The ‘failure’ of the ‘reset:’ Obama’s great mistake? Or Putin’s?

March 4, 2014
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Alexei Nikolsky/AP)

Daniel Nexon is an associate professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University.  In 2009-2010 Nexon served as a Council on Foreign Relations fellow in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (Policy) in the Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia regional office.

In the aftermath of Russia’s incursion in Crimea, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said that:

You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext. So, it is a very serious moment. But it’s serious not in the context, Bob, of Russia-U.S. it’s serious in terms of sort of the– the modern manner with which nations are going to resolve problems. There were all kinds of other options still available to Russia. There still are. President Obama wants to emphasize to the Russians that there is a right set of choices that can still be made to address any concerns they have about Crimea about their citizens but you don’t choose to invade a country in order to do that.

Kerry’s suggestion of Russian atavism triggered two major reactions. No one disputes  RT‘s role as a propaganda outlet for Moscow, but its response captured a very common reaction across the media landscape:

“although Kerry was never challenged by the interviewer to comment in terms of that statement on Washington’s own constant threats to use force and military invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, those who watched the interview immediately smelled the hypocrisy.”

On the other side, some used Kerry’s language to accuse the Obama administration of naïvety.  Political critics of Obama foreign policy pointed to a litany of failures: fecklessness on Syria, proposed defense cuts, and a dangerous tilt toward isolationism.  The refrain is pretty much the same; as the opinion page editors of The Washington Post opined: President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy:

Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not received the memo on 21st century behavior. Neither has China’s president, Xi Jinping, who is engaging  in gunboat diplomacy against Japan and the weaker nations of Southeast Asia. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is waging a very 20th century war against his own people, sending helicopters to drop exploding barrels full of screws, nails and other shrapnel onto apartment buildings where families cower in basements. These men will not be deterred by the disapproval of their peers, the weight of world opinion or even disinvestment by Silicon Valley companies. They are concerned primarily with maintaining their holds on power.

For some, the famous “reset” policy toward Russia — now looking dead as a doornail – was built upon the administration’s failure to appreciate the realities of great-power politics. And nothing encapsulates the wrongheadedness of Obama’s understanding of the world more than his response to Mitt Romney in the final presidential debate of 2012:

Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaeda is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaeda; you said Russia, in the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.

The nature of this conversation, I think, misunderstands some key wagers behind the reset, as well as the realities of power politics in the 21st century.

Let’s begin with two key facts about the Russian Federation and its putative 19th century characteristics.

First, Russia’s political organization is fundamentally imperial in character, composed of a hodgepodge of political units that range from the fully integrated to the semi-sovereign and autonomous. As my colleague, Charles King, wrote in 2003:

“Central power, where it exists, is exercised through subalterns who function as effective tax- and ballot-farmers; they surrender up a portion of local revenue and deliver the votes for the center’s designated candidates in national elections in exchange for the center’s letting them keep their own fiefdoms.”

Nowhere is this kind of arrangement more vividly illustrated than in Chechnya, where Moscow ‘solved’ its separatist problem by devolving power to a local viceroy, Akhmed Kadyrov and, after his assassination, his son, Ramzan Kadyrov.

Second, Moscow’s strategy for managing its internal relations — relying on subalterns, exploiting ethnic divisions, deploying military forces and using the toolkit of electoral authoritarianism — extends, if often in attenuated form, to those states it considers as falling within its “privileged sphere of influence.” It has long backed and leveraged secessionist movements in, among other places, Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan in the pursuit of political control. Although not always successful, this pattern dates back to the Soviet era and, before that, the Russian Empire. Indeed, the Kremlin’s power-political practices are as perennial as they are limited. In a theoretically sophisticated Security Studies article, Iver B. Neumann and Vincent Pouliot show that Moscow’s quest for great-power status and recognition, combined with its inability to achieve “insider status” in the international order, invariably drives it back to the same repertoire of asserting great-power perquisites in ways that shock and alarm the international community. Did German Chancellor Angela Merkel describe Putin as living in “another world” after her March 2 phone conversation with him? If not, then sometimes truth does indeed reside in fiction.

Key players in the Russia reset understood this problem very well. Indeed, it shaped the fundamental wagers of the policy: That the Bush administration’s abandonment of normal diplomatic relations with Moscow — including the effective suspension of routine diplomatic and military-to-military engagement — served no one’s interests. At best, it did nothing to alter Russian international behavior. At worst, it exacerbated Russia’s tendency toward coercion and confrontation. It also allowed other countries to point the finger at Washington for “not doing enough to engage Russia” when Moscow reverted to type.

