Avoiding Another Lost Opportunity

Many historians make a living out of searching for "lost opportunities." If only the Western Allies had not been so hard on the Germans after World War I, there is a good chance that Germany would not have suffered economically. And if post-World War I Germany had been more prosperous, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis would never had been able to win popular support and World War II would have been avoided. Or if the Allies had not insisted that tsarist Russia keep fighting in World War I despite enormous economic upheaval and military casualties, the Bolsheviks would never had been able to seize power. I can remember writing a term paper in junior high school that argued that if the United States had not tightened immigration quotas against Asians so drastically, Japan would never have bombed Pearl Harbor.

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Such "what if" speculation almost always focuses on past disasters and is hard to prove. By contrast, critics seldom concern themselves with turning points in history that lead to positive results. But it is our good fortune that the United States and Russia may right now be pursuing a constructive series of such moves. I am referring to the first 100 days of Barack Obama's presidency, during which he has made U.S.-Russian relations an important priority.

When U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden first mused that it was time for the United States to press the "reset button" on U.S.-Russian relations and Obama picked up the theme, everyone knew that was a brilliant way with two snappy words not only to criticize the administration of former President George W. Bush but also to signal to the Russians that it was time to re-examine relations between the two countries. It was intended to be a dramatic signal that the United States was about to embark on a radical shift in foreign policy.

Only rarely in U.S. history does a new presidential administration veer sharply from the course pursued by its predecessor. Even when an election results in a change of political parties, there usually is considerable continuity in policies. An exception was the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt and his sweeping New Deal program. But that clearly is not the norm in most democracies, and even then it took an unprecedented depression to open the way for such a far-reaching change in direction, at least as it affected domestic economic policies.

Radical change may sometimes come more readily in nondemocratic societies, especially when they are in the midst of a serious economic or political crisis and this change is likely to be carried out by a dictator whose popularity is based on a promise to abandon the status quo and move instead to a more extreme, even opposite direction. The programs put in place by Hitler and Josef Stalin are two such examples of how calamitous domestic conditions can give birth to extreme upheavals in leadership and policies.

Yet democratically elected leaders on occasion can also promote far-reaching change without going as far as Hitler and Stalin did. This is possible even in what at one time were countries ruled by authoritarian leaders. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping are examples of leaders of totalitarian societies who were able to carry out liberal reforms.

Obama's re-examination of U.S. foreign policy is not confined to just our relations with Russia. He has also moved to relax U.S. restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba and to reopen a dialogue with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. To be sure, not everyone is happy with Obama's course reversals. In particular, many right-wing critics are not happy with the way Obama is willing to work more closely with Russia. After Russia's treatment of Georgia and Ukraine, Obama's opponents have renewed calls to move ahead with the plans to install 10 missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic.

For there to be real improvement in U.S.-Russian relations, the leaders of both countries would be well-advised to find ways in which they can work together to seek out policies that address their common interests, such as looking for remedies to reduce the severity of the economic recession (the United States has had a lot of experience here) or work together on addressing the threat of Islamic terrorism (Russia has had a lot of experience here.)

The two countries with two new leaders have an excellent opportunity to work together in ways that, until recently, were largely unthinkable. Differences certainly remain, but historians will judge today's leaders by whether or not they can find ways to take advantage of the new challenges to overcome past divisiveness. It may be wishful thinking, but that seems more likely today than at any time since World War II.

Marshall I. Goldman, author of "Petrostate: Putin, Power and the New Russia," is a senior fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.