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Rhetoric, Feelings, and Perceptions in Foreign Policy

Dan Drezner follows up on his earlier adviceto Romney. Here he discusses U.S.-Canadian relations, which are still better than they were under the previous administration:

As someone who has too much experience in making this kind of argument, however, I fear it won’t carry much weight in the American body politic. The reason is that [Roland] Paris’ basic point is that, “look, things were a lot worse a little while ago.” But that’s not a point that plays politically. When talking about bilateral relations in a political context, analysts and pundits care about the trendline more than the base level. The trendline suggests a mild cooling of a very warm and multidimensional relationship. So people will focus on the cooling.

Well, I suppose some people will focus on that. It still isn’t the case that relations with Canada and Russia are genuinely worse in absolute terms than they were during the Bush years, and I would also add that these relationships are not generally perceived to be worse than they were under Bush. If Drezner had said, “Relations with Canada and Russia are now perceived to be much cooler than they were recently,” he wouldn’t have provoked many protests. It seems to me that analysts and pundits care about the trendline or the base level depending on their policy preferences and partisan loyalties. Reflexive Obama critics have been convinced that the “reset” was a failure from the beginning (because they evidently don’t want improved relations with Russia), and so they pick up on any sign of tension or disagreement and declare, “The reset is dead.” Of course, they wouldn’t have to keep declaring it dead if it hadn’t already been moderately successful.

That brings me to the next point Drezner makes on why U.S.-Russian relations “feel” worse:

The arms control dimension of the “reset” took much longer to play out than anyone expected — including Obama administration officials. Everything eventually got signed and ratified, but Russia’s prickliness during the whole episode seemed to baffle American officials.

I followed the debate over New START fairly closely, and the main thing that defined it once the negotiations were over wasn’t Russian prickliness. The ratification process dragged on so long because Sen. Kyl, one of the treaty’s domestic opponents, was busy extorting negotiating with the administration over nuclear modernization funding and missile defense. It was assumed for a long time that ratification would fail without Kyl’s endorsement. That was why I assumed the treaty was dead at one point. As it turned out, Kyl refused to support the treaty, a number of relative moderate Republicans (many of whom were retiring) joined the pro-treaty camp anyway, and the treaty was ratified during the lame-duck session in late 2010. The treaty could have been ratified a lot earlier, and the failure to do so had nothing to do with Russia.

Drezner’s second point is a stronger one:

Russian rhetoric towards the United States continues to be quite hostile — and has become even more hostile since large-scale protests began in December of last year. Vladimir Putin isn’t fond of Michael McFaul, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama — so even cooperative moves are obfuscated by bellicose rhetoric.

No doubt that’s true, but both governments are responsible for letting rhetoric obscure the benefits of the improved relationship. The administration had to know that criticizing the conduct of the Duma elections was bound to elicit a sharp, negative response. Given Russian fears about the “color” revolutions in the 2000s, any hint of U.S. interference in Russian politics was likely to alarm Moscow. It’s not as if American officials have been the model of rhetorical restraint in their comments on Russian behavior at the U.N. Calling another government despicable in public is not the best way to cultivate closer ties. Obviously, none of our officials is all that fond of Putin, either, and there’s no real reason they should be. If we judge the relationship on the basis of the interpersonal warmth between our respective presidents, things don’t look very good, but we should remember that the bilateral relationship was far worse in the last decade in spite of the initially warm personal relationship between Bush and Putin. Bush’s early soul-seeing and bonhomie with Putin meant absolutely nothing when weighed against a series of decisions that angered Putin and convinced him that he couldn’t trust Americans.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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