Sunday, September 28, 2008

Commentary: neither candidate understands Russia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama further proved Friday night how little American politicians understand Russia and Georgia. They are following a time-honored tradition of American foreign policy.

Neither McCain, R-Az., nor Obama, D-Ill., displayed a nuanced understanding of Russia, its invasion of Georgia or what is at stake in US-Russian relations.

In regards to Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashvili is not the great democratic reformer both candidates make him out to be. The media is controlled here, especially television, and government elites profit from steering no-bid state contracts to businesses they have interests in. Saakashvili did not take part in any of the debates during the last presidential election, which he moved forward by nearly a year, giving the opposition little time to campaign.

Both candidates endorsed Georgia's and Ukraine's desire to join NATO, a key motivation behind Russia's invasion.

Russia perceives NATO as a direct threat to its security, and it is difficult to blame them. With no Warsaw Pact, it is not clear who NATO is aimed at, but in the 1990s the US did tell Russia it could not join the military alliance. It is hardly surprising that they would perceive its creeping towards their borders as an existential threat.

Regardless of the pros or cons of NATO expansion, American politicians who endorse it must acknowledge that it will alter the world's strategic balance, especially in the Kremlin's view.

Obama puts far too much stock in the affect of words on Russia. The country sees America as didactic and hypocritical. It blames the West for the pain and humiliation it suffered in the 1990s. It doesn't want our advice on how to become a market economy and it doesn't want moral lectures about how to behave from us. It is absolutely ludicrous to think we can, as Obama said, "explain to the Russians that you cannot be a 21st-century superpower, or power, and act like a 20th-century dictatorship." Putin's response: "watch me."

Typical of American politicians McCain sees Russia as a one-dimensional stereotype: "a KGB apparatchik-run government." Can the US be so easily summed up? Of course not, but yet Americans insist on seeing every other country in the world in the most simplistic terms. It is a tendency that has led to painful miscalculations, not least of which in Iraq.

Russia is an authoritarian state with a highly controlled political life, but most Russians sincerely support Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his puppet, President Dmitri Medvedev. Their lives are undeniably better now than in the 1990s, and their country is once again strong.

Russians respect strong authority -- vlast' -- and Putin has returned it to Russia. The country's foreign policy is influenced by the idea of vlast' -- a tradition going back to the Russian Empire, and not simply the realpolitik extension of a cynical strongman determined to hold power at all costs.

McCain's brand of foreign policy is too simplistic to be effective with Russia. The reality is the US cannot strong-arm Russia so long as the US military is over-stretched by Iraq and Afghanistan, or without returning to somehting near Cold War military levels. The country must be handled more diplomatically.

With all due respect to Henry Kissinger and other members of McCain's foreign policy team, Obama has the upperhand here -- that is assuming Madeleine Albright is only window dressing to please the Clinton people. Obama's ace is Michael McFaul, one of the leading experts on Russia, and someone who has a nuanced understanding for its motivations.

As McFaul told the House's foreign affairs committee on September 9:
"Russia’s government actions in Georgia constitute just one front of a comprehensive campaign to reassert Russian dominance in the region through both coercive and cooperative instruments.

"American foreign policy leaders have to move beyond tough talk and catchy phrases and instead articulate a smart, sustained strategy for dealing with this new Russia, a strategy that advances both our interests and values."
Russia sees US interests as diametrically opposed to its own. And the US has done nothing to counter that perception.

1 comment:

Brian said...

I noticed during the debates, the subject of which was foreign policy, that both candidates focused more on defense policy rather than broader foreign policy. It sounded as if America's view of the world is limited to where it is running police operations now, and where it might have to run them in the future.

I heard nothing on trade policy, development assistance, cultural exchange, communicating American values, etc.

I do think McCain has a more, if not nuanced, then at least detailed view of how diplomacy and foreign relations work in reality. Obama says pretty things, but you can tell he has no idea what it takes to implement them. His rhetoric reminds me of the Monty Python sketch "How to Do It":

ALAN:'s Jackie to tell you all how to rid the world of all known diseases.

JACKIE: Well, first of all become a doctor and discover a marvellous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there'll never be any diseases ever again.

Sure, everyone wants Russia and Georgia to get along. Obama seems to think all you have to do is say it three times while clicking your heels together to make it true. McCain knows different, but may rely too much on military options rather than building diplomatic leverage.