Will Obama and Kerry seize an historic opportunity?

Author: us-russia
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Category: Interview
Will Obama and Kerry seize an historic opportunity?
Published 5-02-2013, 22:35

As Hillary Clinton leaves the Department of State on a sour note for US-Russia relations – having accused Moscow of "re-Sovietizing” the former Soviet space – all eyes are now on her successor, John Kerry. Apart from being very experienced and deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs, Kerry is known as a pragmatist. After a decade of ideology-driven policy under George W. Bush and only timid steps in the opposite direction under Barack Obama to date, the arrival of Kerry, along with that of the equally pragmatic Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, may well open a new chapter in US-Russia relations.

It is commonplace to note that the world remains beset by daunting problems. Nonetheless, here is a brief list of the most urgent tasks for the new Secretary of State: continuing the peaceful accommodation of the rise of China; facing down the increasingly militant North Korean regime; stabilizing the Middle East and Afghanistan while continuing the war against terrorism; preventing the arrival of a nuclear Iran; and, not least, managing the global economy. 

This last task is arguably the most compelling reason why pragmatism must be the next Administration’s banner. While for many decades the US led a Western alliance that enjoyed unparalleled prosperity, unmatched military prowess and plentiful sources of soft power, today the Western world is struggling on all these fronts. The economic crisis continues unabated with no effective long-term cure in sight (and only a short-term solution of draconian, and hence pro-cyclical, fiscal tightening): the US is laboring under an unsustainable fiscal burden, while a similarly afflicted EU is being shaken to its very foundations. 

For the first time in modern history, the West needs to accept the limits not only of its economic and military might but also of its soft power. Its system of democratic government is manifestly no longer working, while the so-called "autocracies” of China and Russia appear to be going from strength to strength. This suggests that the latter must be doing at least something right. 

A logical starting point for a realist such as John Kerry would be to try to assess what is possible under the new global correlation of power. Should the State Department under his leadership take such an approach, it would likely conclude that America should play a "smart game” that would safeguard its interests at the lowest possible cost. Above all, this could mean avoiding unnecessary tensions with the other major players – China and Russia. Or to go one step further: Washington could strive to engage those countries as responsible partners and to share with them the burden of global leadership.

What might such an approach entail? In the first instance, the recognition that China and Russia are equal partners of the US and that they have legitimate security concerns as well as vital economic interests, especially in their respective backyards. This would eventually yield significant benefits all round, not least in the security and economic spheres. Conversely, confrontation would have the opposite effect, deepening the turmoil that the globe continues to experience.


Barack Obama and John Kerry have an historic opportunity to constructively use the economic crisis in the West to overcome domestic opposition to such an approach. Would this be a fitting manifestation of US democratic leadership? Would other Western powers, such as Britain, Germany and France, welcome it?

Conversely, the new Administration’s failure to read the runes and act accordingly could be fatal not only for the West but for the entire globe. Fresh superpower confrontation could push the globe past the tipping point. Or is this an over-dramatization? 

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

Expert Panel Contributions

Andranik Migranyan
Director of the Institute for Democracy and Cooperation in New York, 
Professor at the Institute of International Relations in Moscow

There is little potential for a broad strategic dialogue between Washington and Moscow.
I shall begin with what I consider the most interesting viewpoint professed for many years by one of the best experts on Russian relations, Tom Graham. Back in December, he and Dmitri Trenin, Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, published an article in the International Herald Tribune exploring the multiple problems bedeviling the US-Russian relationship, such the Magnitsky Act, the Russian decision to cease cooperation on the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and the Russian ban on adoptions by American citizens. The authors argued that these problems stemmed from a lack of strategic dialogue and the two countries' inadequate understanding of each other's strategic interests. Placing such problems in a strategic context would improve Russian-American relations, they argued, citing as areas for potential strategic dialogue such strategic topics as China, cooperation on Arctic development, and the fight against Islamist terrorism.

The problem here is that it is unrealistic to expect large, sovereign countries to share strategic interests with other countries that aren't focused on a troublesome third country. In the absence of such a third player, two countries can, therefore, have convergent vital interests only if both are roughly equal in resources and power. Otherwise, the weaker one experiences a loss of sovereignty as a result of its smaller economic and military-political potential, and that negates the strategic character of the relationship.

