Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote an op-ed in yesterday’s WaPo on the so-called reset on relations with Russia. It wasn’t ground-breaking but at least he tried. As best I can remember, Putin never even bothered to try to solicit western opinion with something like this.
Most of it is boilerplate, but a few remarks stood out.
1. Medvedev is, rightfully, worried about American treaty behavior. Thank W for this unhelpful legacy. One quick and easy change Obama could make would be to firm up the US general commitment to abide by its treaty obligations and to generally look to make such deals where they work in the national interest and accord with our values. Differently put, the Constitution requires that treaty obligations supercede US law. Everyone knows this. So let’s get back to honoring the required commitments already. Further, there are a number of easy treaties to clinch with the Russians, especially on conventional forces in Europe and nukes. Let’s get to it already.
2. The op-ed smacks of a hankering for the US to take Russia seriously. Perhaps the most important line in the piece was the oblique reference to lost status by invoking concern for ‘all influential players’ to help on Afghanistan. Like France, Russia seems obsessed with lost ‘relevance.’ The importance of prestige and stature is know in IR theory, but not as well researched as it probably should be. (Maybe because it seems more about psychology than interest.) It is tough to be a power in decline, or otherwise demoted from great to middle power status. It must be humiliating to hope that the US, China, India, the EU, and other states we look to for the future of the global economy, increasingly ignore Russian opinion, unless the Russians make a fuss. So hijinks like the Georgian war, gas-shut-offs, and nose-tweaking on Iran steal the stage from more constructive Russia foreign policy needs – like peace with its Muslim periphery, WTO membership and more FDI, export markets beyond oil and weapons, etc. Like the Soviet Union, Russia would rather be poor and relevant than rich and normalized. Korea is a good contrast. Koreans for the most part seem to realize that, even after unification, they will never be more than a middle power, and they have made their peace with that. China too seems to realize that being ‘a player’ means growth, prosperity, some seriousness in foreign policy (although the Chinese are likely to free-ride as long as they can – see below), etc. But Medvedev made sure to include a pointless reference to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – a club of dictators like the old OAU – to suggest Russian weight on Afghanistan. There is a dark irony in the loser of the last Afghan war counseling others how to win there. And he must know that no one in the US really cares much about or thinks much of the SCO. Even the Chinese hardly mention it. And for good measure, he threw in remarks about a new reserve currency and the even stranger “diplomatic support provided by Russia to the United States at critical points of America’s development.” I must say I haven’t the slightest clue what that means. Did some czar once say something nice about the US, or does he mean the turnover of Alaska?
3. The flap over the Chinese interest in another reserve currency is echoed here. Medvedev even talks about regional reserve currencies. But again, who takes this seriously from Russians? The ruble is far too unstable to play such a role, even regionally. It is not counted in the SDR basket, and Russia is a partially dollarized economy anyway. When they Chinese say such things, people will listen, but the Russians? And, by the way, what is a regional reserve currency anyway? The whole idea of a reserve currency is its role as a shadow global currency. Regional reserve currencies would be nearly impossible in a thickening global economy. Inevitably, global trade would push toward one standard. So serious regional currencies really would mean regionalization of the global economy. Maybe that is a route to the multipolarity the French and Russians seem to want to so much.
Recommendation: Missile defense is a white-elephant that doesn’t work. Trade it for something we need – help with Iran would best. But on a lot of the rest of the portfolio, the Russians want to play old-style great power politics that Obama should eschew. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states are desperate for western interest and protection against Russian neo-imperialism. It would be a great shame if the west sold out Ukraine over gas contracts, and there will be blowback when eventually those areas claw their way out from under Russian power.
Prediction: The re-set will go nowhere. The Russians will overplay their hand by pushing the US all over EEurope and the Middle East – human rights, Ukraine, Iran, Georgia. Call it a redux of Kruschev’s contempt for Kennedy. Obama will get annoyed and push-back. US-Russian relations will return to the stalemate of the Bush years. And this is not such a bad thing actually. The Putin regime in charge has made it pretty clear they aren’t interested in liberalism and democracy, so right now there isn’t to much middle ground that doesn’t seriously compromise western values.