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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Doing for, Not Doing To

Though the official purpose of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's testimony last week before the Senate and House committees that oversee his department was to justify his budget for the next fiscal year, Powell's remarks were an important policy statement -- particularly from the perspective of the U.S.-Russian relationship. In fact, for those who seek closer and more effective cooperation between Washington and Moscow, Powell's comments were downright encouraging.

Much Washington-based commentary on Powell's testimony has focused on the fact that the secretary of state energetically backed U.S. President George W. Bush's reference to Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" in his Jan. 29 State of the Union address to Congress. Powell's defense of the president has been described as especially significant given his known resistance to calls within the administration for an immediate attack on Iraq after Sept. 11.

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Though Bush's definition of the "axis of evil" and his identification of its members has not been well received in Russia (or indeed anywhere else), Moscow need not be any more concerned about U.S. policy toward the three states than it was prior to the president's speech. Bush administration officials have already indicated that use of the term does not signify a new policy toward any of the three countries.

Three other aspects of Powell's remarks are considerably more interesting, however. First, the secretary of state revealed that he and Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov speak to one another by telephone two to four times each week "to make sure we stay in touch, to make sure we understand one another." While a few phone calls may seem like a minor matter, they are in fact quite remarkable given the history (including the recent history) of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Frequent and routine contacts of this nature can also go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary misunderstandings and problems.

Second, Powell emphasized that "regime change" remains a goal of U.S. policy toward Iraq and suggested that the United States and its allies may have to be its "catalysts." This was also seen as especially significant coming from Powell and seems considerably more important than his demonstration of loyalty to the president. It contributes effectively to a growing sense of inevitability about a U.S. attack on Iraq that can only help to minimize the consequences for the relationship when Washington does eventually move.

Notwithstanding President Vladimir Putin's recent public warning against U.S. military action, it seems unlikely that Moscow would make recent improvements in the U.S.-Russian relationship hostage to responsible behavior by Saddam Hussein. Hussein has demonstrated clearly in the years since the Gulf War that he is unwilling to admit weapons inspectors to Iraq on terms that would permit meaningful work. At the same time, the U.S. domestic debate over military action to unseat the Iraqi leader has moved from whether it is a good idea to when and how it should be done. Moscow has precious little leverage on the issues under dispute in Baghdad or Washington and is hardly in a position to broker, let alone enforce, a resolution. With sufficient skill and tact, Washington can maintain constructive relations with Moscow while moving to oust Hussein.

The third important aspect of Powell's statements was his affirmation that the Bush administration is now pursuing discussions with Russia on a legally binding agreement to reduce each side's nuclear arsenal.

In its substance, the administration's new willingness to consider signing a binding document resolves a major obstacle to an important agreement in the interest of both countries; as a result, a deal may be possible quite soon. In a sense, however, the implications of the administration's decision may be even more consequential than whatever agreement eventually emerges.

During the last decade, one of the principal Russian concerns about the U.S.-Russian relationship has been its alleged one-sidedness. Former President Boris Yeltsin and Russia's radical reformers were widely discredited by the perception that they had surrendered key national interests to the United States without receiving anything in return. Since Sept. 11, some new commentary has taken a similar tone in characterizing Putin's support of the U.S. war on terrorism.

In this context, the abandonment of the concept of parallel unilateral cuts in nuclear weapons -- a notable U.S. concession to Putin -- demonstrates the benefits of cooperation with the United States in an area of interest to Moscow. Such a signal will not be lost on Putin; it will also have an impact on at least some portion of Russia's attentive public.

Over the long term, the disparity in power between the United States and Russia makes some degree of Russian concessions to Washington more or less inevitable in the foreseeable future. In many areas, Russia simply does not have the levers to resist U.S. policies even if it objects strongly. The key to achieving the greatest level of cooperation, however, is to display sufficient flexibility in areas less important to the United States to ensure that Moscow continues to view its concessions as justified by the return they bring.

That kind of a relationship -- one that focuses on what we can do with each other and for each other rather than what we can do to each other -- would be profoundly advantageous to both Russia and the United States.

In accepting talks on binding nuclear arms cuts, the Bush administration has taken an important step to build it.

Paul J. Saunders is director of the Nixon Center in Washington. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.