Chapter 9: American Foreign Policy toward Russia: Is a U-Turn, or Any Turn, Possible?Back to table of contents
Daniel W. Drezner
The American foreign policy machine is a Rube Goldberg contraption that processes a jumble of ideas, institutions, and interests into something that vaguely resembles the national interest. There is frequent disagreement and discord among intelligent and well-informed members of the foreign policy community over the optimal course of action for any given situation. Both policy-makers and political scientists are well aware of the myriad ways in which alliance entanglements, legislative meddling, bureaucratic politics, special interests, and groupthink can ensure the tyranny of the status quo.
When one evaluates U.S. policy toward Russia, an additional layer of complexity has to be added: the weight of history. The United States and the Soviet Union were at loggerheads for the four decades of the Cold War. Although bipolarity was stable,1 the residual enmity from such an enduring rivalry can last for generations. Differing interpretations of the post–Cold War era also complicate matters. Americans think of the post–Cold War interregnum as a time of stability and prosperity. Russians view the same period as a time of suffering humiliation and condescension by the West in general and the United States in particular. With the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a raft of new books and articles revived old controversies.2
This essay surveys the state of play in American foreign policy toward Russia and asks whether there are any impediments to changing the current approach. I characterize current U.S. policy toward the Russian Federation as a form of “realist internationalism.” By realist internationalism, I am referring to the kind of foreign policy doctrine espoused during the George H.W. Bush administration. This approach recognizes Russia’s great-power status and the utility of a great-power concert in dealing with global trouble spots. Rather than prioritizing human rights, democratization, or even economic interests in the bilateral relationship, this policy position prioritizes great-power cooperation on matters of high politics, such as nuclear nonproliferation and the containment of rogue states that transgress global norms.
Realist internationalism is a dramatic turnaround from what U.S. foreign policy toward Russia looked like a few years ago. At first glance, this new position implies that American policy is more plastic than suggested above. However, the switch to realist internationalism took place because the hard-line neoconservatism of the George W. Bush years was unsustainable. Russia’s current status as a stagnant great power provides both strategic logic and political support for realist internationalism. A survey of the constraints imposed by alliance politics, interest groups, bureaucratic politics, and public opinion reveals a strong bias toward the status quo, albeit with slight asymmetry. The constraints against a more dovish policy are a bit stronger than the constraints against a more hawkish approach.
AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY TOWARD RUSSIA, 2008–2009
It is worth considering the distance that American foreign policy toward Russia has traveled since the war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008. One of the obvious triggers for that conflict was the Bush administration’s concerted efforts to persuade NATO allies to agree to a Membership Action Plan for Georgia. The war was the climax of a series of policy maneuvers beginning in 2002 that dramatically heightened Russian-American tensions:
- The 2002 U.S. decision to withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty;
- The 2003 U.S. decision to invade Iraq without explicit UN Security Council support;
- Over the first part of the last decade, overt and covert American support for “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan;
- The expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders in 2004;
- The 2006 Russian decision to renegotiate terms of the Sakhaklin II energy deals with U.S. multinational corporations;
- Russia’s 2006 registration requirements for Western nongovernmental organizations;
- Russia’s 2007 “moratorium” on its compliance with the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty;
- Stalemated negotiations over Russian membership in the World Trade Organization;
- Russia’s weakening of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) election-monitoring process;
- Vladimir Putin’s 2007 Munich speech declaring a second “Cold War” with the United States;
- A deteriorating personal relationship between U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov3
- U.S. support for Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral declaration of independence;
- Stalemated negotiations over the successor to the START II treaty, which was scheduled to expire in December 2009; and
- The 2008 U.S. decision to place interceptor missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland.
