Hard Facts and Soft Diplomacy

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U.S.-Russian relations are at a mild impasse. Once in office, President Barack Obama can't publicly and immediately quash the plans to deploy missile interceptors in Poland or call for deferring NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. He would lose face. For the same reason, the Russians will not withdraw their recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia's independence, nor will they withdraw their forces from those areas.

That's the impasse. It's mild because the United States and Russia are clearly no longer the sworn foes that they were during the Cold War. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not the flash points that they would be if Georgia were a member of NATO. According to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, the United States would be obliged to go to war to defend Georgia as it already is with Slovenia and Slovakia. And it's also mild because the interceptors in Poland are a long way from deployment.

The U.S.-Russian relationship is being helped at the moment by recent media accounts that are skeptical about Georgia's version of the events precipitating the August war. The United States has moved from a knee-jerk condemnation of Russia to a more balanced view in which Russia and Georgia both share blame. If anything, the balance is tilting away from Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, increasingly seen as a hothead who conned the neocons or was conned by them.

On the other hand, in the bilateral relationship, Moscow has already been weakened by two major changes -- the drastic fall in the price of oil and the fact that Washington has regained the moral high ground lost by Bush. (How can the occupiers of Iraq criticize the invaders of Georgia?) The drama of the U.S. elections and Obama's charisma will make the Russians feel vulnerable about their own faux democracy, a point that should be foreseen and finessed by U.S. diplomacy.

One step toward improving the U.S.-Russian relationship is by affirming that relationship itself. 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the official establishing of the relationship. The first U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Quincy Adams, who later became the sixth U.S. president, served in St. Petersburg from 1809 to 1814, a period that included Napoleon's invasion of Russia.

Adams' achievements were chronicled in the book "The Life and Public Services of John Quincy Adams" by William Seward, who as secretary of state bought Alaska from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. (Imagine how much colder the Cold War would have been had that territory remained in Russian hands.) As part of affirming the relationship, it's worth remembering that there was once such a thing as "Russian America" that stretched all the way from the Bering Straits to Fort Ross in northern California. There were even Russian-American rubles printed on sealskin. Celebrations and commemorations of our shared past won't change any of the hard facts on the ground, but it might create the atmosphere in which change could occur.

In a globalized world, change is swift and sudden. Last year at this time, then-President Vladimir Putin was chosen Time magazine's person of the year and oil was only two-thirds of the way to its July zenith of $147 per barrel. What the world will look like next December is very difficult to predict, but maybe there's a clue in three seemingly unrelated event -- the shoe hurled at President George W. Bush, the invective a heckler hurled at President Dmitry Medvedev during his speech marking the 15th anniversary of the country's Constitution and the Molotov cocktails hurled by Greek anarchists.

The young, the disaffected, the educated without prospects, all the losers in the so-called globalized prosperity, which has become a globalized recession -- call them "globophobes" -- are the wild cards in 2009 politics. The Molotov cocktail could yet come home to the place where it was invented.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."