Consider the widespread perception in the 1990s and at the beginning of the twenty-first century that Russia and the United States could forge a strategic relationship. It never happened because the United States felt it was so strong and self-sufficient that strategic cooperation came down to the American expectation that Russia should bend its own vital interests and submit to American foreign policy. Only then could peaceful, constructive and effective cooperation ensue. Graham and Trenin discuss, for example, current US and Russian strategic interests with regard to China. But isn't there a greater convergence in Russian and Chinese interests on the matter of containing Washington's arrogant and unilateral foreign policy that attempts to dominate the world?

Strategic dialogue necessitates a certain level of trust between parties. But the talks between the two countries (Russia and the US) on the antimissile shield that the US wishes to install in Europe testify to the lack of such trust. Americans insist that the shield is designed to parry hypothetical Iranian missiles; but a succession of US presidents and other high-level officials also insist that the idea of a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. They declare that, should Iran continue to advance down the road to a nuclear weapon, the United States or Israel would destroy the program's infrastructure.

With the emergence of a multipolar world, the need arises for power balances in various regions. Thus we see countries attempting to protect their national interests by forming ad hoc coalitions instead of full-time alliances, whose time has passed, in the view of many analysts. This is why strategic dialogue, though perhaps notionally desirable, is not really feasible because it is difficult to determine which questions are tactical and which are strategic. For Moscow, a matter of strategic discussion with the United States is US interference in Russia's internal affairs. Another is America's interference in countries in the post-Soviet sphere. But it is difficult to imagine any US administration engaging in serious discussions on such matters without being attacked domestically for betraying US national and geopolitical interests. 

Thus, it seems inescapable that the United States and Russia will sometimes partner but will sometimes have conflicting interests.

A second popular illusion seen recently in Russian and American commentary is that Russia no longer figures at the center of American foreign policy because the United States is preoccupied with the chaotic Middle East and its shift of interest to the Asia-Pacific region. Russia, it is argued, does not play a major role in these regions. This is nonsense. It is difficult to find a single problem that America can solve without serious Russian participation. This includes Afghanistan, where Russia's role is well known, and Iran. The role of Russia in the Iranian nuclear question is obvious, as is its necessary role in any solution to the Syrian crisis.

These realities were explained very well last December by Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest in The New York Times. Their article argued that a Syrian peace process and a change of the Assad regime with the participation of all interested parties, plus an understanding of who would take over afterwards, is in the interest of the United States, Europe and the Arab world. True, and Russian officials don't disagree. But there is an opinion in both Russia and the United States that Russia employs its UN veto power merely to hamstring American foreign policy and protect a dictatorship because it feels some kind of pathological love for authoritarianism. This is an absurd allegation.

A third illusion, seen among highly qualified American experts in international relations, is that Russian-US conflicts arise because there are no solid economic ties between the two countries. There is some truth to this. But it is clear that even strong economic ties do not prevent geopolitical conflicts from arising among large, sovereign, independent countries. Consider the deep economic ties between Germany and Great Britain at the beginning of the twentieth century, which didn't foreclose the First World War. Or consider a more recent example: the nearly $500 billion trade volume between China and the United States, which does not preclude the two countries from having even more conflict and tension than the United States has with Russia. 

The reality is that both Russia and the United States have entered a new phase of international relations. Russia, having ensured its own sovereignty and policy independence, is seeking to build its relationships with all countries from the point of view of its own priorities. On this basis it tries to establish a balance of power that effectively protects its interests in the Near Abroad and maintains its own economic and military-political security. It is naïve to believe that Russia is mentally separating itself from the culture of the West because it does not share the Western value system, as Dmitri Trenin wrote in December, or that it is becoming close to China almost to the point of being its junior partner. Such suggestions have little basis in reality. Russia is simply trying to work for its own interests, within accepted diplomatic rules, in order to gain advantageous bargaining positions.

The United States has entered a new phase too. It is going through a painful and complex transition from unilateral global domination to a policy of creating balance-of-power arrangements in various regions of the world so as to preserve American presence and influence. Thus, there will be inevitable ups and downs in US-Russian relations as the two countries partner on some issues on which it is beneficial for both of them to be allied while competing and experiencing tensions on other issues where their vital interests diverge. 

