Matthew Rojansky and Nikolas Gvosdev have characteristically sensible advice on U.S. dealings with Russia:
All of this is cause for concern that, no matter who wins in November, U.S.-Russia relations are drifting toward a more confrontational posture.
This must not happen. Productive relations between Washington and Moscow are important for advancing vital U.S. national interests. Russia disagrees with America’s assessment of the situation in Syria, and exerts its influence in its Eurasian neighborhood in ways that raise concerns for Washington.
But these differences should not conceal the progress that has been made on pressing regional security issues from the Middle East to East Asia. More than 100,000 NATO soldiers in Afghanistan rely for food, fuel and ammunition on a supply route that runs through Russia.
Granted, there are some hawks that seem to be more concerned about appearing to “give” Russia anything than they are worried what the U.S. might lose through a deterioration in relations. The Romney campaign seems to be allergic to the idea of diplomatic engagement, and they seem only too eager to confront Russia on disputed issues, all of which points to reduced cooperation of matters of common interest. For their part, the Obama administration has made a point of uselessly berating Russia over Syria, as if they didn’t know that this would cause Russia to harden its position. Compared to the interest the U.S. has in retaining Russian cooperation on Afghanistan, the disagreements over Syria or anything else are not that important.
Rojansky and Gvosdev recommend continuing to engage Russia in negotiations in order to secure U.S. interests, and they cite several previous administrations’ successes in negotiating with authoritarian regimes:
The Reagan approach succeeded in no small part because both sides recognized that each of these issues impacted the superpower relationship as a whole — and both sides were willing to put all issues on the table and negotiate a series of bargains that addressed them.
Subsequent U.S. presidents have shown that it is possible to foster a cooperative relationship with a less democratic state that can, in the end, help to advance a wide range of U.S. interests, including human rights.
The other day Romney adviser Richard Williamson tried to link his candidate’s position on Russia to Reagan, saying that Reagan had called the USSR the “evil empire” and later negotiated arms control with Gorbachev. The argument here is that one can make provocative statements about another state while still being willing to negotiate with them. That’s possible, but Williamson didn’t acknowledge that Reagan’s approach towards the USSR changed while he was in office, so much so that his negotiations with Gorbachev were derided as appeasement by members of his own party. Reagan’s description of the USSR was not diplomatic, but it had the virtue of being true. Romney’s description of Russia was neither. If Romney were to shift from his current Russophobic position at some point in his term, he would be attacked in the same way at home, and his early rhetoric will have done a lot to sow distrust between him and Putin.
Rojansky and Gvosdev also warn against rhetorical attacks on Russia:
Yet the more that rhetoric from Washington depicts Russia as the problem, the more it discredits an approach that could win concessions in the context of wider partnership.
They don’t dwell on this in their op-ed, but it can’t be stressed enough that most of the concessions achieved by the “reset” have been concessions that Russia has given to the U.S.