Among the most important foreign policy priorities likely to face the next U.S. President will be the task of rebuilding the eroding U.S.-Russia relationship. Russia is currently engaged in a policy of employing its diplomatic leverage to "counterbalance" the United States. In the future, if the diminishing relationship is not repaired, Russia could well begin to put its hard power into play, as well. Such a development would diminish the United States' ability to safeguard and advance its critical global interests at a time when it has suffered a major loss of credibility at enormous cost in the wake of its decision to go to war in Iraq. The challenge of bringing about an improved relationship is still a manageable one. However, if the United States is to have a reasonable chance at success, it will need to understand Russia's concerns with regard to American unilateralism and make appropriate policy changes that limit its unilateralism to situations where unilateralist approaches are truly necessary.
In the post-Cold War world, fears the consequences of state failure and instability on its expansive frontier. Clifford Gaddy and Fiona Hill of The Brookings Institution explained, "Given its location in a volatile neighborhood encompassing Central Asia, the Middle East and Northeast Asia, and including several states on a potential collision course with the United States--Iraq, Iran, China, and North Korea--Russia is extremely vulnerable to the unintended consequences of U.S. action. A unilateralist approach on the part of the United States, Putin believes could prove disastrous for Russia."
The still fairly recent and aggressive turn to unilateralism by the United States was driven by perceptions of a new global reality that followed the end of the Cold War. When the Cold War concluded, the Soviet Union was in the last days of its life (soon afterward, it fractured into a number of economically and politically weak successor states). At that time, the U.S. appeared to have gained primacy in world affairs, especially in the eyes of an emerging Neoconservative school of foreign policy thought that was beginning to diverge from the pragmatic Realism that had predominated through the end of the Cold War. In their view, a "multipolar" world had been replaced by a "Unipolar" one.
"The center of world power is an unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies," leading Neoconservative thinker Charles Krauthammer wrote. He added, "There is today no lack of second-rank powers. Germany and Japan are economic dynamos. Britain and France can deploy diplomatic and to some extent military assets. The Soviet Union possesses several elements of power-military, diplomatic and political-but all are in rapid decline. There is but one first-rate power and no prospect in the immediate future of any power to rival it." The Soviet Union, according to Krauthammer, had become nothing more than a "second-rank" power and one that was in "rapid decline" to boot.
Russia was humiliated. At the same time, it was constrained by its major weakness. Emboldened by the march of world events, Neoconservative thinkers believed that the new "Unipolar" world made U.S. consideration of the major interests of the world's other great powers relatively less important than in it was past. Under such an assumption, they advocated an increasingly assertive unilateral approach to U.S. foreign policy toward creating a safer world.
In stark contrast, Russia saw unilateralism as hazardous to international peace and security. Today, Russia continues to believe that single-power hegemony and a unilateralist approach to foreign policy are dangerous and destabilizing. Consequently, it views U.S. unilateralism as posing a threat to its critical interests and wellbeing.
Toward that end, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently spoken out on those issues. On May 8, 2001, he declared that "claims to world domination...still are the cause of many wars" and that "these sorts of claims still linger on today and this is very dangerous." A day later, he added, "Our entire post-war [post-World War II] history teaches us that no country can build a safer world for itself alone, and even more so, cannot build its security to the detriment of others."
Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a wholly Neoconservative approach to foreign policy blossomed in the U.S. Unilateralism became arguably the major means by which the U.S. conducted its relations with the international community. "Regime Change" replaced "Containment" and "proactive war"
replaced "pre-emption." In June 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the ABM Treaty. In March 2003, it invaded Iraq in the face of strong Russian opposition and in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Currently, it is pursuing plans to place 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic to construct a limited missile defense shield against countries such as Iran. Russian alarm grew.
On February 10, 2007, President Putin made a seminal speech that detailed his objections to the Neoconservatives' "Unipolar" vision and U.S. uniltateralism. Excerpts from Putin's speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy detail his views and follow:
The history of humanity certainly has gone through unipolar periods and seen aspirations to world supremacy. And what hasn't happened in world history?
However, what is a unipolar world?
...It is [a] world in which there is one master, one sovereign. And at the end of the day this is pernicious not only for all those within this system, but also for the sovereign itself because it destroys itself from within...
I consider that the unipolar model is not only unacceptable but also impossible in today's world. And this is not only because if there was individual leadership in today's--and precisely in today's--world, then the military, political and economic resources would not suffice. What is even more important is that the model itself is flawed because at its basis there is and can be no moral foundations for modern civilization.
Along with this, what is happening in today's world...is a tentative to introduce precisely this concept into international affairs, the concept of a unipolar world.
And with which results?
Unilateral and frequently illegitimate actions have not resolved any problems. Moreover they have caused new human tragedies and created new centers of tension. Judge for yourselves: wars as well as local and regional conflicts have not diminished...
Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force--military force--in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts. As a result we do not have sufficient strength to find a comprehensive solution to any one of these conflicts Finding a political settlement also becomes impossible.
Putin explicitly blamed the United States for such developments. "One state and, of course, first and foremost the United States, has overstepped its national borders in every way," he charged, "This is visible in the economic, political, cultural and educational policies it imposes on other nations."
A full-fledged rupture in U.S.-Russia relations is still avoidable. In fact, the relationship can still be repaired fairly easily, as unilateralism, and not a clash of critical interests between the two nations, is at the root of the worsening relationship. A pragmatic, interest-driven U.S. foreign policy that restores primacy to diplomacy, eliminates idealistic "Regime Change," and returns emphasis to relations between allies and great powers can overturn the unilateralism that is currently harming the relationship. Specifically, such a policy would entail among the following features:
o A negotiated energy pact in which the United States and Russia would ensure cooperation with regard to Central Asia's energy resources and bring an end to the emerging energy rivalry now evolving. In the partnership, both nations would embrace the principle of open access and collaborate to address issues that might arise. Neither would make unilateral decisions that would undermine the core interests of the other.
o Full support for Russia's fight against terrorism in its semi-autonomous Chechen region and elimination of demands that Russia to negotiate with the Chechen terrorists. Such calls are unreasonable and have angered Russia's government. In the aftermath of the Beslan massacre--Russia's 9/11--Putin blasted U.S. calls for negotiations angrily exclaiming, "Why don't you meet Osama Bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House and engage in talks..."
o Full NATO membership and responsibilities and authority within the relationship that would be commensurate with its role as a great power. Until that happens, no missiles or missile defense systems would be placed in countries that constitute Russia's "Near Abroad." The existing NATO guarantee of collective security would be maintained. At the same time, Russia would commit to working with the U.S. and NATO to help mitigate missile threats or, if necessary, help contain the countries against which the anti-missile system is intended to afford protection.
o A free trade agreement to more closely integrate Russia into the global and western economies. Such a mutually beneficial interdependence could mitigate Russian "counterbalancing."
o Restoration of a military doctrine of pre-emption as opposed to proactive war. Proactive war, particularly in the absence of a credible and imminent threat to nation's critical interests, undermines respect for the norms of international law and increases instability in the region in which such conflicts occur. Application of military force before diplomacy has been exhausted makes it more difficult for nation's to achieve differences in the diplomatic arena, as countries would more than likely focus on deterring an attack that could occur before meaningful negotiations had a chance to find agreement.
None of these policies would compromise critical U.S. interests. None of these policies would harm to U.S. national security. Instead, they would create a post-unilateralist framework under which the geopolitically important U.S.-Russia relationship could be renewed and improved. Such a development would be mutually-beneficial to both countries and could, over time, be a force for increased stability in parts of the world where stability is currently difficult to achieve.