The Russia Reset Button Doesn't Work

By Anne Applebaum
Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Press the reset button." Is there any phrase more enticing in the modern lexicon? We all know what it means: Press the reset button, watch your computer reboot, and presto! A nice, clean screen appears, and you start again from scratch.

Yes, it's a wonderful feeling, pressing that reset button. Unfortunately, it is also a deeply misleading, even vapid, metaphor for diplomatic relations. First deployed by the vice president -- Joe Biden told a security conference in February it was time to "press the reset button" on U.S. relations with Russia -- it was then repeated by the president, who spoke of the need to "reboot" the relationship as well. Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton even presented her counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with a red "reset button" to place on his desk. Despite an unfortunate mistranslation (the Russian word on the gift actually meant "overcharge," not "reset") they smiled and pressed the button together for the cameras.

It would be nice, of course, if U.S.-Russia relations really had been frozen as a result of irrelevant technical complications and could begin afresh. Unfortunately, while America may have a new president, Russia does not. And while America may want to make the past vanish -- as a nation, we've never been all that keen on foreigners' histories -- alas, the past cannot be changed. The profound differences in psychology, philosophy and policy that have been the central source of friction between the American and Russian governments for the past decade remain very much in place. Sooner or later, the Obama administration will have to grapple with them.

Anyone who doubts the truth of this need only look at remarks Lavrov himself made last weekend in Brussels, where he presented a vision of the world utterly unchanged by the events of Jan. 20. Speaking to past and present policymakers -- several of whom had helped dismember the Warsaw Pact and expand NATO in the 1990s -- he offered his own version of those developments, as well as of some more current. Among other things, he said, or implied, that the West lied to Russia; that NATO remains a threat to Russia; that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should replace NATO as the primary Western security organization; and that, by the way, Russia has plenty of potential clients for its gas in the Far East should its Western clients ever become problematic. As for Russia helping to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons -- an Obama administration suggestion -- Lavrov's only comment was that "there is no proof that Iran even has decided to make a nuclear bomb."

The transcript of his remarks, and those of other Russians attending the same conference, do not capture their snide tone, or the scorn with which they dismissed suggestions that Russia's neighbors might have wanted to join NATO because they were afraid of Russia. To return to the metaphor: If that is how the Russian government sounds after pressing the reset button, I'm not sure that the technical complications that caused the screen to freeze have gone away.

Nor is this true of Russia alone. Any president can legitimately call for a fresh start in his relations with the world, and none more so than this president, who replaces an unpopular predecessor. Sooner or later, however, Barack Obama will also have to make hard decisions about regimes that oppose U.S. policy for reasons deeper than dislike of George W. Bush. If Russia persists in its occupation of Georgia, do we accept it? If Russia uses its energy policy to blackmail Europe, do we go along with that, too?

The rest of the world is no different. It's a fine thing to open diplomatic relations with Iran or Syria -- I've always thought it extremely stupid that we have no embassy, and thus no resident intelligence officer, in Tehran -- as long as we remember that talking itself is not a solution: Sometimes more "dialogue" reveals deeper differences. It's also a fine thing for the president to issue greetings on the occasion of the Persian new year, but that might not dampen the popularity of Iran's nuclear program among both adherents and opponents of its current government. What then?

I do realize that these are early days. The traditional, deadly struggle between the State Department and the National Security Council for influence is only just getting underway, and the president has other things on his mind. But the gift of a "reset button," however translated, was a not a good beginning. If this administration thinks it can transform America's relationships with Russia or anyone else with the flick of a switch and a change of rhetoric, it is living in a virtual reality, not a real one.

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