Making Enemies from Friends

Hey, Mitt: Russia's not quite America's No. 1 geopolitical foe just yet, but keep up that talk and Vladimir Putin will be happy to oblige.


Is there any respect in which Mitt Romney’s now-famous assertion that Russia is "without question our number one geopolitical foe" can be viewed as anything other than ridiculous — and dangerous — Cold War nostalgia? The very idea of a "geopolitical foe" is an almost charming anachronism in an era when the United States is menaced more by global forces and stateless entities, or by economic competitors like China or the rest of the so-called BRICS, than it is by aggressive states. Still, if the United States has real geopolitical foes, wouldn’t Russia be a strong candidate for No. 1?

In his remarks, made in a CNN interview in March, Romney noted that whenever the United States goes to the United Nations to stop a dictator from wreaking havoc on his own people or threatening his neighbors, "who is it that always stands up for the world’s worst actors? It is always Russia, typically with China alongside." (Who knew Romney even believed in the U.N.?) The Washington Post‘s Fact Checker gave Romney two Pinocchios for gross hyperbole, since Russia has, for example, "cast no vetoes on resolutions concerning Iran and North Korea." But that’s quibbling: In recent years, Russia — generally along with China — has obstructed efforts to stop mass violence in Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, and now Syria. Isn’t that a bad enough record?

You could say that China was a geopolitical foe — Romney apparently would, since in speeches he has described China, Russia, and "global jihad" as the chief forces contending for global dominance against the Western democracies — but that would be mistaking a "rival" for a "foe." China abuses its own people’s rights far more grossly than Russia does, but China’s sense of its destiny does not require it to pick fights with other countries, least of all with the United States.

By contrast, President Vladimir Putin’s Russia requires enemies — most of all the United States. Putin shocked his audience at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy by lashing out at the United States as the source of "an almost uncontained hyper use of force" which was "plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts." Of course, Putin was not the only world leader to deplore the militarism of George W. Bush’s administration. But he has actually ratcheted up the rhetoric since then, accusing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of seeking to instigate street violence in Russia. Putin surely would not hesitate in identifying the United States as Russia’s No. 1 geopolitical foe.

Putin demonizes the United States, defends killers like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, and drags his feet on Iran. His senior military commander has warned that if Washington installs a planned anti-missile system in Eastern Europe, Russia will "use destructive force pre-emptively" — which sounds like an invitation to World War III. Putin really does have contempt for those who seek democracy both at home and abroad, so he has brazenly backed authoritarian rulers in the Arab world while promoting legislation at home that brands civil society groups that receive funding from abroad as "foreign agents" (i.e., traitors). He believes that victory goes to the strong and plainly views the placatory American president as soft.

If Putin always acted the way he sounds, Russia might well be America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe. But he doesn’t. In 2010, Russia agreed to impose tough sanctions on Iran and canceled the sale to Tehran of the S-300 anti-missile system. Russia signed the New START arms-control treaty and agreed to let U.S. troops transit from Afghanistan through Russian territory. In fact, Russia occupies a space in between a rival like China and a foe like Iran. For all his bluster, Putin has shown that he will work with Washington on issues where Russian and American interests converge. Romney argues that the Obama administration’s "reset" with Russia failed to fundamentally change Moscow’s behavior, but that’s the wrong metric: The goal of the reset was to reduce the antagonism that had built up in the aftermath of Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia so that Putin would focus more on shared interests and less on his zero-sum calculus, which requires the United States to fail in order for Russia to succeed. And that demonstrably happened.

But this brings us to the really interesting question: Is the reset over? Is Russia now in fact becoming a geopolitical foe? And if so, why? One obvious answer is that Putin has now replaced the more moderate and modern Dmitry Medvedev as president. Medvedev sought to be an interlocutor with the West; Putin does not. But that presupposes that it was Medvedev, not Putin, who was guiding Russian policy during the period of the reset; and frankly, no Russia expert — or Russian citizen — believes that. As a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace puts it, the new era began not with Putin’s inauguration this past May, but with the unprecedented demonstrations against his rule starting late last year. The old formula of "authoritarianism with the consent of the governed" no longer held, since "that consent has been partially withdrawn." What has changed, in short, is not Putin’s view of the world but his own political predicament.

The good news is that Putin remains the same brutally realist calculator of Russian national interest he has long been. The bad news is that the new confrontation at home appears to be making him yet more confrontational toward the rest of the world. As Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations told me, he has "shifted from the people who benefited most from Putinism" — the new urban middle class — "to the people who benefited least, a Nixon ‘silent-majority’ strategy." And he is feeding that audience a steady diet of nationalism, raging against alleged enemies both in their midst and abroad. This almost certainly accounts for the almost farcically hostile reception he has accorded U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, one of the chief architects of the reset. "Standing up" to America and the West has thus become more central to Putin’s strategy for political survival. What’s more, as Sestanovich points out, the United States, whether under a President Obama or a President Romney, will continue to feel compelled to criticize Putin’s domestic repression, which will in turn drive the Russian leader into a fury.

So how should Washington deal with this not-quite-rival, not-quite-foe? Obama administration officials I spoke to pointed out that the United States and Russia continue to work together on a wide range of issues and insisted that Putin, like Obama, can operate a "dual-track policy," alternating hostile rhetoric with pragmatic calculations of national interest. But I’m not sure even they believe that. In recent months the Obama administration has notably hardened its own rhetoric, including Clinton’s dramatic accusation that Russia was stoking Syria’s killing machine by supplying and servicing attack helicopters for the Assad regime. Romney says that the time has come to "reset the reset," but you could argue that the administration has already begun to do just that. The rosy era of "engagement," when Obama believed that he could establish a more benign global environment through gestures of deference to national sensibilities, quotations from the Quran, or inspiring autobiographical references is over. A second Obama term, should it happen, would probably focus more on strengthening bonds with traditional allies — in Asia, as we have now heard ad nauseam — and less on trying to convert rivals and adversaries.

A realistic reckoning with the limits of America’s capacity to change the behavior of unfriendly states is very different from the idea of greeting hostility with hostility, as Romney and the neocons among his team of advisors seem prepared to do. Romney says that he would "review the implementation of the New START treaty" and return to a missile defense plan that Russia views, no matter how absurdly, as a threat to its survival. Romney says that Russia needs to be "tempered," whatever that means. Of course, Putin will greet any overt attempt to block or encircle Russia as a direct provocation; and he is a man who goes around looking for provocations to respond to. A President Romney, in short, might well turn Russia into the geopolitical foe which candidate Romney claims it already is.

James Traub is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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