Noble Efforts

Sergey Karaganov, political expert

In the late 1980s, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was steering the Soviet Union away from its standoff against the West in a bid for a “new thinking” foreign policy. Georgiy Arbatov, a prominent expert in foreign policy, made a remark that quickly became quotable: “We will do the most horrible thing to you. We will leave you without an enemy.”

President Barack Obama seems to be doing something similarly horrible to the entire world: He is deprivingus allour long-established opponent and scapegoat, the United States of America. U.S. Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton before him were convenient bogeymen for both U.S. rivals and allies. Governments could comfortably blame Washingtonfor all their national and global mishaps and cite its rigid unilateralism to account for their own inaction.

Yet, both the American elite and general public found the strength to veer off the self-destructive course and elected Barack Obama, a president representing hope and change.

The new U.S. president has launched a radical overhaul of American foreign policy, putting forward a new philosophy of cooperation in place of unilateral leadership and global domination. Hediscarded the democratic evangelism, replaced the ill-concealed hostility toward the Islamic world with words of respect and friendship, and made statements signaling a political U-turn on the mitigation of, and adaptation to,climate change. For all these improvements and more, or rather in hope for their effect, President Obama was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Of course, America has, for the most part, talked the talk of change, and we still need to see it walk the walk. The to-do list of global problems President Obama has to face makes a grim read; leave Iraq, let Iran build nuclear capability or strike first, do something about Pakistan, resolve the gridlocked Arab-Israel conflict, and turn around the failure ofAfghanistan.

I would say the odds are stacked against him. But hope remains. If the American and global economies start picking up vigorously in one or two years, President Obama will be applauded as a savior and forgiven all his failures. It will be quite deserving praisegiven his extraordinary political audacity.

I think increasing global instability in general will keep Russia fairly critical of the American agenda. In spite of its modest economic capability, Russia has enormous potential for inflicting damage on the United States. Without Russian support, America will struggle to achieve most of its immediate- and long-term goals in the international arena.

Russia has even more to win from nurturing good ties with the United States. Wishful thinking aside, we are unlikely to become a world-class economy in the foreseeable future, and we will have fewer chances to do so without a close relationship with the most advanced part of the world. It will be increasingly uncomfortable and even dangerous to carry on without a strategic partner. It is important to continue a friendly dialogue and build upon the strategic union with China, but such a union has obvious limitations and its effectiveness will depend on good relations with the United States. Regardless of the unrestrained anti-Americanism of the public and deep mistrust of the Russian ruling class towards U.S. foreign policy, the recent year has seen a number of prominent public figures and businessmen calling for closer ties. I personally would like Russia to secure such a partnership, but I am still wary of promoting the issue right away. I am afraid that Americans might succumb to the old ways and trade their friendship for a price.

We should try and exploit the opportunity extended by President Obama nevertheless. A new America has challenged Russia to action. History is granting us a second and perhaps short-lived chance.

So why not take the risk and talk with the United States about converging towards a political and strategic alliance?

In what format? Such an alliance could be based on a following framework: a new agreement on strategic offensive reductions; a European collective security agreement, which would prevent NATO from expanding to Ukraine or even from inviting Russia to join – and thus dramatically transform – this organization; an agreed action plan regarding proliferation for coordinated deterrence of new nuclear nations; concurrent and linked efforts to create regional missile defense systems; joint guarantees for nations who feel threatened by the new wave of nuclear proliferation; and close cooperation in Afghanistan.

Obama may win as well, without losing his intellectual and political grit. It would be poor statesmanship not to try and bet on it.

The chances are low, but the prize can be huge. So we need to think how to respond to the new American challenge.

Sergey Karaganov, a political scientist, heads the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, an independent institution.

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