Argument

A Short History of a Bad Metaphor

Working with Russia isn't necessarily a bad idea. Reducing it to a catchphrase is. 

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images
FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

As policy initiatives go, the "reset button" didn’t exactly have the smoothest of rollouts. On March 6, 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with a literal button meant to symbolize the Obama administration’s intention to repair frayed ties with Russia. Unfortunately, one misplaced syllable on the Cyrillic label meant that the button actually said "overcharge," not "reset," and Clinton was subjected to a few days of media mockery in both capitals.

But despite (or perhaps because of) the initial gaffe, the phrase caught on. More than a year later, and just ahead of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Washington next week, "reset button" has become shorthand for the administration’s entire Russia policy. Virtually every big-think article or op-ed written on U.S.-Russia relations since that day has referred to the reset button either admiringly or disparagingly.

What’s more, the phrase has gone viral. Commentators have invoked the reset button in discussions of U.S. policy on Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Israel, Islam, Britain, Latin America, BP, climate change, Africa, health care, the economy, the war on drugs, and even the Obama presidency itself.

Now, when hostile leaders like Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez talk about reaching out to the United States, they say they’re "willing to press the reset button." When Obama makes a major policy address on a controversial topic like the Gulf oil spill, the question pundits ask is whether he will be able to "hit the reset button."

One might almost get the impression that the U.S. political and media establishment has become one giant tech-support line, where the first response to any problem is, "Have you tried restarting the machine?"

"It definitely became a much bigger metaphor than was originally intended," said one senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It was not a conscious thing that we were going to go out and create this image. It’s since been codified. Not by us, by the way."

The phrase, in verb form, actually dates back to the presidential transition period when then President-elect Obama told NBC’s Tom Brokaw that "it’s going to be important for us to reset U.S.-Russian relations." But it entered the popular lexicon when Vice President Joe Biden used it during a widely touted foreign-policy address at a security summit in Munich in February 2009.

"The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and the members of our alliance," Biden said, referring to NATO. "It is time — to paraphrase President Obama — it’s time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia."

The basic premise of the strategy is that on the major priorities of U.S. foreign policy — containing Iran, fighting international terrorism, and reducing the risk of nuclear weapons — there’s no reason for the United States and Russia to be at odds. By focusing on these areas, there’s potential for "win-win" outcomes rather than "zero-sum" competition. "This was a fairly radical notion in U.S.-Russia relations," says the administration official.

The success of this strategy is debatable. The administration has won deliverables on nuclear disarmament, Iran sanctions, and logistical support for the war in Afghanistan, but Russian leaders have so far been unwilling to budge on energy policy, democracy, or what they see as their right to assert influence over countries in their "near abroad." The administration has sought to "de-link" issues like human rights and missile defense from other priorities, preferring to focus on one problem at a time and on its own terms, rather than treating them like chits to be haggled over with Moscow. But to critics, it has often looked like the United States is selling out Russian democracy or traditional allies in Eastern Europe in favor of bigger foreign-policy priorities.

The Obama team claims this view comes from a misunderstanding of what the reset is. "The aim of the reset was never to create a good or happy or positive relationship with Russia," says the administration official. "The goal has been and will continue to be to engage the Russian government in ways that enhance our security and advance our values. The theory was that if we create a more substantive relationship, that will create the more positive atmospherics, not the other way around."

But whatever its authors intended it to mean, the idea of a reset as a new beginning, unburdened by historical baggage was very much in tune with the optimism of the early days of the Obama administration, when nearly every action by the new president seemed to constitute a radical break with the past.

The "reset" idea seems to be an example of a U.S. administration becoming trapped by its own rhetoric. Obama can’t change the mindset of the Kremlin any more than he can make the oil in the Gulf of Mexico disappear or make congressional Republicans see the advantages of his health-care bill. More often than not, when the White House’s critics call for a reset on one issue or another, it’s not to suggest a new way forward, but to mock the idea that the president can restart the clock through sheer force of personality.

Moreover, Obama’s Russia policy shows that resets are an easy target. Critics can snidely ask "How’s that reset going?" every time Russia cracks down on dissidents or puts pressure on its neighbors. Conversely, when a genuine breakthrough is made, critics can point out that the administration is merely building on the work of its predecessor, rather than presiding over a major transformation.

Whatever power Obama’s new tone might have once possessed is waning as his novelty wears off and the bitter memories of George W. Bush fade. The big reset — Obama’s arrival on the world stage — has already happened. It’s time to get down to the trickier business of addressing the problems that global popularity can’t solve. Unfortunately, the one reset that really is needed, replacing a tired and misleading metaphor, might prove to be the toughest to pull off.

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