Resetting the Reset

The United States needs to decide whether to treat Russia as a marginal global actor or an asset in America's global strategy.

Whoever wins the U.S. presidency, Washington's Russia policy needs a reassessment and a rethink. The "reset" has run its course. The Obama administration's vaunted policy of engaging with Moscow did away with the irritants of the previous administration and allowed a modicum of cooperation on issues such as Afghanistan supply routes. It has failed to give America's Russia policy a strategic depth, but this was never the intention. But Mitt Romney's portrayal of Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe" and promising to be tough on Putin is not a policy either. Rhetoric has its uses on the campaign trail, but its value greatly diminishes when the challenger becomes the incumbent. The real choice for the new administration lies between keeping Russia on the periphery of the U.S. foreign policy, which means essentially taking a tactical approach, and treating Russia as an asset in America's global strategy.

Frankly, the former approach appears much more likely. As the United States struggles with the plethora of issues in the Middle East, Iran, and Afghanistan, and focuses more on China and Asia, Russia will be seen as a marginal or irrelevant factor. In some cases, as in Afghanistan, Moscow will continue to provide valuable logistical support; in others, such as Iran's nuclear program, it might be considered useful, but only up to a point; in still other cases, like Syria, it will be regarded as a spoiler due to its consistent opposition to the U.S. effort to topple the Assad regime. As regards China and East Asia, the United States will continue to ignore Russia, whose resources and role are believed to be negligible in that part of the world. Tellingly, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's seminal "pivot" article in Foreign Policy did not care to mention Russia at all.

When Russia's cooperation on foreign policy is deemed to matter little, and its opposition regarded as little more than nuisance, Moscow's interests and concerns are unlikely to be taken seriously in Washington. Reaching a deal on missile defense with the Russians and selling that deal in Washington may prove too much for the new Obama administration; a Romney White House would probably not bother to reach out to the Kremlin at all, even as it goes ahead with NATO deployments in Europe. That NATO's further enlargement to the east would likely continue to stall would have more to do with the political realities in Ukraine and Georgia, however, than with any restraint in Washington.

Moreover, various constituencies in the United States might take a more proactive attitude with regard to the domestic developments in Russia. Nearly a year after the beginning of large-scale protests following the flawed parliamentary elections last December, the Russia's domestic socio-political crisis has deepened. The Russian Awakening is on the way -- but the situation is complex, and the outcome wide open. A temptation arises to assist in the process by putting pressure on those in power (e.g., by means of the Magnitsky Bill, soon to become law) while simultaneously encouraging those who sail with the winds of change.

This has already made Washington a factor in Russian domestic politics. Even as the protesters deride the notion of being on the payroll of the United States, the Kremlin has been seeking to brand the opposition as "foreign agents" and to present itself as the fulcrum of Russian patriotism and defender of the national interest. In this logic, verbal attacks on Putin from the outside world benefit him. (And Romney's remarks help a lot.) Taking the cue from the authors of the Magnitsky Bill, the Kremlin is considering ordering Russian officials to repatriate their assets. If the elites' resistance could be overcome, this move would kill two birds with one stone: make Moscow less vulnerable to outside pressure, and increase the Kremlin's control over those who serve it. Meanwhile, the Kremlin has made several steps toward reducing U.S. influence in the country -- passing new restrictions on NGOs, expanding the definition of high treason, and ending USAID and Nunn-Lugar programs in Russia.

There is no way to insulate Russian domestic politics from the relationship with Washington. A few things, however, need to be taken into account. One, domestic changes in Russia will come, but they will come as a result of internal dynamics. Outside interference, even of marginal utility, can backfire badly. Two, the likely changes in Russia will not necessarily make it closer to the United States politically. As it transforms further, Russia will probably swing to the socialist left and at the same time become more nationalistic. Three, whatever happens in the country internally, Russia will be determined to remain an independent strategic player.