These tensions should not be overstated: Russia and the United States cooperated extensively on the war in Afghanistan, intelligence sharing with regard to terrorism, and numerous UN Security Council sanctions resolutions against Iran and North Korea. Nevertheless, by the time Russia clashed with Georgia, U.S. commentators and policy-makers were anticipating a return to the historical antipathy between Washington and Moscow.4 The Putin administration’s increasing intolerance for domestic discontent made it much easier to put a “black hat” on Russia. Commentators viewed Moscow as being in the vanguard of an “authoritarian capitalist” model that challenged U.S. hegemony on a number of policy fronts.5
One economic crisis and one U.S. presidential election later, the tenor of the Russian-American relationship has changed. The Great Recession had a modest humbling effect on Russian ambitions. The commodity bubble, which had fueled Russia’s economic growth and self-confidence for the past decade, popped in Summer 2008. The invasion of Georgia abetted a capital outflow that had begun in reaction to the Russian government’s heavy-handedness in picking winners and losers in the domestic economy. These trends, if nothing else, likely highlighted the opportunity costs of continued bellicosity to Russian elites and Russian policy-makers.6
At the same time, the Obama administration came into office determined to restore America’s standing in the world. Even as a candidate, Obama articulated a realist internationalist position toward the Russian Federation in his Foreign Affairs essay: “Although we must not shy away from pushing for more democracy and accountability in Russia, we must work with the country in areas of common interest—above all, in making sure that nuclear weapons and material are secure.”7
The Obama administration has quickly implemented this realist internationalist position toward Russia over the past year.8 Policy shifts include:
- A series of rhetorical outreach efforts stressing the need to “reset” the Russian-American bilateral relationship. This movement began with Vice President Joseph Biden’s speech at the February 2009 Munich Security Conference and continued through President Obama’s speech on the bilateral relationship during his Moscow visit in July 2009;
- A greater receptivity to Russian proposals to engage Tehran on the nuclear issue;
- A reversal on the missile defense shield to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic9;
- A modest tamping down of human rights criticism of the Russian Federation10;
- The creation of a Russian air corridor for U.S. armed forces to ferry supplies to forces in Afghanistan; and
- The negotiation of a successor treaty to START II, which expired on December 5, 2009.
The reset of bilateral relations has yielded mixed results to date. Russian leaders have still taken license to deliver rhetorical jabs at the United States. On his September 2009 visit to the United States, for example, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggested to ITAR-TASS that he wanted to meet with American “dissidents.” The air corridor agreement has not truly been implemented. The successor to START II has been completed, but the negotiations took much longer than Obama administration officials anticipated. Indeed, to date Putin and Medvedev appear to be playing a “two-level game” with the United States, with Putin acting as the hard-liner to improve Medvedev’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the United States.11 The twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall again revealed the freight that history brings to this bilateral relationship.
Nevertheless, the shift in U.S. foreign policy has been fruitful in some ways. Russia’s position on Iran has aligned more closely with U.S. preferences, despite Moscow’s significant interests in continuing its partnership with Tehran. The rhetorical jabs are few and far between. At a minimum, the relationship has reverted to a more businesslike arrangement. It is possible that the shift has been more significant. A strategy document from the Russian Foreign Ministry leaked in May 2010 suggests a more serious reorientation of Russian foreign policy. In the document preamble, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calls for “modernizing alliances” with countries that can assist Russia in surmounting its technological backwardness—a clear reference to NATO countries. The document also praises President Obama as a “potentially transformative” leader.12
What explains the Obama administration’s ability to shift U.S. foreign policy toward Russia so quickly? To be sure, Obama’s foreign policy team exploited the policy window that exists with any change in presidential administration.13 However, structural factors offer the best explanation for the shift in tone and action.
It is no coincidence that 2002 was the year that Russian-American relations started to deteriorate. In that year, the United States was at its post-1960 peak in terms of relative power.14 The U.S. economy was responsible for more than 30 percent of global economic output—a significantly higher percentage than at the end of the Cold War. The U.S. military advantage over every other great power seemed painfully obvious. The ejection of the Taliban and al-Qaeda from Afghanistan in Fall 2001 augmented the reputation of U.S. power, which had yet to be tarnished by Iraq. As historian Paul Kennedy famously wrote at the time, “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing. I have returned to all of the comparative defense spending and military personnel statistics over the past 500 years that I compiled in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and no other nation comes close.”15 Even advocates of multilateralism allowed that the relative increase in American power partially explained the Bush administration’s first-term foreign policy preferences.16
By the 2008 financial crisis, the power landscape had shifted. In the aggregate, U.S. economic power had ebbed significantly.17 The military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan were bogged down, sapping U.S. military strength and diminishing America’s reputation for the competent exercise of power. The loss in American standing and reputation increased the transaction costs of bargaining with allies and rivals on policy issues.18 Shifts in the distribution of power made it impossible for the United States to continue to pursue a “maximalist” foreign policy of aggressive democracy promotion and unilateralism.19
The shift in Russia policy should be seen as part of an ideational reversion toward the more stable pre-2001 foreign policy equilibrium. The Bush administration’s grand strategy, as epitomized by its 2002 National Security Strategy and Bush’s second inaugural, was not completely alien to American foreign policy, but the combination of its elements was unique.20 After this brief experimentation with the Bush doctrine, it is not surprising that U.S. foreign policy returned to the combination of realism and liberal internationalism that guided the United States between 1946 and 2001.21
Russia’s relative stagnation as a great power makes this policy easier. Vice President Joseph Biden’s July 2009 statement to The Wall Street Journal is revealing:
The reality is the Russians are where they are. They have a shrinking population base, they have a withering economy, they have a banking sector and structure that is not likely to be able to withstand the next 15 years, they’re in a situation where the world is changing before them and they’re clinging to something in the past that is not sustainable. [. . .]
