Will relations with Russia be a campaign issue in America?

It isn’t hard to understand why America’s presidential hopefuls haven’t picked up on anti-Russian prompting from analysts. The Bush administration has disarmed its opponents. It’s been second to none in criticizing the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policies.

Labor Day, September 3, marked the start of official campaigning for the American elections of 2008. Unofficial campaigning – especially for the White House – has been under way for over a year already.

Campaigning started against the backdrop of a broad public debate on a broad range of issues. The top foreign policy issues concerned the war in Iraq. Discussion also covered national security (external and internal), the future of military alliances (primarily NATO), and fighting terrorism.

The topic of Russia and Russian-American relations was discussed for quite some time. There are objective reasons for that: differences between Moscow and Washington on a number of important international issues (the war in Iraq, Kosovo, nuclear non-proliferation). The Russia debates are also due to raging emotions within the American political elite about “the Kremlin’s retreat from democracy,” or even a return to confrontation with the USA in a number of areas.

One example of the Russia issue being “injected” into the campaign battle involved a report on Russian-US relations, written by a group of experts headed by former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott (Democrat) and former congressman Geoffrey Kemp (Republican). The report is written in an alarmist spirit, and mostly stresses the discovery of “authoritarian trends” in Russia and criticism of Russia’s policies, especially in the former Soviet Union. It also states that Russia’s participation in the G8 is inconsistent with that organization’s goals – although it does not propose expelling Russia. The report’s key advice for the incumbent president and the next president is this: abandon strategic partnership with Moscow, in favor of cooperation in specific areas related to Washington’s interests.

The group of experts was officially bipartisan, but Democrat foreign policy experts were more prominent, and the report they wrote seems like a list of prompts for anyone who wants to criticize the White House’s approach to Russia.

Documents like this report, along with the tone of statements about Moscow by certain prominent politicians (such as Senator John McCain, now a Republican presidential hopeful, who called for Russia’s expulsion from the G8), led to expectations that calls for pressure on Moscow would develop further during the election campaign.

This has not happened as yet. What’s more, we now have reason to expect that the election campaign won’t be full of anti-Russian rhetoric after all. This becomes apparent if we look at speeches by Democrat and Republican presidential contenders. One example of such an analysis can be found at the website of the Council on Foreign Relations (New York). It presents a list of 18 key topics addressed in the speeches of potential candidates. At the top of the list os tje socio-economic topic, followed by many other domestic political and social issues.

The war in Iraq stands out among foreign policy topics. A look at the top three contenders for each party shows that Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, and John Edwards use similar expressions in calling for the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq; Republicans Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and John McCain call for further efforts to achieve victory.

This is accompanied by proposals for enhancing US national security. The Democrats seem to use them to compensate for their calls for withdrawal from Iraq, while the Republicans use them to reinforce their calls for achieving victory.

The list of other priorities includes WMD non-proliferation (Iran, North Korea), hot-spots (Kosovo, Darfur, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), and policy on China.

The big surprise about this list is the absence of Russia and Russian-American relations. Neither is Russia mentioned on the websites of any of the abovementioned politicians. As if there were no arguments between Moscow and Washington, between the Kremlin and the White House, about a whole series of international and bilateral issues. As if there was no discussion of these topics in American and Russian political circles, or the media. Those lingering questions like “Where is Russia heading?” and “Who dropped the ball with Russian democracy?” have been forgotten, remaining unanswered.

It isn’t hard to understand why the presidential hopefuls haven’t picked up on anti-Russian prompting from analysts. First of all, the Bush administration has disarmed its opponents. It’s been second to none in criticizing the Kremlin’s domestic and foreign policies: condemning the Kremlin for “backsliding on democracy,” accusing it of regarding the former Soviet Union as its influence zone. US Vice President Dick Cheney was the first to accuse Moscow of using energy blackmail against Europe.

President Bush can’t be accused of being soft on Russia either. Despite Russia’s protests, he is persisting with plans to deploy missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic; if he engages in dialogue with Russia on this topic, it’s only for the purpose of reducing Russia’s protests. And he still hasn’t kept a promise that’s been made over twenty times: repealing the Jackson-Vanik amendment.

Despite all this, Bush has managed to maintain good personal relations with Putin. Washington-Moscow dialogue has led to some progress in a few important ares: the UN Security Council has passed two resolutions on Iran, and is working on a third; Russia has participated in reaching an agreement to stop North Korea’s nuclear program.

The realities of the international situation don’t provide fertile soil for harsh verbal attacks on Russia. This is becoming increasingly apparent to the leading contenders for the US presidency. But could criticism of Russia increase later on in the presidential race? The possibility can’t be ruled out entirely; after all, even Bush reproached Clinton, back in 2000, for getting too friendly with Moscow.

All the same, it seems that the leading presidential contenders aren’t attracted by any rhetorical extremes. In a recent foreign policy speech, Hillary Clinton argued that the USA should seek “a balance between idealism and realism.” By idealism, she means promoting democratic values; by realism, she means negotiations. Barak Obama has also spoken in favor of “true realism” in foreign policy; he said that strong countries and strong presidents meet and negotiate with their opponents.

It’s worth noting that the Republican favorite, Rudy Giuliani, has spoken out in favor of talks with Russia and China. In an extensive article published in “Foreign Affairs” (obviously written with some help from the Council on Foreign Relations), the former mayor of New York proposes negotiating and cooperating with Russia on resolving problems in foreign relations, while not abandoning criticism on human rights issues.

“US relations with China and Russia will remain complex for the foreseeable future. Americans have no wish to return to the tensions of the Cold War or to launch a new one,” Giuliani wrote. “We must seek common ground without turning a blind eye to our differences with these two countries. Like America, they have a fundamental stake in the health of the international system.”

In foreign relations theory, this kind of approach – recognizing the need for cooperation with other countries, even as ideological and other differences persist – is called Realpolitik. Realpolitik has managed to prevail in US policy at some periods in the past, and these have been relatively productive periods in US relations with the outside world.