On Earth as It Is in Space

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U.S.-Russian relations are in poor shape. The old thinking has failed. As President-elect Barack Obama's Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it after the Russia-Georgia war: "For the first time, both the United States secretary of state and secretary of defense have doctorates in Russian studies. A fat lot of good that's done us."

The United States needs a new, 21st-century strategy based on new thinking, new resources and new projects. The strategy must, of course, serve U.S. interests, but it must also be based on a clear sense of what Washington wants from Moscow and what can be reasonably expected from U.S.-Russian relations.

Should we expect a continuation of the current blend of rivalry and collaboration? Or is Russia lost because of foreign policy blunders by the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as anti-democratic choices made by then-President Vladimir Putin? Has Russia permanently reverted to its traditional repressive and aggressive model? Is Russia truly "resurgent," to use the current buzzword? Or, on the contrary, is it sick and dying, as demographer Murray Feshbach put it? And if Feshbach's diagnosis is correct, how exactly do you deal with an oil-rich, nuclear-armed state that is imploding? We haven't seen too many of those cases before.

Or was former Ambassador to the Soviet Union George Kennan correct, as he so often was, that Russia would find its own unpredictable and inimitable way to democracy? If so, are there any ways left to influence the Kremlin to open up its media again and move toward the rule of law? At best, the country seems to be going from what President Dmitry Medvedev called "legal nihilism" to nihilistic legalism.

If we wish to change the relationship from the adversarial to the cooperative, the answer is to increase cooperation between the countries. Russia and the United States are already doing this -- mainly in the struggle against nuclear proliferation and terrorism. But there is one more area that offers even more potential -- joint projects in space, which has reached a high point in the last 10 years. There is a very good chance that this cooperation will increase even more between 2010 and 2015. Because of the phasing out of the space shuttle, the United States will be entirely dependent on Russian spacecraft to reach the international space station. U.S. astronaut commander Mark Kelly says, "I'd venture to say the people who work at NASA know the Russians better than any other branch of our government." Having successfully cooperated with Russia for years, NASA people have gained genuine wisdom about dealing with the country, a resource that should be put to wider practical use in devising and implementing a new U.S. policy toward Russia.

The space race became a collaborative effort, and perhaps this can be applied to the energy sector. Oil has very different significance for the two countries. For Russia, oil is not only an economic lifeline, it also brings power and prestige. For the United States, it is a dangerous dependency, a security threat and a drag on the economy. But the two countries have a common interest in developing the energy technologies of the future since the United States needs to liberate itself from its oil addiction, while Russia needs to find alternative energy sources as oil and gas supplies dwindle. And, of course, both countries have a stake in preventing further global warming, an issue that went from chic to near-forgotten in less time than it takes a major bank to fail.

An energy alliance similar to the Apollo-Soyuz linkup is one way to begin bringing the two countries closer together. It is something that Presidents Obama and Medvedev could discuss at their first summit. And the sooner the better.

Richard Lourie, author of "Sakharov: A Biography," is now writing "The Death of Russia."