ICAS Special Contribution

No. 2001-0315-TEG

U.S.-Russian Relations

Thomas E. Graham, Jr

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

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Biographic Sketch: Thomas E. Graham, Jr

[Editor's note: We gratefully acknowledge the special contribution with written permission to ICAS of Thomas E. Graham, Jr. He delivered this remark at a conference, March 15, 2001, at Milton Park, United Kingdom: sjk]

U.S.-Russian Relations
Wilton Park, UK
March 15, 2001

Thomas E. Graham, Jr*
Senior Associate
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Washington, DC

It is hardly a secret that U.S.-Russian relations are at one of their lowest ebbs - if not the lowest - since the end of the Cold War. Gratuitous anti-Americanism, once confined to the fringe, has in the past few months become regular fare for the mainstream Russian press, while Russophobia is increasingly penetrating into American discourse on Russian developments. Russian leaders have been disturbed by what they see as excessively harsh or dismissive rhetoric coming out of the new Bush Administration, while American leaders have been shocked by rhetoric they find reminiscent of the Cold War coming from the mouths of senior Russian officials. The appearances of Russian Security Council Secretary Sergey Ivanov and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Munich Conference on European Security Policy in early February neatly encapsulated each side's grievances. Ivanov reiterated the canard that NATO's use of depleted uranium weapons in Kosovo has led to an ecological catastrophe equivalent to Chernobyl. Rumsfeld, however, did not hear this. He left before Ivanov spoke, and, in his own remarks, he did not see fit to mention Russia.

Both sides, of course, profess to want to improve relations. And with good reason: Each side still stands to gain considerably - at least on security matters - from constructive relations. They would facilitate stabilizing the Caspian region and the exploitation of potentially significant energy resources; reinforce the weakening stability of Central Asia and lessen the risk of great-power competition there; help manage China's rise as a major world power; and ease concerns about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of delivering them. For Russia, such relations would also greatly advance the urgent task of rebuilding its economy.

Improving relations will require an appreciation of how the world is changing and how that change affects both the United States and Russia. Such an understanding will illuminate the causes of the strain in their relations, as well as inform thought on how to repair them. In this light, let me propose ten thesis.

  1. Today's world is not the one we anticipated just a decade or so ago, and the United States has become the world's preeminent power by an unexpectedly wide margin.
In the mid-1980's, talk of America's decline was in vogue. Even those who disputed that claim did not foresee the preponderant position the United States enjoys in the world today. There is simply no rival to the United States across all dimensions of power - military, economic, financial, cultural - and none looming on the horizon. As a result, the United States' potential to shape the emerging international order is as great as it has ever been.

In the mid-1980's, few predicted the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. While the profound strains and stresses on the system were well known, the conventional wisdom - even as late as 1989/90 - was that a reassertion of centralized, authoritarian rule was much more likely than radical breakdown. Similarly, few foresaw that during the last decade Russia would suffer a socio-economic collapse unprecedented for a great power not defeated in a major war.

In Europe, the process of integration has proceeded much more rapidly than anyone had anticipated. NATO has already expanded, and further enlargement is on the agenda. The EU is set to take in its first new members from Central East Europe in the next few years. The EU has moved rapidly from being a mere trade organization to being a genuine economic, political, and security community.

In Asia, few predicted Japan's decade of stagnation or India's rapid growth. There was, of course, much talk of China's emergence as a great power, but the speed has been exaggerated.

These unanticipated developments mark an extraordinary geopolitical shift, the consequences of which we are only beginning to grasp. In particular, Russia's weakness has profound implications, eliminating a force that had helped discipline the transatlantic community and could have played a central role in managing China's rise.

