Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Idealism vs. Realpolitik

President Bush opened his week-long visit to Europe with a speech that featured - along with the usual bromides praising "trans-Atlantic" cooperation - a surprising broadside against Russian President Vladamir Putin, with whom Mr. Bush will meet later in the week.
But the speech, the start of a five-day journey to Belgium, Germany and Slovakia, was most striking for his toughest words yet about President Vladimir Putin's rollback of democratic reforms and crackdown on dissent in Russia. Bush is to meet with Putin on Thursday in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava.

"We recognize that reform will not happen overnight," Bush said. "We must always remind Russia, however, that our alliance stands for a free press, a vital opposition, the sharing of power and the rule of law - and the United States and all European countries should place democratic reform at the heart of their dialogue with Russia.
Russo-American relations, which seemed strong at the start of Mr. Bush's first term, have been deteriorating steadily over the last year. Mr. Putin's undeniable power grab, which drastically concentrated power in the Kremlin, threatens to return Russia to an authoritarian state. Russian democracy isn't nearly dead yet, of course, but the political winds blowing from Moscow promise only more centralization of political power and fewer local elections. This does not mean a return to the days of communist totalitanianism, but it doesn't augur well for the establishment of a European style parliamentary democracy either. Washington has watched these developments warily, but its criticism has thus far been restrained for fear of jeopardizing good relations with Moscow.

The Russians, on the other hand, have a far less sanguine view of Washington's motives. American intervention in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine - not to mention the 1999 bombing of Serbia, with which Russia has strong ethnic and historical bonds - has convinced the more reactionary Russian politicians and bureaucrats that the US plans to encircle Russia by extending the NATO alliance right up to Russia's border, depriving Moscow of historical allies and buffer states. Many Russians see this as a symptom of American triumphalism resulting from Russia's loss of the Cold War - and their resentment is palpable.

Last year's Ukrainian election debacle particularly infuriated Moscow, which considers Ukraine part of its historic hegemony. Putin personally backed Victor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian establishment candidate, who "won" the first - and very clearly rigged - ballot. This exploded in Putin's face when Europe and the US vociferously protested the election, aiding the reformers protesting the elections outcome. In the face of international pressure, a new election was called and Victor Yushchenko, the reform candidate, won. To the surprise of no one in the Kremlin - and as if to justify the worst of the reactionaries' conspiracy theories - Yushchenko has today called for NATO membership for Ukraine.

The question for the Bush administration - and more broadly for succeeding American administrations - is how to draw the line between promoting American ideals (like democracy) and not alienating strategic allies who adhere to contradicting standards of behavior. The Russian trend toward dictatorship - the historical norm for Russia - cannot be described as a good thing either for Russians or Americans. However, with no credible Russian democractic opposition anywhere in sight, the US has little sway over Moscow politics. Moreover, American overatures toward former Russian satellite states has tempered any American influence in Moscow with suspicion and resentment.

This may explain Russia's stubborn refusal to cease cooperation with Iran on nuclear power plants. The Russians cannot be unaware of Iran's clear intention to use that technology to create nuclear weapons, but they are equally aware that providing this technology to Iran spits in America's eye. So, too, for Russian weapon sales to Venuzala, a nation smack in the middle of America's immediate sphere of influence, and Russia's assistance to Iraq on the eve of the 2003 American invasion. Russia no longer has the strenght or influence to confront Washington directly, but it still has means and motive to play passive-aggressive foreign policy with Washington all over the world.

Yet, Washington needs Moscow. Russian cooperation in America's (very sloppily named) War on Terrorism remains vital for both information sharing and controlling Russia's poorly managed military arsenal. But Russia's tactical geographic positions, bordering China could make it a potent ally of the US in any future squabble with Bejing. The Chinese are keenly aware of this, and anticipating a future conflict with their former Cold War ally America, have sought mightily to woo Mosow over the past decade. Also, Russian oil and gas reserves could prove vital to the US should Islamists manage to topple the House of Saud in Riyadh. The Bush Administration, incidentally, has suffered no indecision with regard to the House of Saud, which has been a primary source of financing and protector of the Islamist extremists now waging war against the US. Washington has resisted any attempt to condemn Saudi Arabia or see relations strained (despite Saudi complicity and lack of cooperation) lest an threatened or offended Riyadh respond by cutting off the flow of oil to the US. The economic consequences of such an act are too devastating for the US to contemplate, thus Washington glosses over the problems in its relationship with the Saudi Kingdom.

The choice for the US comes down to applying President Bush's idealistic devotion to spreading democracy at the risk of alienating strategic allies like Russia, or playing Cold War style politics in which the US pointedly overlooks the nasty flaws of certain allies in order to construct a better worldwide defense against a more dangerous threat to the US itself (namely: China). If Bush Administration continues to chide Russia for its authoritarian leanings, war in Chechnya, and pushing the borders of NATO (an outdated alliance in any event) closer to Russia, it will be in keeping with the president's expressed Wilsonian idealism. It may, however, drive Russia deeper in China's embrace and produce a Russian foreign policy based on antagonizing the US. Promoting democracy is a noble and moral proposition, but the rising power of China represents a long-term threat to both the US and democratic nations collectively. Sabotaging alliances that could contain China is not in America's long term interest. Reality often demands trade-offs. During the Cold War the US allied itself with many questionable regimes in order to contain and ultimately defeat communism. Depsite the claims of some neo-conservatives, history is not dead, and the compromises necessary to advance American interests have not disappeared.


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