I always assume that sooner or later people, countries are going to figure out their self-interest. There’s a whole lot between Moscow and Washington that the Russians need.22
While blunt and impolitic, Biden’s assessment is largely accurate. Russia’s demographic situation is a nightmare: the country’s population has been shrinking since 1992.23 The country has experienced positive economic growth over the past decade, but it has been due almost entirely to the run-up in energy prices. The price spike also had a “Dutch Disease” effect on the Russian economy, with an ever greater share devoted to natural resource extraction in general and oil and natural gas in particular. Over the past year, President Medvedev has lamented multiple times that “trading gas and oil is our drug.”24 Russia’s other great-power capability is its nuclear arsenal. Because it has failed to modernize, however, that arsenal is also a deteriorating asset. Political scientists Kier Lieber and Daryl Press calculate that Russia will soon lose its credible second-strike capability.25
At present, Russia’s geography, natural resources, nuclear stockpile, and global-governance prerogatives mean that Moscow is still a great power. Compared to the other BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) economies, however, Russia’s future trajectory is far from promising. This assessment appears to reflect the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community as well.26
Given this state of play, it is not surprising that U.S. foreign policy has reverted to the “equilibrium position” of realist internationalism; over time, the distribution of power between Russia and the United States will trend in America’s direction. A pragmatic approach that alleviates Russian concerns about its relative decline echoes the George H.W. Bush administration’s approach to a fading Soviet Union. It would therefore be a mistake to infer from the Obama administration’s reorientation of its Russia policy that there are no impediments to change from the status quo. The surprise is not how much Obama was able to alter American foreign policy; the surprise is how far and how long the Bush administration was able to deviate from the prior policy equilibrium.
LATITUDE FOR CHANGE
The reversal of course suggests the constraints that will keep American foreign policy anchored in the status quo ante. If the Obama administration were so inclined, however, could they alter the substance of their approach toward Russia? What are the possible “change agents”?
The most obvious shock to the system would come from Russia itself. Domestic discontent over the economy or creeping authoritarianism could trigger a repressive crackdown. A genuine rivalry between Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev could lead to elite instability. Problems along Russia’s borders, such as Georgia or Belarus, could precipitate further interventions. Any of these events would drastically increase domestic pressure on the Obama administration to adopt a more hard-line position toward Russia.27
Assuming there was a strategic reason to shift foreign policy, however, what constraints would politics and institutions impose on America’s freedom to maneuver? Alliance commitments would likely impose the first constraint, though they would also work at cross-purposes. It is safe to say that NATO allies have differing opinions on Russia. Former Warsaw Pact members are understandably wary of Russia’s ambitions in its near abroad. Even during Russia’s period of turmoil in the 1990s, Moscow actively used economic coercion in its perceived sphere of influence to advance its interests.28 The Eastern European members of NATO—particularly Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic countries—will likely lean on the alliance to adopt a hedging strategy toward the Russian Federation.
These allies matter because of both their symbolic and strategic importance. The demise of Communism has endowed these countries with an unprecedented symbolic power in the domestic American political scene. They have strong and deep connections with influential writers and columnists in America’s foreign policy community.29 Through such connections, these countries will be given a platform to respond to shifts in American foreign policy.
At the same time, Western European allies will likely exert countervailing pressure on the United States to take a more dovish position. Fueled in no small part by energy needs, countries like France and Germany have been intent on fostering stronger ties with the Russian Federation. German and Russian economic interests are bound together in Nord Stream, an ambitious effort to build a gas pipeline directly linking the two countries via the Baltic Sea. France wants to sell Russia several Mistral-class amphibious warships, the first sale of advanced weaponry to Russia from a NATO country. French officials are starting to speak about a Franco-Russian “modernization partnership,”echoing language used by Germany and Russia.30
France and Germany do not have the same emotive link with American influence-makers, but their historical and behind-the-scenes ties with members of the foreign policy community and Foggy Bottom are likely stronger. The aggregate effect of alliance influences, then, is a stalemate. Assuming Russian policy does not change, Eastern European allies will push back against any U.S. policy shifts that are perceived to be too dovish. Western European allies will push back against any U.S. policy shifts that are perceived to be too hawkish. Alliance pressures will likely cancel each other out.