There is little doubt that the economic and military-political resources of the United States and Europe are continually shrinking in relation to other nations whose wealth and power are expanding. This poses greater opportunities for such countries to form alliances and coalitions in order to serve mutual interests and undermine the domineering behavior of a unipolar power center over these less-powerful nations.

The complete version of this article was published in the The National Interest,  January 30, 2013.

Vladimir Kozin
Corresponding Member, Russian Academy of Natural Science, 
Leading Researcher, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, Moscow

I believe that, given their enormous responsibility of maintaining a strategic equilibrium on the global scale, Moscow and Washington have little choice but to seek to reshape bilateral relations. But a wholly new page needs to be turned. Instead of trying to resuscitate the "reset”, which has turned out to be counter-productive and has yielded only limited results, they should – to continue the IT metaphor – not only change the "hard disk” and the "matrix” but upgrade the entire "operational system”. They should do so especially in the nuclear, space, missile defense and conventional arms control. I would recommend the following steps in this direction.

First, the US, in a goodwill gesture, should withdraw all its tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) from Europe to the continental United States and dismantle all TNW-related infrastructure on the European continent and the Asian part of Turkey. This should be done prior to the beginning of any strategic and tactical arms reduction talks (START and TART respectively) with Russia, thus creating equal starting positions at any potential negotiations on TNW.

Second, the US, in the spirit of cooperation, should cancel entirely its 2nd, 3rd, and 4th stages of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) and promise not to deploy the ballistic missile defense (BMD) assets close to Russian borders. This, too, should be done before another round of START and TART gets under way with Russia. Moscow in its turn and on the basis of reciprocity has to repeat its pledge not to deploy its BMD assets close to the American continent. The two sides may even proclaim a number of zones on each other’s doorsteps free from their nuclear weapons and missile defense capabilities, thus rendering these measures more legally binding.

Before new START and TART commence, Russia and the three Western nuclear powers could elaborate very substantial confidence-building measures (CBMs) in the nuclear sphere – by transitioning from their first-ever nuclear confidence-building measures agreement reached in the 1990s on de-targeting their nuclear missiles towards to a more radical nuclear CBMs: namely, to pledge in 2013 not to use nuclear weapons in a first strike against each other – embracing both TNW and strategic offensive nuclear arms (SOA).

Finally, at the same time as concentrating on reduction of nuclear arms on a selective basis (SOA and TNW), US and Russian leaders should explore how to achieve the most formidable goal – to make the entire world nuclear-free by the year 2045  (the centenary of US nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

All these measures are practical steps, and therefore require practical solutions to be found by Washington and Moscow. Should these steps be implemented, the entire world would no doubt assess them in a very positive light. Such steps would symbolize that the words of two great powers have been converted into practical deeds, thus consolidating global security to the benefits of all. This would be a solid proof that the two nuclear superpowers really have changed their "hard disks” and upgraded the entire "operational system”, despite the continued chill in their mutual relations, which fall well short of a "strategic partnership”.

Alexei Mukhin
President, Center for Political Information

It is obvious that there is a "flywheel effect” of mutual influence between Russia and the US in foreign policy. Opinion-forming groups have become active. But on the whole, this is not bad news, because only action can lead to results – that is, a real "reload” in mutual relations.

According to some analysts, the new US Secretary of State, John Kerry, is a boring person, in contrast with the hyper-emotional Hillary Clinton. In his recent speeches he has hardly mentioned Russia at all. However, that does not mean that Obama’s second Administration will not pay attention to the so-called "Russian problem”: John Kerry announced that competition for natural resources will be a US priority, and, as is known, Russia is a huge repository of such resources. The Obama-Kerry tandem will certainly be more successful than that of Obama-Clinton. Not least, the new Secretary of State will work more closely with the President.

