Russia, by contrast, has ambitions which directly counter our own in the area that has traditionally been the focus of American foreign policy: Europe.
Broadly speaking, U.S. policy in Europe aims for a Europe that is “united, whole, and free.” On the whole, Russia cannot do much about that and doesn’t try, and it isn’t interested in rolling back the eastward expansion of the European Union. On the contrary, Russia is increasingly interested in integrating more into Europe’s economy than it already is. Russian ambitions, such as they are, include keeping NATO from additional eastward expansion, maintaining its influence in former Soviet space (which is related to blocking new NATO expansion), and using its energy resources to wield clout in Europe. Their ambitions are “directly counter our own” to the extent that the U.S. insists on expanding an obsolete Cold War-era military alliance and building ballistic missile defense systems in Europe. The former is pointless and cannot possibly advance American or European security, and the latter is a manageable dispute.
Europe has traditionally been the focus of American foreign policy, especially since WWII, because it was where the world’s great powers were located, it was where the largest international conflicts of the 20th century that eventually involved the U.S. began, and it was where most of the states most closely aligned with U.S. and USSR confronted one another during the Cold War. The conditions that made Europe the focus of U.S. foreign policy have largely vanished with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The antagonism between the U.S. and Russia that Romney would like to intensify is a relic of the Cold War, and the most significant irritants in the relationship are those Cold War-era policies that have continued during the last twenty years. It’s true that many of Russia’s former satellites and some former Soviet republics see Russia as a threat, but it is equally true that their relations with Russia have tended to be better when the U.S. and Russia are on good terms. In other words, the states that most perceive Russia as a threat feel more threatened when U.S.-Russian relations worsen, and Romney has pledged to undo the recent improvement in relations if he wins the election.
Romney’s description of Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe” is wrong on the merits. As James acknowledges, this is an “outmoded” and “largely meaningless” concept at this point. It is telling that James admits this in what is supposed to be a defense of Romney, when this is what Romney’s critics have been saying. What is no less troubling is that Romney’s remark reflects a needlessly hostile attitude towards Russia. If Romney were in a position to implement his Russia policy, it would very likely make U.S. allies and would-be clients less secure while simultaneously jeopardizing those U.S. interests that might be served by cooperating with Russia.
Update: Scott Clement notes that the American public doesn’t perceive Russia as Romney does:
Today, there’s virtually no consensus any more that Russia is the bad guy. This year, for instance, a scant 2 percent picked Russia as America’s arch-nemesis. Yes, there’s a resistance against being too trustful — fewer than one in five have called Russia an “ally” at any point in time — but calling Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe” makes Romney seem anachronistic, if not stuck in the Cold War.
The numbers Clement cites suggest that Romney’s Russophobia is unlikely to gain much traction with voters.