Domestic and bureaucratic resistance to policy changes depends in large part on the dimension of existing policy that requires change. In contrast to strong foreign policy states, like France, the United States possesses a “weak” state structure that is highly permeable to outside interests. Interest groups can exercise an outsized influence on American foreign policy. Interest groups tend to concentrate their efforts on policies that can distribute or generate significant resources, and most foreign policies do not fall into this category. Paradoxically, this increases the influence of interest groups that do care about foreign policy. A thin organizational environment means that the remaining interest groups can wield disproportionate amounts of power over their particular issue.31 Because members of Congress have little incentive to take an active interest in foreign affairs votes, interest groups can supply information and advice about how to vote.32
The status quo in foreign economic relations with Russia favors interest groups that would push harder against a warming than a cooling of relations between the two countries. Russian-American trade relations are relatively modest given the size of the two countries, amounting to less than $25 billion per year. This is due in no small part to the uncertainty surrounding the Jackson-Vanik Amendment. This depressed economic relationship creates a negative feedback mechanism. Actors with a vested economic interest in the status quo also have a greater incentive to lobby for its continuance; actors with a potential interest in an expanded economic relationship will not lobby as hard for change. If an exogenous shock were to trigger greater openness, this negative feedback mechanism would be replaced with a positive one.33 Without that shock, however, the status quo will persist.
On some policy dimensions there are multiple “veto players”: actors who can thwart any desired policy change.34 As a general rule, any measure that requires congressional approval dramatically expands the number of veto players. This increase augments the power of interest groups and interested members of Congress at the expense of the executive branch. For example, any effort to secure Russia’s admission into the World Trade Organization is likely to run into several political obstacles. Human rights advocates would likely oppose such a move because it would be seen as an implicit endorsement of Russia’s authoritarian tendencies. Because of institutional prerogatives, some members of Congress would also be likely to oppose repeal. Maintaining Jackson-Vanik gives Congress a foreign-policy weapon, crude as it may be. As a recent Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder points out, “refusing to abolish the amendment or graduate Russia has become a way for Congress to express disapproval with Russian trade, foreign policy, and human rights offenses.”35 On other issues that require congressional approval—such as the successor to START II—there is a sufficient bloc of hawks to prevent dramatic deviations from the status quo. Progress on a nuclear test-ban treaty, or radical cuts in nuclear warheads, might lack a bargaining core.
Deciphering the real-time bureaucratic politics within the executive branch is a difficult exercise. There has been minimal press reportage of intra-administration conflict over how to calibrate policy toward Russia, especially when compared to other issues, such as Iran or China policy.36 This shortage might be due in part to message discipline, but not entirely. It is worth remembering that in February 2007, while serving in the Bush administration, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates downplayed Putin’s hyperbolic “Cold War” speech at the Munich Security Conference.37 If the traditional hawks in the National Security Council favor the realist internationalist position, then simmering organizational conflict about the nature of the bilateral relationship is highly unlikely.
The most likely bureaucratic dispute to affect the Russian-American security relationship is the divergence of institutional views on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Ever since his Foreign Affairs essay, Obama has made nuclear disarmament one of his signature issues. At the same time, Gates advocated for the Reliable Replacement Warhead in his own Foreign Affairs essay.38 His position directly contradicted Obama’s pledge not to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons. At last report, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sided with Gates, while Vice President Biden sided with Obama.39 This divergence in views suggests that a lower bound of nuclear deterrence exists. If Obama were to propose any cuts deeper than that, powerful bureaucratic interests would make their displeasure known.
The final potential constraint on Russia policy comes from American public opinion. If the mass public felt strongly about relations with Russia one way or another, it would impose serious constraints on the Obama administration’s freedom of action. The latest comprehensive survey, released by the Pew Research Center in December 2009, suggests some minimal constraints on policy extremes in either direction.40 On the one hand, the number of Americans who judged Russia to be the most significant threat to U.S. interests fell sharply over the past year, from 14 percent to 2 percent. This decrease suggests that there is little public appetite for intensifying tensions. At the same time, the mass public puts a much lower priority on nonproliferation and arms control issues than do foreign policy elites. More generally, the poll revealed a general turn inward for Americans, with a focus on the economy. There is a strong preference for the United States to “go its own way” and “mind its own business,” which is consistent with a realpolitik worldview.41 It does suggest little public support for President Obama to focus on grandiose multilateralism with Russia, however.