  1. The Cold War is over.
Some time in the past few years, the Cold War finally came to an end. To be sure, a decade ago, the collapse of the Soviet empire, the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the demise of Soviet communism eliminated the fundamental building blocks of the Cold-War international system. Those events accelerated the erosion of bipolarity and reshuffled the relative standing of the various dimensions of power. The economic dimension, which was truly multipolar with the United States, several European states, and Japan acting as centers of power, rose in importance, as the bipolar strategic nuclear one decline. Even the bipolarity of the strategic nuclear equation was attenuated as the U.S. and Russian arsenals were reduced and nuclear weapons capabilities proliferated. As is the rule in history, however, perceptions lagged behind reality and practice behind perceptions. While we talked of the post-Cold War, we continued to operate within its conceptual framework. The United States and Russia - well into the 1990's - viewed the world through the prism of relations with one another. In both countries, there was a sense that the U.S.-Russian relationship would play a decisive role in shaping the post-Cold War world. That view, however, was predicated on the assumption that Russia would begin to recover from the multiple ills of its Soviet inheritance in short order, even if it was clear that full recovery was a matter of years or decades. That, of course, did not happen.

  1. The end of the Cold War, geopolitical shifts, and globalization have changed the nature of power in the international system to Russia's disadvantage.
The use of force may remain the ultimo ratio, but its relative importance has declined, as fewer goals can be best advanced through seizing and holding territory. Within the realm of force, the role of nuclear weapons has been radically altered. While possessing them continues to bring prestige, large arsenals are of little use other than for deterring other large arsenals or massive conventional attacks. At the same time, a small number of weapons could prove invaluable, if not to states per se, then to sub-state actors, such as terrorist organizations. In short, the fewer, the more useable.

As the role of force has declined, that of other factors - technology, finances, trade, cultural, etc. - has grown. In the absence of any plausible scenario leading to a war between great powers, the economy has become the primary arena of competition and economic prowess the main factor in determining a country's relative standing in the world. In addition, globalization has both increased the power and reach of non-state actors and decreased states' ability to control activities even with their own borders.

Unfortunately for Russia, its standing in the world has historically been based on its military prowess, reinforced during the Cold War by its ideological appeal, which has since vanished. In economic terms, Russia has traditionally been a poor country, and the gap between it and the world's leading powers only widened during the last decade. In short, Russia has relatively little of what counts most in the world today, and global developments have further eroded its already weak state structures.

  1. Russia does not lie at the center of U.S. foreign policy, nor can it.
As a result of these changes, Russia no longer has the centrality for U.S. interests it once enjoyed. While it remains an important country - by reason of its nuclear capability, location in the heart of Eurasia, veto in the UN Security Council, and rich resources - it must compete for the United States' attention with other leading countries and regions, including notably Europe, China, Japan, and India. Moreover, Russia's importance varies from issue to issue. It has, for example, a central role to play on proliferation, while its impact on the global economy is negligible.

In the United States, few disagree with according Russia a lower priority. The debate rages over where - below first place - to rank Russia and how intensely to engage it. There are four schools of thought. (1) the "Forget Russia" school, which would not spend devote much time or energy to Russia in the belief that it simply does not matter that much any longer; (2) the 'proto-containment" school, which believes no matter what happens, Russia is bound to be a problem for the United States and therefore the United States' goal should be to limit the damage Russia can do to its interests; (3) the "selective engagement" school, which would engage only on issues of key interest to the United States, largely in the security realm; and (4) the "broad engagement" school, which advocates engagement over a wide range of issues in the belief that only such an approach can restore the levels of trust necessary for progress on those first-order security priorities.

  1. The United States is no longer a status quo power.
Throughout the Cold War it was commonplace to think of the United States as a status quo power engaged in global competition with a revolutionary power, the Soviet Union, intent on changing the fundamental nature of the international system. While the United States has not become a revolutionary power, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the mounting wave of globalization, and technological breakthroughs on information, telecommunications, and biogenetics are revolutionizing the international system. In other words, there is no status quo to preserve. The challenge before the United States, as the leading beneficiary of these dramatic changes, is to use its period of peak power to channel them and shape the international order in ways that will perpetuate U.S. preeminence and prosperity well into the future. This will require an overhaul of the UN system - particularly, the Security Council; new or reformed institutions to manage the global economy; new methods of dealing with transnational problems - crime, ecological disasters, epidemic diseases; and a new framework for strategic stability (The treaty framework that has regulated U.S.-Russian nuclear relations for the past thirty years is obsolete, if only because strategic stability - with the inevitable proliferation of weapons of mass destruction - is no longer simply a bilateral matter).

