There's No Hurry

President Vladimir Putin has indicated that he would welcome a dialogue with newly elected U.S. President George W. Bush, but the White House has made it clear that policy discussions at the summit level will not be held any time soon. Reports from Washington even say that the July Group of Eight summit in Genoa, Italy, is planned to be no more than a "get acquainted" time for Putin and Bush. However, Moscow should not think that, because Bush is taking his time, a radical shift in U.S. policy is in the works or that Washington has decided to downgrade relations.

Columnist Jim Hoagland wrote in The Washington Post this week that Bush's "slow boat to Russia" can be explained by the fact that the new president will consult extensively with European allies before engaging Russia. He will seek their views on national missile defense, or NMD, NATO expansion and other issues affecting the broad pattern of U.S.-European relations. This is in keeping with Bush's presidential campaign promises to tighten U.S. alliances.

There are other reasons for the delay in substantive negotiations with Russia, reasons that the White House doesn't want to talk about. Bush is neither well informed nor well traveled. American state governors do not have a foreign policy and generally pay little attention to the world at large. This was true of Bill Clinton and it is of Bush as well. During the presidential campaign, the Republican candidate had to be heavily scripted and briefed. He made only three foreign policy campaign speeches, only one of which Ч while staying close to the script Ч provided a broad perspective. He spouted only memorized sound bites supplied by his knowledgeable foreign policy advisers during the presidential debates.

Engaging in substantive policy talks with Russia (or China) without substantial knowledge presents Bush with multiple hazards. It will take time for the president to "get up to speed." Bush is fully aware that making a mistake on early policy decisions will influence his reputation with Congress, the media and public. He remembers Clinton's imbroglio when he charged ahead with a controversial gays-in-the-military policy early in his administration. Clinton's reputation with the Pentagon, already tarnished by his Vietnam draft-dodging, never fully recovered. Bush, in contrast, has chosen the relative safe ground of education policy as his first policy initiative.

Major foreign policy initiatives can wait. Bush and the rest of the world are fully aware that Vice President Richard Cheney and the president's foreign policy team Ч headed by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld Ч are experienced, opinionated, tough-minded realists. Proceeding while unprepared would make Bush a captive of his advisers when they speak with one voice. Already some in the media expect Cheney to act like a prime minister, leaving Bush a more regal, even ceremonial role. However, Bush will not play that game.

It is also apparent that Bush cannot expect his foreign policy team always to speak with one voice. Major conflicts over policy are inevitable. Powell, for example, has indicated that he will try to attain negotiated modifications to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty before proceeding with NMD. Rumsfeld's position holds that the ABM Treaty is an "ancient" Cold War relic and "ought not to inhibit a country, a president, an administration, a nation, from fashioning offensive and defensive capabilities that will provide for our security in a notably different national security environment." Cheney will also enter the policy mix. Any policy dispute, therefore, will place inordinate burdens on Bush. And as all executive officials Ч whether governors or presidents Ч recognize, it is necessary to be somewhat knowledgeable on issues in order to tell the difference between good and bad advice.

Finally, there is no foreign policy urgency toward Russia. No crisis demands immediate attention. Reports from the White House say that patience will buy time to see what policies Putin will pursue. Concern has been expressed over Russian arms sales and technology transfers to Iran, especially those that could assist Tehran's nuclear program. The announced preparation of a Russian-Chinese political pact also calls for patience to see what eventually transpires. Others express fear that Putin's crackdown on oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky and Media-MOST may signal a shift to more authoritarian policies that would make congressional and media support for America's Russian policies, such as the Comprehensive Threat Reduction program (also called Nunn-Lugar), less tenable.

After considering Bush's situation, it might well be in Moscow's interest to match Washington's patience with its own.

Nicholas Berry is a senior analyst with the Center for Defense Information, a privately-funded Washington think tank specializing in national security affairs. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.