America’s New Ally?

Wednesday, January 30, 2002
Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

U.S.-Russian relations offer one bright counter to the otherwise gloomy and complex set of issues facing makers of American foreign policy after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Russian president Vladimir Putin was one of the first foreign leaders to speak directly to President Bush, expressing his condolences and offering his support for the American response. He followed these rhetorical pledges with concrete policies, including military and humanitarian support to the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan and Russian acquiescence to American troops in Central Asia.

Mr. Bush and his foreign policy team responded positively to Mr. Putin’s new Western leanings by calling on Chechen separatist leaders to renounce their ties to Osama bin Laden.

September 11 has helped leaders in both countries realize that what unites the United States and Russia is much greater than what divides our two countries. A decade ago, a similar euphoria gripped Moscow and Washington, but that decade ended on a very sour note. But to avoid a repeat of inflated expectations unmet, Messrs. Bush and Putin must define realistic milestones along a roadmap for genuine and complete integration of Russia into the West.

Paradoxically, after September 11, the potential for a fundamentally new and improved relationship between Russia and the West has never been greater.

Within Russia, the greatest danger is unrealistic expectations about the pace of integration. Excited by being firmly on the side of the West in a major international conflict, some Russian policymakers now speak freely about Russia’s inevitable membership in Western clubs. Russian membership in the World Trade Organization is now discussed by many in Moscow as if it’s a done deal—a reward for assisting in the American war effort. Mr. Putin himself has floated the idea of Russia joining NATO, once NATO becomes a political organization. Others have speculated about Russian membership in the European Union as a near-term goal.

The principles behind these statements must be praised. Nonetheless, loose talk about joining these clubs without any reference to the criteria for joining is dangerous. NATO, for instance, is and must remain a military alliance that will not become a political organization to entice Russia to join. Even the most imaginative EU officials think it will be decades before Russia can qualify for membership. Some hope it never applies.

Within the United States, the greatest danger to a real strategic partnership with Russia is Russia’s domestic ills. Although Mr. Putin has made great strides in reforming the Russian economy, he has weakened Russia’s already fragile democratic institutions. He has emasculated the upper house of parliament, destroyed the most important outlets of the independent media, and demonstrated an indifference to the human rights of his own citizens by how he has conducted his military forces in Chechnya. Because the United States needs Russia now in our fight against terrorism and our war against Afghanistan, the Bush administration has devoted less attention to Russia’s antidemocratic drift.

Russia will only be a full and respected member of Europe and a trustworthy ally of the United States if it is a fully consolidated democracy. Throughout the twentieth century, the United States had to forge alliances with dictatorships and democracies. Even Stalin’s USSR was an American ally. Over time, however, the democracies on the list proved to be the more effective and reliable allies. A semidemocratic Russia will always be a quasi partner of the United States.

President Bush needs to work with his new friend in the Kremlin to recalibrate expectations within Russia about the benefits of cooperation with the West and elevate democratization in Russia as an American national security interest. Here’s how.

Russia must realize that it will only be a full and respected member of Europe and a trustworthy ally of the United States when it becomes a fully consolidated democracy.

On NATO, Mr. Bush should state clearly that the alliance is open to all European countries that qualify, including eventually a democratic Russia. Before Russia qualifies, however, more advanced democracies within Europe, including the Baltic states, must first become members. In between the status quo and full Russian membership in NATO (say in 2017, 100 years after the Bolshevik revolution), NATO could take several confidence-building measures with Russia: for instance, NATO could announce that member countries can purchase Russian-made weapons, undermining the claim within Russia that NATO expansion is corporate welfare for American arms makers. More boldly, NATO could establish a military alliance with Russia.

On the EU, the United States has no voice. But the Bush administration could improve bilateral trade relations with Russia by (1) pushing to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act, which ties Russia’s most favored nation status to Jewish emigration quotas, (2) lifting controls on high-tech exports to Russia, and (3) relaxing dumping laws that constrain steel exports to the United States. Mr. Bush also could initiate formal negotiations on a new bilateral trading agreement, which would set the stage for Russian accession into the WTO.

Finally, the Bush administration must put democracy on the agenda of U.S.-Russia relations and then follow through with real financial assistance for democratization. The Bush administration should increase American direct assistance to "pro-democracy" organizations within Russia, including Jewish advocacy groups, independent media outlets, and human rights activists.

In the long run, Russia’s ability to develop democracy and thereby be integrated into Western international institutions is much more important to American security than whether the current Russian government signs off on a few more missile defense tests. Paradoxically, after September 11, the potential for a fundamentally new and improved relationship between Russia and the West has never been greater. If we fail this time around, however, the next window of opportunity might not open for decades.