At first glance, relations between Russia and the US have taken a bad turn recently. On the eve of Kerry’s appointment it was reported that Russia had terminated the 2002 agreement on cooperation against drug trafficking, human trafficking and terrorism. Before that, the US notified Russia that it had left the Working Group on Civil Society Development (the Group, formerly led by Michael McFaul and Vladislav Surkov, was a part of the Russian-American Presidential Commission, the brainchild of Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama). However, so as not to start a flurry of rumors about a new "cold war”, both parties immediately announced that they had only changed the format of their cooperation. But who believes them?

As far as both projects are concerned, things have never gone right. The head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, Viktor Ivanov, got tired of talking about the multifold increase in drug trafficking that has taken place during the years of NATO’s presence in Afghanistan. Cooperation on the development of civil society faced difficulties right from the start. The problem was that many of the Russian human rights activists deeply disliked one of the key persons of the Group – Vladislav Surkov – and so were reluctant to meaningfully participate in its activities. This meant that the American part of the team was also unable to contribute very much. 

In January 2012, after two years of unimpressive activity, both co-Chairs of the Group left their posts in the same inconspicuous manner: Michael McFaul went to Russia as the new US Ambassador and Vladislav Surkov departed to the government to serve as Deputy Prime Minister for modernization. In the Group, Surkov was replaced by Konstantin Dolgov, Russian MFA Commissioner for Human Rights, Democracy and the Rule of Law, while Thomas Melia became McFaul’s successor.

Nevertheless, even under the new leadership, the Group continued to demonstrate the total inability to influence relations between the US and Russia. Human rights activists, such as Lyudmila Alekseeva, could hardly conceal their delight at its closure. The Group, however, was able to do at least one thing: as a part of the Presidential Commission, it at least simulated regular personal contacts (or the possibility thereof) between Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Now it turns out that the structure of personal communication between both presidents is broken. "Friends” Barack and Dmitry cannot communicate on equal terms for technical reasons, and the US President has to constantly take into consideration the American voters’ demonic image of President Putin.

Of course, the "evidence” against Putin will include Gazprom’s invoice of US$7 billion dollars arising from the 2009 "take or pay” gas supply agreement. In reality, Gazprom adopted a hard line after Ukraine struck a close partnership with the Anglo-Dutch Shell and started to use it as an argument in negotiations. Russia and Ukraine will have to settle the dispute through international arbitration, as Ukraine has de facto refused to pay.

Russia’s uncompromising foreign policy stance is explained by the strengthening within the administration of the so-called "power lobby”. In this respect, it is likely that Russia may impose a moratorium on contracts that subordinate its legislation to the norms of international law. In particular, US lawmakers justified the Magnitsky Act by arguing that human rights issues do not fall within the competence of national legislation but are a matter of international concern. It is possible that this will lead to the suspension of Russia’s membership in the OSCE, a "freeze” on the jurisdiction of the ECHR as well as problems within the WTO. 

It is obvious that the West, which has much larger room for maneuver, uses a more flexible arsenal than Russia. In particular, the US and the EU have made it clear that Russia’s attempts to expand its presence in the Western hydrocarbons markets would be repulsed. In addition, the US Congress has appealed to President Putin for permission to complete the adoption processes already initiated by adoptive American parents, despite the ban Russia has slapped on the adoptions of orphans by US citizens.  Putin’s refusal to oblige would demonize him in the eyes of the average American ever more.

On the positive side, it seems that the Islamists attacks in Africa and the threat of "global jihad” have demonstrated to the Russian authorities what could happen on their own territory. Thus Moscow’s initial hostile stance on the French intervention in Mali gave way to a more moderate, if not cooperative one. Initially Russia even indicated it was ready to aid France with transporting French troops to Mali. Apart from its practical insignificance, the proposal symbolized Russia’s willingness to participate in the struggle against Islamic radicalism alongside the West. This may support the conclusion that Russia is unlikely to build a new "great wall” of self-isolation.

Irina Bubnova
American University in Moscow

The Obama-Kerry tandem could certainly use the economic crisis to upgrade relations with Russia, because this arguably is where the biggest potential for pragmatic steps lies. They could do this by several means: economic stimulus, support to disadvantaged social groups, investment in health care and changes in export and import policies. Though possibly raising some questionable moral and ethical issues, such as interference in competitive markets or the increase in imports negatively impacting on domestic production and so forth, the benefits of such a policy would be significant.

