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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Get Real, Russia!

Well before George W. Bush finally won the U.S. presidency, Vladimir Putin and his surrogates made it clear that they hoped for a Republican victory. Putin’s team believes that the new Bush team for foreign policy will adopt a more realpolitik philosophy toward international affairs. In their view, this means less attention to pesky issues like human rights, corruption and the war in Chechnya, and more attention to traditional issues of foreign diplomacy such as arms control and great power regulation of regional conflicts.

The central players in the new Bush foreign policy team fancy themselves as hard-nosed realists or "pragmatists." During the campaign, the team of foreign policy experts headed by Condoleezza Rice, who advised Governor Bush, aggressively contrasted their realist proclivities with the so-called "idealist" and "impractical" impulses of the Clinton-Gore team. In particular, the Bush campaign derided nation-building and humanitarian interventions.

Such sound bites were music to Russian ears. Applied to Russia and its neighborhood, this sounds like no more interference in Russian domestic affairs — i.e. no more lectures from U.S. Treasury officials about "structural reforms," no more speeches from White House officials about how to become a normal country, and no more nagging from the State Department on human rights. No more Kosovos, and perhaps no more harping about preserving Georgian independence.

Without question, the Bush team will devote considerably less attention to Russian domestic issues. A new focus on strategic issues by both the White House and the Kremlin could also yield some quick successes for both presidents. For instance, both Bush and Putin appear committed to reducing nuclear arsenals even without a new arms control agreement. Given the mood in Washington and Moscow, even a small reduction in nuclear weapons will be perceived as a major victory and a "turnaround" in the relationship.

Nonetheless, these other issues will not disappear from the agenda. Some within the Bush team still believe in the promotion of democracy and markets abroad. In his remarks accepting his nomination as secretary of state, General Colin Powell reminded the world, "If you want to be successful in the 21st century, you must find your path to democracy, market economics and a system which frees the talents of men and women to pursue their individual liberties." This statement and other warnings Powell has made to dictators sound more like 20th-century American idealists such as Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan than 19th-century European realists like Metternich. Paul Wolfowitz, the recently named deputy secretary of defense, also has identified with democratic causes around the world and served on the board of the National Endowment for Democracy.

In addition, a whole host of government and nongovernment actors in the United States will not disappear just because the Republicans are in power. CNN will still report on kidnapped Americans in Chechnya; Human Rights Watch will still publicize human rights violations in Russia; the IMF and the World Bank will not quit Russia. Many of these organizations will continue to lobby their friends on Capitol Hill to remain engaged on domestic Russian issues. And if Putin does resurrect dictatorship in Russia, it will become a major issue that Bush will not be able to ignore.

If power is the only factor that matters, Russia will be a marginal actor in world affairs and a marginal worry for U.S. foreign policy-makers. Today, the asymmetries of power are enormous. The Russian national budget this year is roughly 2 percent of the U.S. budget. Even in military spending, the former strong suit of the Soviet Union, Russia will spend roughly $5 billion this year, compared with the United States’ nearly $300 billion.

Given these asymmetries, the Bush team might be tempted to pursue its foreign policy agenda with little or no reference to Russian concerns. Especially with Donald Rumsfeld now at the helm at of the Defense Department, the Bush team will vigorously pursue national missile defense. If the Russians cooperate, great. If they don’t, the Bush team will forge ahead anyway, precisely because Russia is weak. The same can be true of almost any other international issue from NATO expansion to combating weapons of mass destruction.

This reduced attention to Russia is reflected in the bureaucratic reform plans now being circulated by the Republicans. One plan calls for the top jobs on Russia at the State Department and the National Security Council to be downgraded. Instead of reporting directly to the secretary of state or national security adviser, the new people in these posts would report to the assistant secretary for Europe at the State Department and the senior director for Europe at the NSC. In other words, the most senior person in the government with direct responsibility for Russia might be a deputy assistant secretary of state, a job frequently filled by career diplomats and not political appointees.

So why do the Russians welcome a return to balance-of-power politics in U.S.-Russian relations? If power becomes the only determinant of interaction, Russia loses big time.

Michael McFaul is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an assistant professor and Hoover fellow at Stanford University. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.