  1. Russia is a backward-looking power.
This is true in two ways. First, acutely aware of its own weakness, Russia wants to delay the consolidation of a new international system until a time when it has greater capacity to shape it. It also seeks to slow down changes that would further erode its standing in the world: This is one reason for its adamant opposition to any form of national missile defense, no matter how limited, and insistence on maintaining the treaty framework. Nuclear parity is its last remaining attribute of great-power status.

Second, Russian leaders continue to operate with a zero-sum, 19th century geopolitical or Cold War mindset, insisting that Russia is a major pole (even if they harbor deep doubts on that score). Putin has spent the last year seeking to create strategic partnerships capable of eroding America's preponderance or to divide Europe from the United States. While he has underscored the need to rebuild Russia's economy, he has moved aggressively to sell Russian weaponry abroad, in part because this helps maintain Russia's military capabilities. In this context, trade is a handmaiden of security concerns.

  1. Russia acts as if the United States views the world through the prism of relations with Russia.
The Russian elites have yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that much of U.S. policy treats Russia as at best a secondary consideration. This is true even of the security realm, where Russia counts most in the world. Russian leaders insist that national missile defense is directed against them. The reality is that the United States' first concern is rouge states - North Korea, Iran, and Iraq - with accidental launches from Russia (resulting from the deterioration of Russian command and control systems) a lesser concern. NATO enlargement is focused first of all on promoting democratic development in Central East Europe, bolstering security, and maintaining the United States' position in Europe; it is not directed against Russia. Multiple pipeline routes from the Caspian are about energy security; they are not aimed first of all at undermining Russia's presence in the region.

  1. There is a gaping and growing asymmetry between Russia and the United States in power, fortune, attitude, and perceptions.
As a result of the developments of the past decade, American and Russian elites live in radically different worlds and they are intent on building radically different ones over the next decade and beyond. The United States is the world's preponderant power; it exudes optimism and self-confidence as it looks toward the future; it revels in being indispensable to world developments; and it believes itself called to lead in the world. Russia, on the other hand, is a state in decline; it is mired in self-doubt and an identity crisis; it fears it is being marginalized; and yet it aspires to be a world leader. This asymmetry precludes a wide-ranging, substantive relationship of equals, corrupts communication, and fuels suspicions.

  1. Russia matters to the United States more because of its weakness than because of its strength.
This is perhaps the most radical change of the past generation. A generation ago, the United States was worried about the great military capabilities of the Soviet Union wedded to hostile intentions. Now it is more concerned by the risk of "loose nukes," by the deterioration in Russia's capacity to ensure the safety and security of weapons of mass destruction and the proliferation problems that lessened capacity creates. A generation ago, the United States worried about Soviet aggression in Europe and the Middle East. Now it is far more concerned that instability and a breakdown in governance in Russia could spill over and destabilize its neighbors, many of which are fragile states themselves. A generation ago, the United States worried that the Soviet Union's veto in the Security Council undermined the effectiveness of the United Nations. Now it is - or at least should be - concerned that Russia's weakness, coupled with growing resentment of the United States, has increasingly tempted it to circumvent the Security Council in pursuit of its goals. A generation ago, the United States worried about the implications of the Soviet Union's economic potential for its military might. Now it is more concerned that Russia's decline could reach levels that would transform Russia into an object of competition among more advanced economic powers.