John Kerry has clearly expressed his willingness to work closely with Russia. In July 2012, he co-authored an article with Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, "Russia offers economic opportunity”, which called for stronger economic ties between both countries within the framework of the WTO (Russia joined the organization in August 2012 after 19 years’ negotiations). That article is worth quoting at some length: 

For US businesses to take advantage of this opportunity to increase exports and create jobs our economy needs, Congress must establish permanent normal trade relations, or PNTR, with Russia … The upside of this policy is clear on an international economic landscape that rarely offers this kind of one-sided trade deal — one promising billions of dollars in new US exports and thousands of new jobs in America. Russia is the world’s seventh-largest economy. When it officially joins the WTO, it will lower tariffs and welcome new imports. That sudden jump in market access will be a windfall for the first ones through the doors. 

Indeed, during the Senate confirmation hearing, John Kerry stated that he hopes to improve cooperation with Moscow. He told Senators: "I would like to see if we can find some way to cooperate. We need their help and cooperation with respect to [ending the civil war in] Syria". 

Given the current difficulties facing both the US and the world as a whole, America’s foreign policy should be conducted cautiously without undue drama. Most likely Kerry will be much more flexible than Hillary Clinton, both as regards the "reset” with Russia and other major issues. Although the US claims to be the sole superpower, it is in fact facing intractable economic and social problems. It is militarily overstretched, with its global defense commitments no longer matched by its economic prowess. This strongly suggests that we will see more speedy progress toward a multi-polar global system. 

Frank Shatz
The Virginia Gazette

When President Obama, in a private conversation assured President Medvedev that after the November elections he would have more flexibility to negotiate on the issue of missile defense, he was not sure yet who would serve as his secretary of defense and secretary of state. Two cabinet positions most directly involved with negotiating and implementing any new agreement for a missile defense system based in Europe.

Since then, President Obama has nominated Sen. John Kerry as his secretary of state and former Sen. Chick Hagel, as secretary of defense.

In my previous Experts’ Panel piece, I reported on my encounter with Senator Kerry and described him as aloof, wooden and dour. But, having a well deserved reputation of being coolly pragmatic. A leader who is not driven by ideology, instead, dedicated to advancing stability in the world.

I met Sen. Chuck Hagel, (R-Neb.) President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense in 2007, in Williamsburg, VA. He was there to deliver the keynote address at the College of William & Mary’s annual Charter Day. He arrived a day early to interact with students, and I had the privilege to follow him around and talking with him at length.

He lived up to his reputation as a "maverick politician”. A decorated Vietnam War veteran known as a conservative Republican, he first supported President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, but after a fact-finding mission in Iraq , he become a sharp critic of the administration’s policies there. In the process, he alienated the conservative base of the Republican Party.

"If they call me a maverick, I don’t worry about labels. I just do what is right for the country…” Taking about his Vietnam War experiences, Hagel referred to his interview in GQ magazine. "When I got to Vietnam, I was a rifleman, I was a private, about as low as you can get. So my frame of reference is very much geared toward the guy at the bottom who’s doing the fighting and dying…It does make me very sober about committing our nation to war. We should never again get into a fiasco like we did in Vietnam. And if we are going to use force, we’d better make damn sure it is in the national interest.” 

Thus, in my estimation, both Kerry and Hagel would grasp this historic opportunity to leave a legacy built on cooperation with Russia and China. However, it would be a mistake to expect that the US would to do so at the expense of alienating its Western allies. 

Dale Herspring
University Distinguished Professor of Political Science
Kansas State University

In my opinion the answer is no. 

I don't think Hillary Clinton was opposed to an improvement in bilateral relations.  All indications are that Obama is a micro-manager, especially when it comes to major policy initiatives such as US-Russian relations. 

The key question is how much capital is Obama willing to spend to improve US-Russian relations? Current indications are his primary focus is on domestic policy initiatives (e.g. immigration) and for now in foreign policy he is focused on North Africa. There are a group of conservatives who remain hostile to Russia. That means that Obama has to expect some solid opposition.

In the meantime, actions such as the ill-fated aid to the French military, or a reversal of Russia’s child adoption legislation or similar small steps would only strengthen his hand domestically if Moscow is willing to take such steps.

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