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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Bilateral Relations Wish List

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Six years ago, before I joined George W. Bush's presidential administration, I published an essay in Nezavisimaya Gazeta that began as follows:

  "It is hardly a secret that U.S.-Russian relations are at one of their lowest points, if not the lowest, since the end of the Cold War. Gratuitous anti-Americanism, once confined to the fringe, has become regular fare for the mainstream Russian press, while Russophobia is penetrating increasingly into American discourse on Russian developments. ... The appearances of then-Security Council Secretary Sergei Ivanov and U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the Munich Conference on European Security Policy, in early February, neatly encapsulated each side's grievances." Replace Ivanov with President Vladimir Putin and Rumsfeld with the current defense secretary, Robert Gates, and what I wrote then pretty much sums up the situation today.

As was the case six years or 15 years ago, each side still stands to gain considerably from constructive, forward-looking relations. At some level, each side understands that. But on both sides, injured pride and arrogance, the desire to appear strong coupled with a sense of vulnerability, and great disappointment with the accomplishments of the past six years have deepened suspicions about the other's motives and undermined cooperative efforts.

The easy optimism in the West in the immediate post-Soviet period that history had ended with the victory of liberal democracy and free markets was undone at the beginning of the new century by mounting global disorder.

Despite the fascination with the power of stateless terrorist organizations, the great powers by definition will play the leading role in determining the shape of the new international system.

Although its margin of superiority has narrowed over the past several years and will likely continue to narrow, the United States remains the pre-eminent power. China's rise is widely assumed, but it must still overcome the seeming contradiction between its more open economy and closed political system. Current European disunion militates against a growing role in world affairs, and the unwillingness to sacrifice for national interests precludes a larger role over time.

As for Russia, its rapid recovery from the crisis of the 1990s surprised most observers, but it must master formidable challenges -- in health, education and infrastructure -- to sustain that recovery into the next decade if it is to maintain and enhance its position as a major power.

Putin's chairing of the Group of Eight summit last summer highlighted his country's return to the high table of global politics. On a number of high-profile issues -- Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Israel and Palestine -- Moscow is increasingly effective in ensuring that its voice is heard. The next step is to demonstrate that it can help forge durable solutions to urgent global problems. Great powers must bring more to the table than just words; they must bring the hard and soft power necessary to forge solutions within a reasonable timeframe.

In addition, many observers doubt whether Russia's self-assertion, particularly vis-a-vis its immediate neighbors, in fact advances its long-term strategic interests. Economic boycotts of Georgia and Estonia appear to have persuaded those countries to reorient their commercial ties elsewhere. Are these policies signs of strength or evidence of weakness?

Russian officials often speak as if alleged U.S. attempts to create a unipolar world are the gravest threat. The real threats lie elsewhere: to its south in the guise of radical Islamic fundamentalism in the near term and in East Asia in the guise of a shifting balance of power in the longer term. Add to this the various transnational sources of disorder: terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, pandemic diseases, and so on. The United States remains the only country with the capability to help Russia confront all of these challenges. Europe is too disunited and lacks the hard power; China is an integral part of the East Asian equation, but its reach on other issues of interest to Moscow is limited.

The United States needs a strong, capable, confident Russia. Throughout the 1990s, it was more concerned about Moscow's glaring weakness than its potential strength. It feared internal instability in a country that housed one of the world's largest stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, bordered other fragile states, and possessed vast natural resources that other countries might be tempted to seize. So the United States should welcome Russia's growing strength. Strengthened, it could prove valuable to creating and sustaining a new political and economic equilibrium in East Asia. A strong Russia is critical to building reliable security structures in Central Asia and the Caucasus; it could help manage the instability in the Middle East, rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, and deal with the problem of Iran. It would also be more able to work constructively in Europe on a range of issues of importance to the United States. But the United States, so long accustomed to dealing with a weak Russia, finds it difficult to adjust to a more assertive vision.

This is less a reflection of Russian strength than of Western weakness and insecurities.

Historian Martin Malia wrote several years ago that "Russia has at different times been demonized or divinized by Western opinion less because of her real role in Europe than because of the fears and frustrations, or hopes and aspirations, generated within European society by its own domestic problems." Such is the case today.

To be sure, mounting Western concerns are a consequence of policies that appear to undermine Western interests, but they are also a reflection of declining confidence in the West's own abilities and the efficacy of its own policies. Ironically, this comes at a time when Russia is arguably less threatening to the West than it has been at any time since the end of World War II. It does not champion a totalitarian ideology intent on the West's destruction, its military poses no threat of sweeping across Europe, its economic growth depends on constructive commercial relations with Europe, and its strategic arsenal -- while still capable of annihilating the United States -- is under more reliable control than it has been in the past 15 years.

To rebuild relations, we need to focus on common interests, but we can't ignore values. Values shape the way we think about our interests and are critical to the trust needed to deal with sensitive issues.

Given all this, I would offer a few guidelines for my U.S. colleagues:

• The United States needs to respect Russian choices and preferences. It is their country, and they will decide how to govern it and bear ultimate responsibility for its successes and failures.

• The United States needs to recognize that Russia is part of European civilization. Although it has lagged behind in many respects -- and the Soviet period derailed its development in many ways -- it has followed the main European path, which has witnessed an expansion of liberty for the past several hundred years.

• The United States needs to raise its concerns, but it must do it in a way that demonstrates it understands the complexity of Russian reality, including the contradictions in developments in the 1990s.

And what would I ask of our Russian colleagues?

• That they not dismiss U.S. discussion of values as a cynical ploy to advance geopolitical interests. Based on their own experience, Americans believe deeply in the power of democracy and markets to build free, prosperous societies.

• That when they raise counter-concerns that they too do that in a way that demonstrates understanding of the complexity of American reality.

• That they acknowledge that they bear ultimate responsibility for the conditions in Russia, including how they use any advice that is provided from outside.

Thomas Graham, senior director of the consulting firm Kissinger McLarty Associates, is former special aide to U.S. President George W. Bush on policy issues related to Russia. The full version of this comment will appear in the next issue of "Russia in Global Affairs."