Where Does Russia Belong?

Author:Sestanovich, Stephen

OVER THE PAST half decade, our debate about Russia-- and, for that matter, Russia's debate about us--has been episodic but always excitable. The issue or problem dominating the news at any given moment has been seen again and again as the test likely to determine the overall success of the post-Soviet transformation. Handled poorly, the problem of the day seemed likely to stunt Russia's evolution and poison our relations for years to come--or at least until the next make-or-break issue came along.

These would-be defining moments have included Russia's acute financial crisis in the summer of 1998 (remembered in one recent study as "the total collapse of the Russian economy"). It was followed by the Bank of New York money laundering scandal in the summer of 1999, which turned Russian corruption into headline news for weeks on end; by Moscow's grisly grudge match against the Chechens in the fall and winter of 1999-2000; and, this past summer, by Vladimir Putin's (slightly) less relentless campaign to bring independent television under government control.

Foreign policy confrontations have also generated predictions of lasting U.S.-Russia estrangement. (I know: I made some of them.) NATO enlargement was perhaps the first disagreement of this magnitude, but subsequent ones have produced even more dire predictions. Was it not obvious that relations between Washington and Moscow would never recover, and that the START II Treaty would never be ratified, after the war in Kosovo in 1999? When they did begin to improve, of course, it then became obvious that the real threat to good relations, the one from which they would never ever recover, was American deployment of a limited national missile defense.

These seeming watersheds have revealed genuine, and sometimes massive, problems in Russia's internal development and its relations with the West. If none has turned out to have the enduring significance widely predicted for it, their cumulative impact has nevertheless been very great. They have left behind diminished confidence about where Russia and U.S.-Russia relations are heading, and about what kind of relationship might be constructed in the future.

Measured against these lowered expectations, two recent stock-takings of U.S.-Russia relations--Zbigniew Brzezinski's article, "Living With Russia", in the Fall 2000 issue of The National Interest, and the report of a House Republican group chaired by Representative Chris Cox, entitled Russia's Road to Corruption--seem strikingly hopeful. Brzezinski counsels a policy of "patience and strategic persistence" and concentrates on the question of how over time Russia might be accepted into NATO and the European Union. As for the Cox report, it lambastes the Clinton administration's policy, but not (as might have been expected) for failing to see that Russia is our enemy. The bottom line of the critique is instead that U.S. policy has failed to tap the immense potential of Russian-American partnership.

Both of these evaluations start with the assumptions that Russia belongs in the West, and that--for all the difficulties that stand in our way--the West has a major interest in anchoring it there. In the very first sentence of his article, in which he endorses "the progressive inclusion of Russia in the expanding transatlantic community", Brzezinski takes as his own the goal that has guided policy toward Russia throughout the Clinton administration. He is not happy with the administration's means of pursuing this goal, labeling it a "one-sided courtship" that has failed to recognize Russia's lack of commitment to the same result and its continuing aim to regain control over the other former Soviet states. Yet the debate he joins is about how to promote Russia's integration into the West, not about the goal itself.

Integration is indeed the goal that encapsulates all others, and precisely because it can so easily be forgotten in the daily controversies over more sensational sounding policy problems, it is useful to look carefully at what has, and has not, been accomplished in the past decade, and at what we--and the Russians--can realistically aspire to in the next. For Brzezinski, the right U.S. policy will be one that offers Russia a place in Western institutions but makes full repudiation of empire "Russia's only viable option." His is a grand design, with no loose ends, and it has to answer the objections put to all such large conceptions. Is it a realistic assessment of the world we face, and does it correctly identify the problems we want to solve? Does it reflect what we have learned from other efforts to effect such a vast transformation? Does it help us understand the trade-offs that will be necessary if we have to settle for second-best?

Lousy Joiners

THE GOAL of integrating Russia into the West is not a new one. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, even before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush administration officials used the term "integration" to describe their hopes for the next, post-Cold War phase of East-West relations. Beyond the political, economic, military, even psychological dimensions of this process, Western policy paid special attention to the institutional side of it--to the "club memberships" that would give countries that had been kept out of the global mainstream a place in Western institutions. Their participation was expected to give them a stake in a more regularized, consensual, rules-based international order. The prestige of membership would confirm that they had not been permanently relegated to second-class status by decades of communism. For Russia it would show that defeat in the Cold War was not a setback but a new opportunity. Most important, the practical benefits of drawing steadily closer to Western institutions would create continuing incentives for governments and societies to reshape themselves--their economies, their military establishments, their international conduct, their way of thinking.

Although this acculturation strategy was fashioned above all for European states isolated by the Cold War, its basic logic--accept certain norms of behavior, receive a seat at the table--has been embraced by others as well. Both China and Turkey have lately made winning a major new "club membership"--in China's case, accession to the WTO; in Turkey's, to the EU--not only the centerpiece of their foreign policies but the principal measure of their international success.

Russia has also gained access to new groupings, but largely where entry has been offered unconditionally, as a political gesture or sign of respect. It was in this spirit that in 1991 Gorbachev was invited to join the members of the G-7 in London for part of their annual meeting. Although Yeltsin and, after him, Putin have gradually been granted something close to full membership, their role has still had largely symbolic significance. [1] Because the G-8 lacks a membership process, Russia gained entry without having to meet the demanding performance criteria of other institutions. The same was true of its accession to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the annual gathering of the leaders of the Pacific Rim states. Russia joined this particular club on the strength of an emphatic nominating speech by President Clinton at the 1997 meeting--and because other members were willing to go along. But because APEC is, like the G-8, less an organization than an annual meeting, it demands (and imparts) litt le in the way of organizational culture. [2]

Russia's largely decorative participation in the G-8 and elsewhere tells us little about its overall commitment to integration. Over the next several years, the process of integration will be defined less by political gestures and more by how well Russia's actions match the purposes of groupings--like NATO or the WTO-- that have higher aspirations, a more focused mission, and more rigid membership criteria. Here Russia's record as a joiner looks far poorer.

NATO is of course the most problematic case, since neither side has wanted to address the issue of membership as such; Russia was spurred to develop a new association with the Atlantic Alliance by the fact that others wanted to become members. Enlargement was Russia's most complicated foreign policy problem since the collapse of the USSR, and neither passive acquiescence nor ultra-ferocious opposition, much less retaliation, would have been an effective strategy for dealing with it. In the end, the 1997 NATO-Russia Final Act, signed on the eve of the alliance's invitations to three new members, proved a deft accommodation for both sides. It allowed Russia to avoid isolation without obliging it to withdraw its objections to enlargement; the same solution allowed NATO to create...

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