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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Starting Anew on the World Order

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In the Russian-U.S. dialogue, metaphors often communicate more than long, drawn-out discussions. At their news conference Monday in Kennebunkport, Maine, Presidents Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush spoke at length about the openness and trust that characterized their relationship.

Then Putin, in the course of outlining prospects for cooperation, made the unexpected remark, saying, "The cards have been dealt and the game can begin. ... Let's hope we are playing the same game." This cast much of what had been said earlier in a new light.

It is unlikely Bush intended to draw a historical analogy by choosing his father's estate as the site for the talks with Putin. But the location is full of symbolism all the same. It was there that the senior Bush discussed the new world order so closely associated with his presidency. During the first years of his term, which ran from 1989 to 1993, the 41st president sought to determine whether he could trust the ideas and suggestions offered by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev first mentioned a new world order at a United Nations session in December 1988, exactly one month after the senior Bush was elected to office. Gorbachev's talk of removing ideology from international relations, of disarmament, of settling regional conflicts through the joint effort of the superpowers, and of Russian-U.S. cooperation in the United Nations Security Council for the sake of resolving humanity's most urgent problems, came across as either highly cunning or excessively idealistic.

As a supporter of pragmatic realism in foreign policy, the first Bush was in no hurry to trust the Soviet leader's unexpectedly peaceful overtures. He saw in Gorbachev's new world order not so much an offer as a Soviet effort to push the United States into a less favorable light for the rest of the world. At the U.S.-Soviet summit in Malta in December 1989, Bush tried to flesh out the new world order concept by adding some of his own ideas.

Gorbachev proposed a complete restructuring of international relations. Bush in his turn spoke of the need to end confrontation, to preserve the world's "architecture," and to strengthen Western institutions. The new world order took its early form during the first Persian Gulf War, when the United States led almost the entire global community in opposing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. From that moment on, the United States became the leader of the new world order and the idea originally put forward by Moscow ended up as Washington's calling card. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became a moot point as to whose version would end up gaining the broadest acceptance.

But the new international system so many had dreamed about in the 1980s and 1990s never came to be. The burden of single-handedly providing leadership proved too much for even the United States. International relations are now suffering through a period of instability, and relations between Moscow and Washington no longer dominate the agenda at international forums. The developing world's political awakening, transnational terrorism, the appearance of new centers of production and the increasing political clout that goes with it, the growth of resource nationalism and competition for raw materials, the influence of population migration and a renaissance of religious ideology -- all of these constitute another set of global priorities.

But for the United States and Russia it's as if the clocks have been turned back. The most popular question is whether a new Cold War is looming on the horizon. Seeing Bush and Putin fishing at Kennebunkport seems to confirm that we have returned to a time in which Moscow and Washington are attempting to define their roles in relation to each another.

It is much like the question faced by the elder Bush. What is the meaning of Putin's call for mutual cooperation between the two countries -- whether he is talking about the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, reforms to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe or anti-ballistic missile defense in Azerbaijan ansd now even in Russia? Are these tactical moves designed to strengthen the Kremlin's position on the geopolitical playing field, or are they motivated by a serious effort to move toward a new international order?

The difference between the end of the 1980s and today is that the interim period has witnessed a great many disappointments. Russia is convinced that its attempt to achieve a just and equitable world order has been thwarted by the egotistical countries of the West, particularly the United States. For its part, the United States believes Russia is unable to reject its age-old expansionist thinking or its inherent tendency toward anti-democratic policies.

This lack of trust is in some ways worse than that of 20 years ago. Then, although there was no experience of recent cooperation between the two nations, there was hope that this would be achieved. Now the two sides have a shared common experience that they both view as negative. This makes it even more difficult for them to trust each other, as they feel the other will use such trust to its own advantage.

It is remarkable to what extent Russia and the United States are currently at odds. Wherever Russia sees areas for possible bargaining and compromise, such as missile or conventional weapons treaties or NATO expansion, Washington refuses to engage in talks, defining them as issues of U.S. national security. And wherever Washington identifies secondary problems that can and must be resolved quickly, such as Kosovo's final status, Russia sees them as questions of principle that need to be considered in an international legal context, fearing serious consequences could result otherwise.

Restoring trust is a long and painstaking process that cannot be accomplished during a single summit, no matter how cordial and informal it may be. Unfortunately, neither president is currently in a strong position to undertake long-term strategic projects. Bush and Putin have their own problems to cope with which, although different in nature, have left of them with little political room in which to maneuver. Nonetheless, the Kennebunkport summit has sent at least one encouraging signal. Putin's suggestion that the United States make joint use of Russia's radar station in Gabala, Azerbaijan, has not limited the effective diplomacy he displayed at the recent Group of Eight summit in Heiligendamm, Germany. Moscow is developing and fine-tuning its offer, providing a basis for the start of a strategic dialogue between Russia and the United States -- something that has been sorely lacking in their relations of late.

Even with that start, it will be difficult to build a cooperative system of global policy. But it is already possible to formulate agreement on the rules of the game, or more precisely, a common vision of the perceived threats to both countries. This alone would be a significant step, since cooperation is otherwise impossible in such a delicate arena as strategic security.

All of this means that the construction of a new world order is still a necessity. But now neither Russia nor the United States can claim to have a monopoly on its design. And the cards for that game will be dealt not to two, but to many players.

Fyodor Lukyanov is editor of Russia in Global Affairs.