The Russian-American relationship has experienced a dramatic shift in the past year-and-a-half. It would be a mistake, however, to conclude from this shift that policy can change even more. If Russian attitudes do not change, there are strong structural and institutional checks to keep the Obama administration on a path to maintain the status quo. The constellation of alliance, interest group, and bureaucratic politics will act as a further check to prevent a shift from the current course of action. If there were a change, it would likely be in a more mildly hawkish direction. Most important, the American public is clamoring for its leaders to focus inward, and recent special elections will only cement that perception in the eyes of the Obama administration. A new Cold War with Russia is therefore unlikely—but so is a new Grand Bargain.
2. Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” The Washington Quarterly 32 (April 2009): 39–61; Mary E. Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009).
4. See, for example, Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Knopf, 2008); Stephen Sestanovich, “What Has Moscow Done?” Foreign Affairs 87 (November/December 2008): 12–29.
9. At the time, this shift was widely interpreted as a sign of accommodation toward Russia and possible tactical issue linkage on the Iran question. On the merits, however, there were sound tactical reasons for the switch. See George N. Lewis and Theodore Postol, “The European Missile Defense Policy,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 64 (May/June 2008): 32–39.
10. This shift in human rights rhetoric has already triggered a backlash among human rights NGOs. See Lilia Shevtsova, “The Kremlin Kowtow,” Foreignpolicy.com, January 5, 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/01/05/the_kremlin_kowtow.
12. Fred Weir, “Leaked Russian Document: Could Medvedev Era Tilt More Pro-West?” The Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 2010, http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2010/0513/Leaked-Russian-document-Could-Medvedev-era-tilt-more-pro-West.
16. G. John Ikenberry, “Is American Multilateralism in Decline?” Perspectives on Politics 1 (September 2003): 533–550; David Skidmore, “Understanding the Unilateralist Turn in U.S. Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy Analysis 2 (July 2005): 207–228.
18. U.S. Standing in the World: Causes, Consequences, and the Future (Washington, D.C.: American Political Science Association, 2009); Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005); Geoffrey Wiseman, “Pax Americana: Bumping into Diplomatic Culture,” International Studies Perspectives 4 (November 2005): 409–430.
19. Philip Gordon, “The End of the Bush Revolution,” Foreign Affairs 85 (July/August 2006): 75–86; Daniel W. Drezner, “The New New World Order,” Foreign Affairs 86 (March/April 2007): 34–46. It should be noted that the Russia portfolio was one of the last to experience this shift. On most other foreign policy dimensions, the second term of the Bush administration looked far more realist than neoconservative in orientation. Again, it is possible that historical resentments allowed the bilateral relationship to fester in an unproductive fashion for longer than with other countries.
20. John Lewis Gaddis, “A Grand Strategy of Transformation,” Foreign Policy 133 (November/ December 2002): 50–57; Melvyn Leffler, “9/11 and American Foreign Policy,” Diplomatic History 29 (June 2005): 395–413.
21. Jeffrey Legro, “A ‘Return to Normalcy’? The Future of America’s Internationalism,” in Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy, ed. Daniel W. Drezner (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2009), 58.
27. If, against all odds, a color revolution were to lead to a more liberal regime in Russia, there would be corresponding pressure to pursue a more accommodationist position toward the new Russian government.
30. Vladimir Socor, “Mistral Warship Offer Symbolizes New Franco-Russian Strategic Partnership,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, December 2, 2009; Nicholas Kralev, “France Likely to Sell Warship to Moscow,” The Washington Times, January 20, 2010.
32. Matthew McCubbins and Thomas Schwartz, “Congressional Oversight Overlooked: Police Patrols Versus Fire Alarms,” American Journal of Political Science 28 (February 1984): 165– 179; Helen V. Milner, Interests, Institutions, and Information: Domestic Politics and International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997).
36. For recent takes on the bureaucratic politics of Obama’s foreign policy apparatus, see Edward Luce and Daniel Dombey, “U.S. Foreign Policy: Waiting on a Sun King,” Financial Times, March 30, 2010; and Michael Hirsh, “Obama’s Bad Cop,” Newsweek, April 23, 2010.
37. Demetri Sevastopulo and Stephen Fidler, “Gates Brushes Aside Putin’s Anti-US Tirade,” Financial Times, February 11, 2007. Gates’s remarks are available at http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=3888.