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Realism, Idealism, And The Reset

U.S. President Barack Obama greets his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (left) at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Barack Obama greets his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev (left) at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C.
Back in October 2007, when Barack Obama was still considered a long-shot candidate for president and Michael McFaul was a professor at Stanford University, I was working on a story on U.S.-Russian relations, which had deteriorated to their lowest point since the end of the Cold War.

Hoping to get a handle on how leading U.S. foreign-policy thinkers and Kremlin-watchers thought Washington should deal with a resurgent -- and increasingly hostile -- Russia, I phoned several experts whose views I respect, including McFaul (you can read the story here).

I was primarily interested in the tension between the need to engage Russia on key issues in order to advance vital U.S. interests and the moral imperative to confront the Kremlin over its backsliding on democracy, its human rights abuses, and its tendency to meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. In other words, the classic Realist-Idealist debate -- the oldest foreign-policy argument in the book.

The overriding point McFaul made was that for the United States to advance either its "realist" or "idealist" agendas, which he insisted were not mutually exclusive, it was necessary for Washington to be fully engaged with Moscow -- and for Moscow to be sincerely interested in engagement with Washington.

"The agenda of integration [with the West], which for two decades was the dominant strategic agenda of Soviet and Russian foreign policy under [Mikhail] Gorbachev and [Boris] Yeltsin, that's now over," McFaul said at the time "And because they don't care about integration they are willing to do things internally that they wouldn't do if they were seeking to integrate."

McFaul argued that the first step toward rectifying the situation was to "have a real bilateral agenda" with Russia, so Moscow felt it has "a stake [in the relationship] and feel like [it's] doing things with the United States. But in parallel to that, you're much more proactive about these normative things" like human rights and democracy.

"If you had a more interesting agenda on reducing nuclear weapons, and if you engage the Russians on those kind of classic realist issues, that would actually make it easier to help the Garry Kasparovs of the world," McFaul said.

Just over a year after we spoke, Obama was elected president, and he soon tapped McFaul as his chief Russia adviser. And it soon became clear that what he told me in that October 2007 interview turned out to be a Cliff Notes version of what would become known as the "reset" policy.

So where are we now? The tenor and tone of U.S.-Russian relations certainly looks more positive today than when Obama took office 15 months ago. In addition to the new START treaty, Moscow has become markedly more cooperative on Iran and appears ready to support some form of sanctions regime in the UN Security Council. After some early hiccups, Russia is also allowing NATO to transport equipment and supplies across its territory to troops in Afghanistan.

That's a far cry from Medvedev's broadside the day after Obama's election, when he was threatening to deploy short-range missiles in the western Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

So, it's so far, so good on the big "realist" issues. But what about democracy, human rights, and Russia's relations with its neighbors?

Here, a lot of the work appears to be going on below the radar.

Back in July, for example, senior Georgian officials told RFE/RL that behind the scenes during his visit last summer to Moscow, Obama warned Medvedev and Putin in no uncertain terms against starting a new war with Georgia.

The officials said Tbilisi was informed by U.S. officials that Obama told Russia's leaders that any attack against Georgia would have "grave consequences" and that Washington "would not stand aside" in such a conflict as it did during last year's war. A White House spokesperson declined comment on the claim (but did not deny it), saying only, "we don't discuss private conversations." (You can read my reports on this here and here)

Of course, I have no illusions that Russia will stop meddling in Georgian affairs. But the threat of a new war breaking out -- seen by many analysts as a very real possibility last summer -- appears unlikely at this point.

And what about democracy issues? Here I defer to Russian opposition figures, who are in a better position to judge.

Here's what Boris Nemtsov had to say in a roundtable discussion with RFE/RL's Russian Service after Obama met with key opposition leaders in Moscow in July (you can read the transcript in Russian here and you can read my blog post on it here):

The American president needs to solve very important global issues. And he told us that he understands the problems in Russia. He also said: 'I am the president right now and today and I need to solve problems of the United States and the world right now and today, together with Russia. I understand that there isn't the rule of law and an independent judiciary, but we still need to make progress on important issues.' In my opinion this is very reasonable. Of course this can't be a strategic long-term way to approach things, but from the point of view of moving forward and making the world safer, it is correct....

Liberating Russia from this corrupt bureaucracy is not Obama's obligation, it is ours. This is our battle. We don't expect help from abroad. But we believe that America as a great world power and President Obama as a world leader must know what kind of condition Russia's political system is in. We also need to strengthen our contacts with America.

And here's Vladimir Ryzhkov at the same roundtable:

He has an excellent team, some of the best Russia specialists in America.... He is completely informed and it is very important for him to get a realistic picture of Russia and I think he has one. This is not a naive politician. This is not someone who arrived in a country that he doesn't understand. He has an excellent understanding of the situation here. He is addressing the issues here that he has to address as the American president. But I want to stress that the fact that he spent most of the day interacting with society is a strong signal.

(One of the things on my to-do list is to get Nemtsov and Ryzhkov on the phone and get a sense of how they see things now.)

Now that Washington and Moscow are engaged on the "realist" front with a full bilateral agenda and considerably less tension, something to watch in the coming months is the degree to which the Obama administration becomes more proactive on issues of democracy and human rights.

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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