The Fate of the “Reset” During Political Open Seasons in Russia and the U.S.: Prospects for Change and Continuity

By
Amy Liedy

“What’s come before in the U.S.-Russia relationship is very relevant to understanding the position that we find ourselves in today,” argued Matthew Rojansky, Deputy Director, Russia and Eurasia Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at a 21 February 2012 Kennan Institute event. The speaker discussed the terms of the “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations, the challenges the two countries currently face, and prospects for the relationship in light of the 2012 presidential elections.

Rojansky began by explaining Russia’s importance to the U.S. as a strategic diplomatic partner. First, as a fellow permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia’s unpredictable voting record is often a challenge to U.S. foreign policy in the international arena. Nonetheless, Russia proximity to critical regions throughout the world makes the country key to conflict resolution in places such as the Middle East and the Korean peninsula. Russia is also a “rare” country, according to Rojansky, in terms of its capabilities to deal with 21st century problems, such as cybercrime, trafficking, and disaster relief. Furthermore, Russia’s position as an energy and natural resources superpower are among several reasons why, for the United States specifically, it is a potentially important trade partner.

Prior to the “reset,” the Bush administration intended for U.S.-Russian relations to operate “like normal countries” that would opt to collaborate diplomatically only when their interests coincided. However, “that didn’t work for the U.S.,” the speaker explained, “apparently, Russia needs to have a ‘special status’ in the pantheon of U.S. foreign policy.” Although the interactions between Presidents Putin and Bush initially appeared to be a very promising relationship, U.S. foreign policy in response to events such as the Orange Revolution and the 2008 war in South Ossetia damaged U.S.-Russian relations. Rojansky noted that while United States foreign policy aimed to support its political allies, Russia felt that the U.S. threatened its sphere of influence.

Ultimately, the relationship between the two administrations became strained. Upon President Obama’s succession to office, his administration sought to reset U.S.-Russian relations to a “newly-pragmatic relationship,” according to Rojansky. The result of the Obama reset was the creation of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission in 2009, which currently has 21 working groups that address a wide range of issues between the two countries. The speaker lauded the creation of the Bilateral Commission, but explained that it’s not actually a new initiative—indeed; such collaborations existed between the U.S. and Russia previously when their relationship was in good standing. Despite this tendency, Rojansky asserted that the reset is “not a failure; it’s been successful. But it’s been successful with unfinished business: very obvious tasks that were holdovers from previous failures, from previous inadequacies of the relationship.”

The speaker credited that success to the relationship between President Obama and President Medvedev, describing the leaders as “modern, process-oriented, lawyerly presidents.” Despite the ideology of the reset being “institution-oriented, it is still very much a personality-driven exercise.” In light of that detail, Rojansky warned that the fate of the reset could change if in fact the leadership in either country changes. In the context of the forthcoming elections, as well as in the context of a relationship that has achieved a number of important goals, the speaker outlined several challenges to the existing paradigm that could negatively impact the future of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

The complex issues remaining for the two countries in order to resolve, such as missile defense and human rights, face certain cultural roadblocks that need to be understood, Rojansky explained. For example, there is a notable gap in the values systems in Russia and the United States. Particularly in light of Russia’s recent accession to the WTO in the context of Jackson-Vanik, relations between the two countries could weaken if the values gap is not addressed. Congress’s influence over the issue of human rights in the U.S.-Russia relationship could potentially drudge up deep disagreement between the countries.

Furthermore, the speaker asserted that there is “a tremendous amount of old thinking” that persists on both sides of the U.S.-Russia relationship, and it exists at virtually every level of both bureaucracies. As a result, that Cold War-era mentality encourages officials to assume the worst of the other country—of zero-sum, conspiracy thinking on both sides of the relationship. Rojansky cited the Russian accusation that the United States drove the Arab Spring; in the U.S., he noted that officials consistently portray Vladimir Putin as “some kind of puppet master.” As long as officials continue to lead under these conditions, the reset will face serious consequences.

Another challenge to the fate of the reset concerns the seemingly few stakeholders interested in upholding the U.S.-Russia relationship. “We don’t have good stakeholders who are able to fight for the interests of the countries in question,” the speaker noted, “much less communities on each side who have a general shared strategy about how they’re going to promote the general reconciliation of the relationship.” While the parties on either side of the U.S.-Russia relationship may not see eye to eye on every issue, Rojansky warned that certain issues on which the two sides disagree are “becoming the currency of legitimacy for American political leadership.” For example, he cited that expressing support for the Arab Spring could have a negative impact on the U.S.-Russia relationship.

In light of all the uncertainties in the U.S.-Russia relationship, Rojansky emphasized that there are opportunities for the reset to succeed. For example, the increase of trade between the two countries over the last several years is a positive trend, but the amount of trade pales in comparison with each country’s total foreign trading—which currently isn’t enough to create stakes large enough to improve the relationship. This situation may change after Russia’s accession to the WTO; with increased opportunities for trade between the two countries also comes a vehicle for improving adherence to norms; for engaging in dispute resolution through neutral WTO bodies; and an opportunity to address the issue of Jackson-Vanik and human rights in Russia. The speaker emphasized that if the U.S. fails to address that problem, eighteen years of bilateral negotiations with Russia could be lost.

Rojansky noted that politically, the Obama administration has staked a tremendous amount on its relationship with Russia; if Russia helps to keep the reset and relationship successful, the administration will be able to succeed in getting support for its agenda in Russia. In order to do so, he argued that a stronger foundation for the U.S.-Russia relationship is necessary. Likening the foundation to “insurance,” the speaker argued that in order to ensure that the United States and Russia can still have productive diplomatic relations, the Bilateral Presidential Commission must become a permanent and enduring structure. Therefore, the speaker advocated for more face-to-face time between Russians and Americans. “The future can be difficult to predict,” Rojansky concluded, adding that “we need to apply strategic patience … to ensure that we have an insurance policy for the reset.”

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute 

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