Why the U.S.-Russia ‘reset’ is falling part: not enough incentive to hold it together

August 7, 2013

Obama and Putin at a G8 summit meeting in Northern Ireland. (Alexie Nikolsky/Ria Novosti/Krem)

The White House's decision to cancel a planned one-on-one meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, apparently over NSA leaker Edward Snowden receiving temporary asylum in Moscow, seems like a new nadir to the ever-troubled U.S.-Russia relationship. It would seem to be yet another setback for the Obama administration's once-vaunted "reset" of relations with Russia.

But there's another way to read this: as an indication not that the reset failed on its own merits so much as that it's being abandoned because neither country seems to feel it's  quite worth the trouble. The big problem may not be that Moscow and Washington disagree – although they certainly do – but that they just don't care enough about those disagreements to go through the trouble of fixing them.

There are certainly a number of reasons that the U.S.-Russia "reset" appears to have fallen apart. These are two big countries with lots of conflicting national interests, such as in Syria, where Russia supports the Assad regime but the U.S. opposes it. The Russian government has been getting worse on human rights and political freedoms, to protests from Washington. And officials from both have had plenty of "blunt exchanges" and "animated exchanges," adding a touch of personal animosity to the diplomatic setbacks.

What's never been quite satisfying about these explanations for the reset's failure is that these factors are present in other, less-troubled bilateral relationships, particularly between the United States and China. Washington and Beijing just have more to disagree about, and more at stake in those disagreements, than do Washington and Moscow. So, according to the prevailing theories of the reset's failures, you might expect Washington's relationship with Beijing to be in even worse shape than its Moscow ties. But that's the opposite of how it's worked out.

The disputes between the U.S. and China have been far more severe and over much more substantive issues. Chinese hackers have stolen sensitive U.S. military technological secrets, broken into Google servers to undermine U.S. counterespionage efforts, infiltrated just about every major institution in Washington and stolen so much U.S. intellectual property that it's been called "the greatest transfer of wealth in history." Chinese human rights abuses are, by most standards, significantly worse than Russia's. The U.S. and China have widely divergent interests on issues from Syria to North Korea to Iran to trade rules to currency standards. U.S.-China meetings can get, I'm told, plenty "blunt" and "animated." These are problems that make the latest U.S.-Russia disputes, over Snowden and anti-gay rights legislation, look pretty mild by comparison.

And yet, when it came time for the June summit in Sunnylands, Calif., between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both leaders dutifully showed up in their shirtsleeves and waved for the cameras.

The problems in the reset are probably not intrinsic to Moscow or its relationship with Washington. During the Cold War, leaders from both countries would go ahead with summits despite the Soviet Union's de facto occupation of entire European countries, high-profile intelligence officials from both countries who spied for the other in a deliberate effort to literally aid the enemy, indirect military conflicts, a gulag network that amounted to one of the worst human rights abuses in a century that was full of them, not to mention the ever-present threat of global thermonuclear war.

President Reagan called the Soviet Union an "evil empire," Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously declared, "We will bury you." And yet, for decades, U.S. and Soviet leaders held one summit meeting after another, even though the tensions were so high – and so personal – that they sometimes ended with, for example, a May 1960 Paris summit where Khrushchev dressed down President Eisenhower for U2 spy plane flights, one or the other storming out in outrage.

So how is it that U.S. and Soviet leaders went ahead with decades of summits despite disagreements so severe they implied a threat of World War III, while today a summit falls apart over a single NSA contractor and the slow progress in some minor security and trade cooperation measures?

It may actually be the case that the reset was doomed not by high tensions but by low stakes. Obama and Xi feel compelled to force a smile for the camera at Sunnylands in large part because the U.S. and China have arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world; neither can afford to let it fall apart. The same was true of Washington-Moscow summits during the Cold War, when leaders who might despise one another would meet not despite but because of the very real threat of mutual nuclear annihilation.

Today, though, the United States and Russia have found themselves in a not-so-sweet spot in which they have enough overlapping areas of interest to spark bitter disagreements, but not enough that either wants to commit the necessary resources to get along. It's just not the priority.

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Caitlin Dewey | August 7, 2013