With all this in mind, should and can the United States develop a strategic approach to Russia or just continue to approach it tactically? The next administration must do the former. Russia has a view about the global order which prioritizes sovereignty and non-interference in countries' internal affairs. Coupled  with Moscow's blocking power at the U.N. Security Council, going around Russia has real costs for the United States. Russia has more relevance than any other country -- except for the United States itself -- on the whole range of nuclear weapons issues, from arms control and strategic stability to WMD proliferation and talks with Iran and North Korea. Russia also has an intimate if complex relationship with China, from coordinating policies that frustrate Washington at the U.N. level to over 2,700 miles of common border to cooperation-cum-competition in the arms sphere.

The intellectual problem facing U.S. policymakers is that present-day Russia is neither an ally to be led nor a serious threat to be contained. This problem needs to be addressed if U.S. foreign policy is to be more than a fire brigade rushing from one conflict to another (be that Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, or Syria) or a power engaged in successive confrontations -- with Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and, as some believe, possibly with China. The starting point for escaping that pattern is thinking through the implications of the fundamental geopolitical, economic, demographic, technological changes in the international system. At the moment, the United States seems to be too much obsessed with the rise of China and over-preoccupied with the developments in the Arab world. By contrast, Europe, Africa, India, Latin America, and Russia are all getting scant attention. For a truly global policy, there has to be a better balance.

As to the Russia policy proper, three strategic goals would make sense. First is achieving practical cooperation with Moscow through coordinated missile defenses in Europe, which would not only make the Euro-Atlantic a zone of stable peace, but also ensure that Russia will not be on the wrong side of the United States in the evolving global balance. Second is promoting economic cooperation in the North Pacific, where the United States and Russia are near neighbors. A joint project, also involving Canada, Japan, and other countries such as Australia can both help Russia develop its Siberian and Pacific provinces, and contribute to overall stability in the region. Third is the joint economic, transport, and infrastructure development of the Arctic, where Russia has the longest shoreline of the five littoral countries.

Can the United States focus on those issues or will it instead continue to treat Russia as near-irrelevant in global terms but still dangerous to its smaller neighbors which require U.S. protection and support? Obama would probably be a better manager of the relationship than Romney, but even for him Russia comes as an afterthought, an accessory to more important issues such as Afghanistan. Romney's foreign policy is an open question, and finding a place for Russia in it will be even more challenging. Can the next administration strike the right balance between American interests and values when it comes to Moscow, or will they allow themselves to be used by the various forces within Russia, where serious political struggle is just beginning? If the next U.S. administration does not rise above the, frankly, very mediocre general level of the post-Cold War U.S.-Russia policy, Washington will continue losing opportunities and limiting its options. A reset is not enough, and it cannot be repeated anyway. It is time for a re-think.



Back to Africa

If Barack Obama is reelected, he'll have to deliver on his promises to Africa -- and act more like Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

The ascension of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States in 2008 heralded positive change in the country's Africa policy. But, over the last four years, he failed to deliver on his promises. As the United States prepares for Election Day, one wonders whether or not the next president's Africa policy will break the inertia and revive U.S. interest in the continent. Africa is so disconnected and removed from the rumblings of domestic politics in Washington that it is one of the rare areas where being bipartisan works. Thus, the problems that plague the continent constitute low-hanging fruit for any president who is willing to commit his political capital to Africa.

Ironically, like other non-Americans, Africans see no major foreign policy differences between Republican and Democratic administrations. Gov. Mitt Romney's shift to the center on foreign affairs during this campaign further muddles the horizon and makes it hard to tell how his Africa policy would differ from Obama's.

It is equally unclear how a second-term President Obama would approach Africa. His record, however, allows some insight. In the summer of 2009, he outlined the foundation of his Middle East and Africa policies in two historical speeches he delivered in Cairo and Accra. Given in the halls of the Ghanaian parliament, the Accra speech resonated with political leaders and civil society groups across the continent for two reasons. Ghana embodies the worst and best of the political struggle of Africans. It was the first African country to wrestle independence from a colonial power, leading the 50-year freedom movement that culminated with the demise of South Africa's Apartheid regime in 1994. Ghana also led the continent with a succession of bloody coups d'état, which ended with the transition to democracy in 1993, allowing the country to emerge as a beacon of stability and economic growth.

