Mitt Romney is still harping on the 2009 missile defense decision:

I think it was an enormous mistake to give them that and what he got in return shows the extraordinary naiveté of a Presidency that does not understand the power of resolve and strength.

Let’s try a thought experiment. Suppose that Obama hadn’t cancelled the Bush-era missile defense plan, but had gone ahead with it as planned. This presumably would have proven American “resolve and strength” and put the Russians on notice that (horrible) Bush-era Russia policy was going to continue. Apparently, resolve and strength are proven by wasting money on something that doesn’t reliably work to maintain the fiction that the U.S. is being protected against an Iranian long-range missile threat that doesn’t exist, but never mind that. In fact, the very limited concession on the Bush-era missile defense plan was an essential gesture of goodwill that convinced Moscow that Obama was serious in trying to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia. If Romney had his way, that gesture would never have happened.

What would U.S.-Russian relations be like today if those missile defense installations were being built over the last few years? We can’t know for certain, but everything we know about Russian reactions to U.S. missile defense proposals tells us that relations with Russia would be much worse. Relations between Russia and the host countries, Poland and the Czech Republic, would also be significantly worse than they are. Russian support for U.N. sanctions on Iran might not have been forthcoming, and there is no chance that Russia would be paying any attention to Washington’s pleas for cooperation in Syria. All of the Russian behavior that Romney and other critics find unsatisfactory or unacceptable would still be happening, and on top of it Russia would be less inclined to cooperate with the U.S. on those issues where there are common interests.

Romney seems to assume that demonstrating “resolve and strength” impresses foreign governments and causes them to forget that they disagree with the U.S. on certain issues. Awed by our “resolve and strength,” they will hasten to be more cooperative. That’s the fantasy that Romney is indulging here. The reality is that foreign governments often perceive “resolve and strength” as insulting condescension and arrogance on our part, which makes them more defensive and suspicious of U.S. motives. After 2003, Bush repeatedly showed what his supporters considered to be “resolve and strength” in eastern Europe and post-Soviet space, and it was perceived with good reason as a U.S. effort to undermine and roll back Russian influence. That inevitably increased tensions between the U.S. and Russia that finally exploded in 2008.

As the U.S. response to the war in Georgia showed, much of the “resolve and strength” that the Bush administration projected was just so much hot air and bluster. There was not nearly as much to it as the Georgians hoped or the Russians feared. The 2008 war served as a grim reminder that provocative demonstrations of “resolve and strength” can create dangerous false expectations of U.S. support that are bound to be disappointed. When Romney refers to “resolve and strength,” he is actually endorsing policies of recklessness and aggression. Many hawks no longer seem to be able to tell the difference between resolve and recklessness, and that is reflected in Romney’s Russia policy and his foreign policy as a whole.

Update: For a far more sensible and balanced assessment of U.S.-Russian relations, I recommend this new article from Andrew Weiss.

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