  1. Improving U.S.-Russian relations requires an approach that is less ambitious and more practical than the one of the last decade.
The Clinton Administration came to office with grand plans for Russia and U.S.-Russian relations. The goal was nothing less than a massive transformation of Russia into - as Deputy Secretary Strobe Talbott was wont to put it - "a normal, modern state - democratic in its governance, abiding by its own constitution and by its own laws, market-oriented and prosperous in its economic development, at peace with itself and with the rest of the world." The Administration spoke boldly of a strategic partnership with Russia. By the time it left office, the Administration's policies lay in ruins, and that failure, coupled socio-economic depression in Russia, fueled the deterioration in relations we have witnessed over the past two to three years.

The first step in improving relations is restoring the trust that has suffered so greatly. And doing that requires a more focused agenda. The United States needs to take into account Russia's diminished capacity to engage and avoid overwhelming the relationship with secondary and tertiary issues. Rather, the two countries need to concentrate on those issues where Russia truly matters and where there is some hope of success. That is critical to generating and sustaining the public support needed for improved relations.

*     *

I think you will find that much of what I have said reflects the views of senior Bush Administration officials. Let me end with some thoughts on what this will mean for the actual conduct of policy.

First, the Administration is not going to treat Russia as a special case. We have already seen that in the way it has organized itself bureaucratically. At the National Security Council, the Russia/Eurasia Directorate was stripped of independent status and subsumed within the European Directorate. At the State Department, something similar might happen, although the decision has been postponed. Such steps should be seen not so much as downgrading Russia as according it the treatment we do all other major countries.

Second, the focus is going to be on security affairs, most notably proliferation. Russia's domestic transformation will be a second-order priority. That said, the Administration will be prepared to respond to Russian initiatives on its domestic economic and political matters if it believes they make sense, but it is not going to be deeply involved in giving advice. At the same time, it will monitor closely the human rights situation - as the United States has since the mid-1970's; it will be critical of violations; and it will be prepared to take tough measures against gross violations, such as Chechnya. It will press for a concerted campaign against organized crime and corruption, in part because it believes both jeopardize American interests.

Third, the Administration will be inclined to deal with Russia as part of clusters of other states, that is, there is very little that the Administration believes it can resolve by dealing solely or primarily with Russia. Missile defense, for example, will involve a cluster including Europe, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and China. Caspian issues will be dealt with in a cluster that includes Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the states of the region. Europe will be the primary interlocutor on NATO enlargement, although Russia will also be a concern.

Fourth, the Administration is persuaded that those issues that appear most troublesome, namely, missile defense and NATO enlargement, offer in fact an opportunity to improve relations. In both cases, the Administration wants to engage the Russians in a discussion of long-range possibilities and threats. There is ample room for cooperation, in meeting the challenge of proliferation, in building missile defenses, and bolstering Europe's security. But for the promise to be met, Russia will have to adjust its own approach. That will require, in the first instance, Russia moving beyond a posture of simply saying "No, never" to missile defense and of non-acceptance of NATO enlargement. Missile defense and NATO enlargement are going to proceed no matter what Russia does, and rejecting them out of hand will do nothing to warm relations with the West.

The more enlightened approach for Moscow would be to work to shape missile defense and NATO enlargement in ways that advance its own strategic interests, as well as those of the United States and Europe. There is indeed some encouraging evidence that Moscow had already come to this realization on missile defense. Its recent talk of joint European-Russian missile defenses could be a signal that it is prepared for serious discussions about the nature of the threat and ways to meet it. Diplomacy will play a role, but so will defenses. And the building of defenses would provide an opportunity to wed U.S., European, and Russian technology in ways that promote cooperation, economic growth, and security for all the parties involved. Similarly, on NATO enlargement, we need to look beyond enlargement to the threats that a united Europe and Russia will face over the next generation, particularly from the south. Here again, there is ample opportunity for cooperation

In sum, the new Administration wants to improve relations with Russia. Whether it will succeed depends, of course, on whether Russia is prepared for serious engagement. And so I want to end with a question for our Russian colleagues: Does Russia have sufficient confidence in its own strength to engage the United States constructively? Or will doubts about its capabilities and wounded pride lead it to continue to work at cross-purposes to the United States, as it has in the recent past?

* ICAS Fellow

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