The Clubs That Matter

By Stephen Sestanovich
Thursday, July 13, 2006

When Vladimir Putin calls the club of major industrial democracies to order in St. Petersburg over dinner this Saturday, some people outside the room will complain that, being no democrat, he shouldn't be in the chair, or even at the table. They have a point, of course, but no one inside the club is listening. Putin claims that none of his Group of Eight colleagues has questioned Russia's role. As President Bush told Russia experts in the Oval Office last month, "there's no debate." The group wants Russia in.

No club has an easy time handling members who have gone astray, and the brothers of the G-8 long ago decided, probably without even discussing it, not to make a scene in St. Petersburg about Russia's authoritarian drift. A few participants may experience the slight twinge that the older guys in a fraternity feel toward a new recruit who is proving to be a poor fit. ("How did we let this one in?") But actually kick Putin out? The Great Powers, like most of the world's lesser clubs for that matter, do things differently. Stiff-upper-lip gentility has prevailed at the G-8.

That stands in sharp contrast, however, to the approach that Russian and American policymakers have recently taken toward membership issues involving other bodies. On these they've argued long and loud. A prime example is the World Trade Organization. Putin has complained all spring that the United States is blocking his country's effort to join the World Trade Organization. The Americans, he said, raise unfair objections and hold Russia to stricter standards than other countries. Officials in his government have warned that unless the United States lets Russia join, American companies will lose out in the competition to develop Russia's big offshore natural gas fields.

Russia has expressed still greater annoyance on an even more divisive membership issue: the prospect that at their fall summit NATO leaders might move a step closer to inviting two of Russia's neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia, to join the alliance. Although seven NATO states already share a land or maritime border with Russia, Sergei Ivanov, Putin's defense minister, insists that such an enlargement would require drastic changes in Russian national security strategy. Other Russian commentators foresee a fundamental breach in relations with the West. They add, with some relish, that Russia's increased wealth and prestige -- and its ability to squeeze its neighbors -- may enable it to block NATO's plans outright.

Meanwhile, the United States has had its own complaints about international clubs. When the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he hoped to gain full membership at last month's meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization -- a newer grouping created by Russia, China and four Central Asian states -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promptly weighed in with objections: How could Russia consider conferring the prestige of membership on a state that sponsors international terrorism? Russian officials dodged the question, saying that the SCO had never thought of taking in new members. Even so, Ahmadinejad was feted like a highly sought-after fraternity pledge during rush week.

The reason these membership issues are so acute, of course, is that unlike the G-8, the organizations actually matter. The WTO adjudicates big commercial disputes, of which Russia is going to have plenty in the years ahead. NATO is frequently and correctly described as the most successful military alliance in history. And if one were trying to identify the most plausible embryonic counterweight to American power, the SCO would probably be it.

Because these clubs matter, Bush ought to clarify American thinking about them to Putin, even amid the empty pomp of the weekend ahead. First, he should make clear that such disputes cannot be resolved in the G-8 style, by brothers doing each other favors. This needn't be bad for Russia. Trade negotiators now seem close to agreement on WTO membership. But unless Bush can convince Congress that it's not a present to Putin, the deal will surely fail.

Second, we've learned that when organizations expand, "buy-in" is crucial -- and that means expansion is always deliberate and usually slow. Current members want to be sure that new ones embrace the group's purposes. Ukraine would be deeply divided about joining NATO even if it had a unified government; its divisions guarantee a drawn-out process. By contrast, Georgia's strong commitment to join means that its candidacy can move forward. In both cases NATO is thinking about the integrity of its membership, not about weakening Russia (or deferring to it).

Finally, though large international institutions expand slowly, outsiders can have no say in what they decide. Bush should assure Putin that Russia will not be kept in the dark on the timing and meaning of NATO's decisions but that it will not be able to block them. Attempts to do so could severely damage Russian-American relations.

In this hands-off spirit, there is one favor Bush can do for his friend Vladimir: Call off the defense secretary. If Putin wants to educate us about his view of the world by associating with Iran, let's listen. He's telling us who his friends are.

The G-8 is an annual fantasy camp of candlelit, head-table diplomacy -- not the ideal setting for the kind of conversation that Bush and Putin ought to have. Fortunately for us, when our leaders return home from the G-8, they rarely remember a thing that happened. Soon enough, they'll be thinking -- and arguing -- about the clubs that matter.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

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