Storm clouds are gathering over what has been a signature shift in U.S. foreign policy under President Barack Obama: the "reset" of relations with Russia. The usual suspects, from the Weekly Standard to the Washington Times to hawkish cold warriors in Congress, see recent news as vindication of their argument that the reset represents dangerous appeasement of a relentless foe on the march, an adversary with which it would be folly to cooperate in any way.
Some of the headlines, including a supposedly Kremlin-ordered attack on a U.S. Embassy, leave one with the impression that the U.S.-Russia relationship is on the brink of a return to the state of near confrontation that Obama inherited.
Reset-bashing is, of course, nothing new; critics of the policy have seized on every faint hint of Russian hostility abroad and revanchism at home to denounce Obama for his weakness and naivete. But much of the recently published analysis is deeply misleading. Some of the reset-bashers seem so blinded by their rage that they simply refuse to acknowledge its successes and have conveniently forgotten how disastrous the alternative -- an antagonistic U.S.-Russia relationship -- is for U.S. national interests and Russia's own development.
Let's first be clear about what the reset is not. It is not a secret weapon to vaporize all those in the Russian security establishment who deeply distrust U.S. intentions and at times act on that mistrust. It is also not a reset of Russia's political system, some sort of magic wand for effecting instantaneous democratization.
What it was, and remains, is an effort to work with Russia on key national security priorities where U.S. and Russian interests overlap, while not hesitating to push back on disagreements with the Kremlin at the same time. The idea is that engagement, by opening up channels of communication and diminishing antagonism, should -- over time -- allow Washington to at least influence problematic Russian behavior and open up more space in Russia's tightly orchestrated domestic politics.
At the core of the reset policy is a determination that "linkage" -- making bilateral cooperation on a given issue dependent on a given country's behavior on other matters -- is an ineffective instrument when dealing with states that are neither ally nor enemy. That's especially true for great powers like China and Russia, which, whether Americans like it or not, play a major role on global issues that matter. This diplomatic tactic is not new; it harks back to George Shultz, secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan, and his approach to the Soviet Union. In his memoirs, Shultz writes:
[M]ost Soviet experts liked to link all aspects of our Soviet relationship together and try to use the presumed Soviet desire for progress in one area, such as trade, as leverage to achieve progress in another.... I felt that we must be prepared to fight out each issue on its own terms, and that we would be better off if we thought of the relationship that way.... We must not ignore Soviet actions that trouble us. On the contrary, we need to respond forcefully.... [L]inkage is a tactical question; the strategic reality of leverage comes from creating facts in support of our overall design.
There is a case to be made that finding any sort of accommodation with the pre-perestroika Soviet Union, which often exhibited an expansionist, ideological foreign policy that ran directly counter to U.S. interests and featured a political system that by definition trampled on basic human rights and freedoms, was impossible. Russia in 2011, though at times a bully in its neighborhood and far from a consolidated democracy, has neither of these traits. But Shultz's assertion that "a policy which dictates that nothing can be solved until everything is solved" will both make it harder to achieve U.S. objectives and will cede initiative to the other side is equally valid today.