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Resetting the Reset with Mitt Romney

In Joe Raimondi on January 18, 2012 at 10:31 am

Suppose Mitt Romney wins the Republican presidential nomination and competes against Barack Obama later this year in the general election. If he were to win the general election, would his administration’s relationship and engagement with Russia be radically different than that pursued under the Obama administration? While most analysis of Romney’s foreign policy approach understandably deals with it in more general terms (see James Joyner or various blog posts by Dan Drezner), both Josh Kucera and Mark Adomanis have detailed the parts of Romney’s foreign policy white paper that address Russia. The word “banal” pops up in both pieces. Maybe his ideas about foreign policy (per the white paper) are “banal.” If so, is this more-or-less a consequence of Romney’s need to at least superficially defer to mainstream Republican foreign policy tropes, if only for campaign purposes?

To what extent should we view his white paper as an indicator of what foreign policy initiatives under President Romney would look like? There are at least two things to keep in mind. First, talk is cheap for presidential candidates. It’s advisable to present ideas, initiatives, and strategies in a succinct and decisive manner, and downplay or simply ignore complicating factors or exigencies that are incompatible with said strategies. Candidates present their foreign policy approach in a simplified way because doing so distills issues into an accessible form for likely voters. Or, as Mario Cuomo once said, “You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Romney’s white paper is primarily a campaign document and should be viewed as such.

Second, Romney is aware of his audience. He may feel compelled to evoke a tough position vis-a-vis Russia on nuclear disarmament, missile defense, and Russian “aggressive or expansionist behavior” because he’s the presumptive candidate of the party that over the past three decades has (pretty successfully) staked a claim to being more capable on national security and defense issues. It makes sense for Romney to echo boilerplate (hawkish) Republican positions about Russia of late (“Russia is a destabilizing force on the world stage. It needs to be tempered.”), though in a way that is moderated (or “banal”) enough to attract independents and moderates.

Mitt Romney doesn’t think much of the Obama administration’s policy, critiquing it by means of a promise to “reset the reset.” The logic is that between (perceived) acquiescence on the New START Treaty and the pushed-aside Bush-era plan for a Central European missile defense system, Obama has fecklessly adopted a conciliatory and asymmetric approach to Russia – characterized in his white paper as one where “we give, Russia gets” – to the detriment of U.S. security interests. His line of attack on Obama’s reset policy is consistent – in a more subtle manner – with a recurring Romney campaign theme: Obama as an apologist for the U.S. To that end, it makes sense, but are his arguments and assertions well-founded or merely reactionary?

In particular, the notion that “the Obama administration has failed to move Russia towards a more beneficial working relationship with the United States and our allies” is not really accurate, considering the nadir of the U.S.-Russia relationship over the past decade was mid-late 2008 during the second Bush administration (specifically the buildup and aftermath of the Russo-Georgian War), and occurred as a consequence of Bush’s insistence on a missile defense system in Central Europe (the Czech Republic and Poland, specifically) as well as Putin’s suspicion towards NATO enlargement, and the perceived security threat it (still) represents to Russia. If only by default, by the end of 2008 the only direction in which U.S.-Russia relations could conceivably move was up. Since then, the Obama administration’s disavowing of the missile defense sites in Central Europe as well as negotiating the New START Treaty in 2010 are significant: the former as an overture that the Obama administration was serious about dealing with an Iranian security threat in a way that wasn’t threatening to Moscow, and the latter as an avenue for continued cooperation on nuclear disarmament.

Should Romney’s assertions about “reverting” to the European missile defense system be taken seriously? Probably not, one reason being NATO reliance on the NDN (over the next two years at least) and the idea that the former is “linked” to the latter. Beyond that, it’s likely that Romney’s blustering with regards to both Russia and China, the other “nation with rising ambitions,” is illustrative more of a calculated foreign policy position for domestic consumption during an election season rather than a true indication of policy.

In the alternative scenario, Barack Obama is elected to a second term. What exactly is the “next phase” of the reset policy, and what are some avenues for closer engagement and cooperation? At the recent swearing-in ceremony, Michael McFaul, the new American ambassador to Russia, described this “next phase” as a “more complex” one, “when the alignment of our interests and values is never easy.” In terms of security interests, a primary avenue for cooperation is through missile defense. According to Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, there is optimism that the “strategic stability” talks, scheduled over the next eight months, could either result in a deal or at least move the two sides much closer together. As far as NATO enlargement, the unveiling of the reset policy back in 2009 was accompanied by talk that “countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO,” but overall the issue has been downplayed over the past three years, and has become even more marginalized in the context of recent Department of Defense spending cuts and reorientation towards the Asia-Pacific region. More important for the next five years is Russia’s recent accession to the WTO and the potential commercial benefits to be gained by the repeal of the outdated Jackson-Vanik Amendment. McFaul’s reference to aligning values is a bit ambiguous, but if “aligning values” entails the U.S. lecturing Russia on human rights and political corruption issues, it’s likely that such an effort will be met with little more than derision.

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