The start of Obama’s second term, and an official admission that the reset is kaput, seems as good a time as any to reflect on what started out as Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative but ended, as usually happens in Washington, with a whimper, an offhand admission that it hadn’t worked very well, and an empty promise to do better.
Truth be told, I’ve been skeptical of "the reset” for a very long time. This is not because the Russians are inherently bellicose or belligerent and would react negatively to any American policy regardless of its content. Rather, I’ve always thought that that reset’s shelf-life was extremely limited because, as in most other areas, the Obama administration’s Russia policy was basically a continuation of George W. Bush’s with better PR. Obama didn’t "abandon” missile defense in Eastern Europe, nor did he do anything to "distance” the United States from its NATO allies in Eastern Europe (NATO’s largest ever war game in Eastern Europe, the laughably named "Steadfast Jazz,” is scheduled for later this year). Obama didn’t even forswear democracy promotion in the Former Soviet Union, his administration was just a lot less ham-fisted and arrogant about doing it. If you try to ascertain the substantive policy changes that happened under "the reset” you will search in vain, because there are none. Obama’s team is a lot smarter, more cautious, and more competent than W.’s, but they are absolutely working toward the same overall goals.
Obama’s real views about Russia were made clear when he nominated Michael McFaul, a man with a strong academic background in democracy promotion and a long history of vocal and strident opposition to Putinism, as ambassador. This wasn’t a "Nixon in China” moment, nor was it some bizarre puzzle that needed to be solved. It was what it appeared to be: a centrist and establishment-minded president nominating a centrist and establishment-minded academic to an important diplomatic position where he would implement centrist and establishment-minded policy. As I’ve written before, if you were looking for someone to oversee a coldhearted and emotionless policy of realpolitik Michael McFaul is literally the last person the world you would choose. However, if you were looking to pursue a perfectly conventional Russia policy, as Obama was, McFaul was a perfect choice.
The Obama team’s fundamentally similar but more tactically savvy approach to Russia is nicely demonstrated by their position on the Magnitsky bill. Obama’s team didn’t say " we have no business interfering in a foreign country’s judicial system” nor did they say "this is a stupid idea that’s going to dramatically worsen relations with Russia while accomplishing nothing.” The Obama team fully agreed with the urgent need to ban certain Russian government officials from coming to the United States, and evidenced no disagreement whatsoever with the hypocritical and selective use of "human rights.” Where the Obama people differed from the GOP was in their desire to punish Russia quietly, and in a way that would minimize the fuss and bother. If you’re a bellicose GOP backbencher I suppose I can see how this would appear to be really significant. If you’re a member of the Russian government, though, it’s a distinction without a difference.
Think of it this way: the George W. Bush administration was like a boss who loudly, repeatedly, and often incoherently scolded an employee in the open, in front of his coworkers, in a way deliberately calculated to maximize humiliation and to demonstrate authority. The Obama administration is like a boss who says "let’s step outside and have a word” and delivers a bulleted list of deficiencies and hands over a shiny-looking "personal development plan.” The tactics are certainly different, one is professional and calm, one is bumbling and shambolic, but the overall situations are basically identical: the boss isn’t happy and the employee needs to shape up or there is going to be trouble.
People have interpreted the Obama administration’s mild, tactical shifts as tectonic changes in strategy and vision. To use the above example one more time, they’ve seen the boss’ desire to be polite and professional and understood it not as a better and more subtle way of saying "shape up or ship out” but as a wink and a nod to the employee that, in effect, say "I might drive a fancier car and wear a nicer suit, but I’m really one of you. Now let’s go break into the supply closet.”
The reset was always going to be limited by the Obama administration’s insistence on pursuing policies that, until recently, were considered radical and antagonistic. Think, for a moment, of the extremely nasty and contentious political disagreements that greeted Reagan’s initial pursuit of "Star Wars” and compare it to the near-silence that Obama’s pursuit of ABM has met with (indeed the only serious criticism Obama has faced has been that he’s not aggressive enough). Tensions with Russia are inevitable so long as the United States continues to pursue policies that the Russian government strongly opposes. Perhaps the tensions are worth the benefits that such policies will bring (Im’ personally skeptical, but there are good faith disagreements) but no amount of rhetorical dexterity will make the Kremlin suddenly amenable to policies it has opposed for decades. That’s why the "reset” failed; not because Obama is cowardly and accommodating but precisely because he is an able and forceful advocate for American power.