every sign of preparations for a Libya-type scenario being played out there. Use America's influence to stop that. Or at least stop attacking Russia and China for their quite reasonable conduct in the affair.

Item, Iran. Israel threatens to go to war with Iran unless it terminates its nuclear program. In his first term, Mr. Obama made sounds supportive of Israel's position. In plain language, that means backing the prospective aggressor. This makes one wonder if there is anything in the Nobel Committee's statutes enabling it to take back a previously awarded prize.

Item, Russia. As for the use of nuclear weapons, it has been proved many times over to be suicidal not just for Russia but for the world. Anyone for suicide please stand up. No takers? Then please stop this BMD nonsense. That's throwing good money you borrow from China after bad, toxic money that the US has already flooded the world with. $17 trillion of it.

One could go on listing these issues, but it all boils down to one thing: America should stop playing the world policeman - a very heavy-handed one and only too prone to shoot itself in the foot. 

A few words about those attempts to scupper the upcoming summit, particularly Aron's "Don't Go There" article at www.foreignpolicy.com. I could take the article apart, sentence by sentence, as I once did for his hagiography of Yeltsin in The Moscow Times (review available at www.sergeiroysbooks.de under "Roy on Books and Writers"). But it is just not worth it - too full of lies and preterition (sorry about the learned term, it just means passing over inconvenient facts in silence). 

Let me take a different approach. Suppose Obama stays home, Putin stays home. Will that punish Russia? Will that force Putin to take a line that would be more pleasing to America, either domestically or internationally? Anyone who knows anything about Putin, and Russians generally, knows the answer to this. That answer makes Aron's advice look preternaturally silly. Russia will continue dealing with foreign agents, hooligans, spies, corrupt officials, thieving businessmen, etc etc., exactly as prescribed by Russian law. 

OK, Obama stays put -- but will everyone else? This coming year Russia will preside over the G-20. Will Aron write more articles advising Europeans and the rest not to attend? I dearly wish he did. Always a pleasure, watching yet another so-called expert on Russia make a bloody fool of himself.


Peter Rutland
Peter Rutland is Professor of Government at Wesleyan University

This is not an auspicious time for forward planning in either Washington or Moscow. Domestic challenges loom large in both capitals: the impending fiscal cliff in the US, and the faction-fighting and corruption scandals in Russia.

However the start of President Obama’s second term offers an important opportunity for both sides to step back and think about what they want the mutual relationship to look like two to four years down the road. There is surely a strong temptation in both capitals, given the souring of the relationship in recent years, to say "to hell with them.” The US pivot towards Asia will be the dominant strategic concern of the second Obama administration, so some US officials may prefer to leave handling the prickly and pesky inhabitants of the Kremlin up to the Europeans. Likewise, the Putin team seem tired of US hectoring on human rights issues, and they have done all they can to minimize the West’s influence on civil society in Russia.

However, both sides stand to gain from cooperation in areas of mutual concern, most notably economics and the environment. Russia’s entry into the WTO is already triggering protests about unfair trade practices, while the shifting position of BP and other Western companies in Russia’s oil and gas sectors leaves many questions unresolved. Russia will not get the Western investment and technological assistance it requires to boost its hydrocarbon output unless these issues are monitored and addressed.

Serious action on climate change is increasingly overdue and concerted international action is also required. If Russia is looking for opportunities to provide leadership on the global stage, then climate change would be a perfect issue for it. It is also much more likely to produce real gains than other projects that have been aired, such as hoping for the ruble to become a reserve currency, or expecting Moscow to be a center of nanotechnology research.

Both sides are also presumably preparing for the downfall of the Assad regime in Syria. Russia will not want to be on the wrong side of history, so will want to be part of debates on the political reconstruction of Syria post-Assad if and when that occurs.


Dale Herspring
Dale Herspring is a University Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Kansas State University

The US is always ready to admit that it needs cooperation with others, just as others will say the same thing. What is really important is not what the US says, but is what it does. Propaganda is cheap. There have been open disagreements over Syria, but if the situation moves in a positive direction relations can improve overnight.

If Obama's visit leads to a serious improvement in our bilateral relations, the Europeans will approve -- however, as Putin and our allies know, the president can make promises, but he has to have Congress behind him and that is not a given at this time. It is critical that Obama leaves the impression -- in the US -- that he was a tough negotiator and came away without giving the store to the Russians (which many conservatives fear). For example, if he comes back having told Putin that the US is prepared to make concessions on missile defense, he will meet a firestorm in Congress.

I am not certain that "reset" was much of a paradigm. I am also not convinced that we will have a meaningful paradigm in the near future. Rather, the most one can hope for is an agreement here or there, combined with continued disagreements on a wide variety of other issues.
 
Voice of Russia

 

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