So when Obama called for the end of the era of strongmen and pledged U.S. support to democratic reforms and institution-building, Africans applauded and saw a partner in the new president. But strongmen across the continent quickly tested Obama's resolve. When the authoritarian leaders of Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo hijacked elections to cement their grip on power, the Obama White House failed to unambiguously stand with the disenfranchised voters. The gap between Obama's rhetoric and actions continued to widen as his administration failed to capitalize on his popularity and tremendous goodwill towards him in Africa. His policy lacked the creativity to adjust engagement to the changing face of the continent and rested on the old Cold War approach that saw Africa primarily as a resource provider and a battleground against enemies of the United States. As a result, democratization and the defense of human rights took a second seat to security concerns. Thus, under Obama, the main interlocutors of the United States in Africa were not the democratically minded leaders of Botswana, Ghana, Namibia, or Zambia, but rather the strongmen of Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda.

Where democracy and human rights are concerned, the Obama State Department prefers to deal with African leaders behind closed doors, shielding U.S. policy from public oversight and allowing their allies to save face. This approach has exacerbated tensions in conflict-prone areas such as the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions.

For four years, Obama faced a formidable opposition from members of the Republican Party in Congress, who sought to block or derail his domestic initiatives. But as a senator, earlier in his career, and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he worked successfully with Republicans to pass the Democratic Republic of Congo Relief, Security and Democracy Promotion Act that was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As president, Obama distanced himself from this legislation and did not apply it as the Congo crisis worsened during his watch. If the last four years are any indication, one should not expect Obama to change the way he has engaged in Africa.

Still, considering Africa's growing importance on the global market, the next president of the United States should have the courage to turn the current, negative and despondent narrative upside down and learn from Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush. As former governors, neither president had half of Obama's foreign policy experience, but showed great courage and creativity in their Africa policies.

Serving in the height of the Cold War when human rights and democracy were relegated to the periphery of U.S. Africa policy, Jimmy Carter successfully challenged the reasoning behind that approach. He elevated democracy and freedom, two pillars of American political thought, to policy prominence. He became the first Western leader to show that political freedom and military hegemony were not mutually exclusive. For the United States to be successful in its global outreach, the promotion of democracy, civil liberties, and good governance had to be a top priority of U.S. foreign policy. Carter managed to protect American interests across the continent while promoting democracy. In Zaire, he rescued the dictatorial Mobutu Sese Seko regime from two invasions in 1977 and 1978, but never wavered in his push for democratization. This pressure and enthusiasm for political freedom encouraged the emergence of a democracy movement in the 1980s that included Zaire's Etienne Tshisekedi, Ivory Coast's Laurent Gbagbo, and Senegal's Abdoulaye Wade. In 1978, Carter visited Nigeria and pushed for the first transition from military to civilian rule that saw Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo step down and make way for the emergence of President Shehu Shagari in 1979.

During the 2000 campaign, the pundits and the media derided Governor Bush for his apparent lack of foreign policy experience. At the time, he did not know who Pervez Musharraf was. No one expected him to do much with Africa. But as president, Bush for some of the most innovative development initiatives that have made remarkable impact in the lives of millions of Africans, including the Millennium Corporation Account, the Presidential Malaria Initiative, and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

If Obama secured a second term, he would have to gather the courage to recalibrate his Africa policy to reflect his speeches and earlier work in the Senate. He should learn from Jimmy Carter and his predecessor George W. Bush, capitalize on the bipartisanship nature of U.S. Africa policy and turn hope to substance.

During the campaign, Governor Romney struggled to articulate his position, often reversing himself on critical issues. When it comes to Africa, what is required of him is the courage of his conviction. There is a surplus of bipartisanship when it comes to the region. But Obama proved that foreign policy experience does not guarantee success in Africa. Carter and Bush proved that conviction and courage matters as much as experience.