Separating U.S. Rhetoric From Reality

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After U.S. elections, the new president's tough rhetoric on Russia will most likely be exchanged for pragmatism to manage the common political and economic interests that bind the two countries together.

The five-day war between Georgia and Russia moved the foreign policy debate of the U.S. presidential campaign from theory to the frightening reality of an international crisis that might chill relations for some time. The presidential candidates, Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama, both condemned Russia's actions, but their individual approaches to Russian ties are significantly different. Would their campaign statements on Russia be the same if they were the president?

Before the fighting began last month, McCain harshly criticized Moscow at every turn and singled out Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in particular. He suggested removing Russia from the Group of Eight and denying World Trade Organization membership as punishment for what he called its autocratic behavior, civil liberties violations and attempts to rebuild the Soviet empire.

Now, McCain says Russia's invasion of Georgia confirms that its leaders, "rich with oil wells and corrupt with power, have rejected democratic ideals and the obligations of a responsible power." But, he adds, "I'll work to establish good relations with Russia so we need not fear a return to the Cold War."

Obama, too, was critical of Russia's record in democracy, human rights and aggressive behavior toward its neighbors before the war, and when fighting started he forcefully condemned the Kremlin for its policy toward Georgia.

But Obama urges restraint in the U.S. response and advocates a policy of constructive engagement on international terrorism, nuclear proliferation, energy security, Iran, North Korea and other vital common strategic interests.

Is McCain using sharp campaign rhetoric to build support among foreign policy hawks in the Republican Party and to attract like-minded voters in the Democratic Party and among independents? Or was he trying to articulate a "McCain Doctrine" on U.S. policy toward Russia?

Is Obama's less confrontational approach toward Moscow, as well as the administration of President George W. Bush for being distracted by Iraq and not developing policies to deal with a resurgent Russia, a campaign ploy to gather votes from disaffected Republicans and to shore up his Democratic Party base? Or will a policy of firmness and engagement with the Kremlin be at the core of an Obama administration's policies toward Russia?

U.S. history has repeatedly demonstrated that campaign positions on Russia do not necessarily become the basis for the president's policy toward Moscow. The presidential candidate who was most critical of Russia has often become a strategic partner on controlling nuclear proliferation, fighting terrorism or improving trade.

During the Cold War, each Republican and Democratic presidential candidate took hard-line stances toward the Soviet Union. But even during the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev started secret negotiations and signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

Strained relations also failed to dissuade U.S. President Richard Nixon from making a bold diplomatic initiative to visit Moscow in 1972 to hold a summit with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev that reduced tensions and promoted greater cooperation. Nor did they give pause to U.S. President Ronald Reagan to work together with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to bring the Cold War to an end.

In the post-Soviet period, Russia's political ideology changed, but the campaign rhetoric of the U.S. presidential candidates often mirrored the Cold War period. In the 2000 campaign, Bush said Russia was in danger of reverting back to the days of the Soviet Union under former KGB colonel Putin. But in his first meeting with Putin as president, Bush said he looked into Putin's eyes and saw someone he could trust.

The personal chemistry between President Dmitry Medvedev and the next U.S. president also will determine largely whether Moscow and Washington have a foreign policy of cooperation and healthy competition or confrontation.

If modern history is any guide, the next U.S. president, despite the tone of his campaign rhetoric, will likely follow in the footsteps of predecessors such as George H.W. Bush vis-a-vis Gorbachev and Bill Clinton vis-a-vis President Boris Yeltsin.

But history and personal chemistry are by no means the only factors. McCain or Obama will inherit a policy framework of treaties and agreements that were initiated by prior U.S. presidents and played significant roles in defining the U.S.-Russian relationship, including WTO accession negotiations, the Nunn-Lugar programs to transform warheads into nuclear fuel and the International Space Station. A U.S.-Russia Strategic Framework Agreement signed in April was aimed to preserve a multibillion-dollar economic engagement between Russia and the United States.

Even at the lowest points of the heated debate between the United States and Russia about proposed U.S. missile-defense sites in Central Europe or NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, important policy initiatives remained intact.

Now, the policy framework is again being tested by the armed conflict in Georgia. Washington withdrew a joint civilian nuclear cooperation agreement from congressional consideration, and it will be less vocal in supporting Russia's WTO accession. But both initiatives could be reinvigorated with gradual improvements in relations. Expect the U.S. business community to lobby the next White House for policies to expand commercial opportunities in Russia.

The U.S. policy debate on whether to engage or isolate Russia will intensify. It is, however, clear that relations must be pragmatic and recognize interdependencies in economic development, energy security, fighting terrorism and controlling nuclear proliferation. The challenge for the next U.S. president in working with Medvedev and Putin will be to address such issues with sound judgment and an acute awareness of the consequences for failing to meet this responsibility.

Jonathan Russin, Leonid Sevastianov and Tom Thomson are partners in RST International, a business and strategic communications consultancy based in Moscow and Washington.