The Reset therefore proposed to “re-normalize” relations with Russia. Washington would engage Moscow in areas where their interests converged — such as Afghanistan and New START — and where the Obama administration judged greater alignment was possible — such as Iran. This stage proved difficult but productive. The reset stalled at its next stage — of building from this comparatively low-hanging fruit to more generalized cooperation. It failed completely in its ultimate objective: to nudge Moscow toward a ‘responsible stakeholder’ position in which it realized its great-power status without resorting to its default habits. At the same time, I am not sure how many officials in the Obama administration saw this last goal as anything but aspirational.

Russia’s intervention in Crimea highlights the fundamental problem with more ambitious aims of the reset. As its critics note, Washington’s approach to international order proved fundamentally incompatible with Moscow’s current worldview. Outcomes that Washington views as Pareto-improving look, from Moscow’s vantage point, as anything but. Additional nuclear-arms reductions? They lock in American conventional advantage while complicating the ability of Moscow to deter a rising China. Regime change in Syria? It removes one of the last powers in the Middle East friendly to Moscow. Democratization in Ukraine? The loss of influence in a territory core to Russia’s strategic interests and its great-power status.

What options, then, does the United States have when it comes to a grand strategy toward Russia? Some realists, such as Stephen Walt, suggest that Washington accommodate Russia’s sphere of influence while conserving its resources only for those challenges that represent an existential threat to the United States. This represents the genuine “19th  century option.”

What establishment Washington critics recommend is something different entirely: That Washington engage in a kind of boisterous containment in which its maximizes power in order to show resolve to not only Russia, but other discontented regional powers, such a China. This is only “realist” in that it reflects some of the least credible concerns of 19th and 20th century power politics,  including a dangerous obsession with generalized reputation.

However, the weight of political science research suggests that general reputations for resolve and strength matter, at best, at the margins. Instead, leaders focus on specifics: the credibility of a particular commitment, the balance of military forces and the balance of interests at stake. Indeed, as Jonathan Mercer argues: The real puzzle is why so many people, including leaders, spend so much time worrying about their general reputation for resolve when it makes so little difference in world affairs.

In this sense, the impetus behind the reset rested on a particular kind of realism about international politics in general, and 21st century geopolitics in particular. For all the Bush administration’s “resolve” and displays of force, it could not prevent Moscow from baiting Georgia into a disastrous conflict with Russia. Neither larger defense budgets nor tough talk would have accomplished what George W. Bush failed to do in Bucharest: convince NATO to extend a membership action plan to Ukraine and Georgia. Neither Republican presidential nominees John McCain nor Mitt Romney could have made credible security guarantees to a country led by a regime inclined toward Russia’s orbit. The reset offered a way out for both Washington and Moscow.

In other words, for all its military and economic power, the United States faces real political and strategic limitations in world politics. At the same time, America’s position stems not only from raw military and economic might, but an extensive infrastructure of alliances, partnerships, and institutional prerogatives. Indeed, all of these considerations showcase just how weak Moscow’s hand actually is. It is precisely the full spectrum of power-political instruments that Russia lacks, especially in comparison to the United States.

We are witnessing this asymmetry right now. For all the ways that the United States and the European Union blundered into the current crisis, it is Moscow that now worries that it has overplayed its hand. Even if the end result of its gamble is a pliant regime in Kiev, the global balance of power will emerge completely unaltered. Indeed, Moscow is no longer a global power capable of threatening key American interests. The reset’s failure is Russia’s problem, not Washington’s.

*****

Previous posts on the recent events in Ukraine at The Monkey Cage:

Russia vs. Ukraine A clash of brothers, not cultures

What can passports tell us about Putin’s intentions?

How might sanctions affect Russia?

How Russian nationalism explains—and does not explain— the Crimean crisis

Crimean autonomy: A viable alternative to war?

Ukrainians are not that divided in their views of democracy

A graph that shows how the Ukraine got stuck between the West and Russia

How Putin’s worldview may be shaping his response in Crimea

International law and institutions look pretty weak now, but they will matter a lot down the road

The ‘Russia reset’ was already dead; now it’s time for isolation

Obama is using the OSCE to give Russia an exit strategy … if it wants one

Who are the Crimean Tatars, and why are they important?

5 reasons I am surprised the crisis in Crimea is escalating so quickly

How to prevent the crisis in Ukraine from escalating

What does Ukraine’s #Euromaidan teach us about protest?

Why Ukraine’s Yanukovych fell but so many analysts (including me) predicted he would survive

What you need to know about Ukraine

How social media spreads protest tactics from Ukraine to Egypt

Who are the protesters in Ukraine?

The (Ukrainian) negotiations will be tweeted!

Social networks and social media in Ukrainian “Euromaidan” protests

What you need to know about the causes of the Ukrainian protests

Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context

How Ukrainian protestors are using Twitter and Facebook

As police raid protests in Ukraine, protesters turn to Twitter and Facebook

Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine

Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych

Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests

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