Renegotiating European Security

By Ronald D. Asmus
Saturday, December 13, 2008

Among the foreign policy challenges facing President-elect Barack Obama is the need for a new strategy toward Russia. Moscow is a partner and competitor: We need to work with the Russians on issues such as Iran and counterterrorism, but Moscow today is also a nationalistic revisionist power bent on rolling back Western values and influence on its borders with Europe. Russia is seeking major changes to the ground rules of European security, a desire underscored recently when Moscow pressed the West to agree to a new European security charter proposed by President Dmitry Medvedev.

This initiative has hardly been noticed in Washington, but it is time to pay attention. The August war in Georgia shattered the assumption that the continent was somehow fixed in place or that war in wider Europe was no longer possible. How we and our allies respond to this initiative can help determine whether we retain the kind of European security order that expands peace and stability or whether we sow the seeds for further instability and conflict.

It is key to have clear goals before entering the kind of negotiation that is under discussion. Russia knows what it wants. When it comes to Moscow's recent proposal, we don't. Moscow sees the European security system as too NATO-centric and favorable to the United States. It believes the West exploited its weakness in the 1990s to impose an unfair set of rules. It wants out of commitments to democratic values and human rights that it signed in the early 1990s. It wants to emasculate the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and prevent it from holding Moscow-friendly autocracies to democratic norms. Russian leaders openly hope to divide the United States from Europe; to reduce the West's ability to protect Western values in the domestic affairs of Russia and its allies; to prevent further NATO enlargement; and to relegitimize Russia's sphere of influence over neighboring countries.

The gap between Western and Russian values and our readings of recent history is greater today than at any time since communism's collapse. First, the United States never tried to humiliate Russia in the 1990s. To the contrary, the United States and its allies then put more time, money and effort into assisting Russia than had been provided since allied support for the Soviet Union during World War II. As to NATO enlargement, thank God we enlarged to Central and Eastern Europe when we did. Imagine the instability Europe would face today if that hadn't happened. Russia's western border is arguably its only stable border. And since the first new members entered a decade ago, NATO has not conducted a single military exercise directed against Moscow. So let's not feel guilty about past policy or buy into legends that Russia is spinning about mythical Western threats.

But here lies the crux of the problem. What we view as a success story to be built on, Moscow views as a system tilted against it. What Moscow sees as Western interference reflects our commitment to the kind of values and norms we believe constitute the best foundation for peace and stability. Russia never fully opted into our efforts to create a new system of cooperative security that would abolish spheres of influence and expand security across Europe -- including for Russia. It wants to dismantle those rules and return to spheres of influence -- concepts we fear in part because we believe they helped cause so much war and destruction in the past.

It would nonetheless be a mistake to simply say nyet to Russia's initiative. The best way to deal with this revisionist Russia is to engage it. Obama has rightly emphasized a return to diplomacy. We want to encourage Russia to open itself to the outside world. But we need to be clear on what we seek and what we want to avoid; otherwise, we will find ourselves mired in a marathon negotiation simply playing defense as Moscow seeks to water down past commitments it now finds inconvenient. As one of the U.S. negotiators the last time we went through such an exercise with Moscow, I can testify to Russian tenacity -- and that was under Boris Yeltsin. Today's Russia will be tougher sledding.

Instead, we should try to turn this Russian initiative around and use it to strengthen our commitment to the principles of a democratic peace and to refute any return to archaic spheres of influence. We should seek to strengthen the independence of institutions such as the OSCE and their ability to monitor a country's behavior and to hold it to the norms it has accepted. We want the international community to have the ability to deal with conflicts earlier and more effectively to prevent them from exploding. This is one forum where an Obama administration can implement its commitment to reviving arms control. In short, let's play offense as opposed to just trying to hold the line against Moscow. Under Obama, the United States could again enjoy the popularity and multilateral credentials to lead such an effort.

Peace and security in Europe are critical with the United States facing national security challenges on so many other fronts. What appears to be another boring Euro-marathon negotiation is quite important. The norms we set in Europe often serve as a model for other areas. This will test the Obama administration's ability to reunite NATO and secure a common Western view on the role that democratic values and principles should play in a new Western strategy. It will also test our ability to resurrect U.S. leadership and soft power and bring the West back together -- or watch its further decline.

The writer, a deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, is executive director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Center and is responsible for strategic planning at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are his own.

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