Diplomacy is not a science, but sometimes diplomatic theories can be tested. As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama hypothesized that relations with Russia could be much improved. The key was offering respect and demonstrating a commitment to engagement and compromise.
On Feb. 7, 2009, newly inaugurated Vice President Joe Biden addressed the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy. He said it was “time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.”
The following month, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button on which the Russian word for reset was written. Or so she thought: The correct term would have been “perezagruzka.” Instead, the word used was “peregruzka” — which means “overload” or “overcharged.” The Russian newspaper Kommersant ran on its front page a picture of the button and the caption: “Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.”
The results since then: continuing intimidation and censorship of the Russian press; aggression against former Soviet states; support for Iran’s nuclear weapons program; multiple murders in Chechnya which does not, for some reason, cause outrage in the Muslim world; cronyism, corruption and the oppression of political opponents including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once-prominent industrialist. Oct. 25 was the eighth anniversary of his incarceration.
And this month, Russia, along with China, vetoed what Ambassador Susan Rice called a “vastly watered-down” Security Council resolution criticizing the “violence, torture, and persecution” being inflicted on peaceful protesters by the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s most important Arab client.
Rice declared the United States “outraged” that Russia and China had “utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security.” She dismissed Russian and Chinese explanations for their position as “a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”
Yes, but that’s not the half of it. In Russia under Vladimir Putin, who has wielded power since December 1999, communism has been succeeded not by liberal democracy but by autocracy at home and what might be called neo-Sovietism abroad. Putin believes Russia has a right to again be a “great power” and that most Russians support that goal. This has been apparent for some time.
Much as we might wish otherwise, the ideal of an “international community” that embraces peace, freedom, human and civil rights, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law as universal values is a pipe dream.
The autocrats’ foreign policy priority: to make the world safe for themselves. Had Rice seen that, she would have expected the Russian and Chinese vetoes. If President Barack Obama had seen that, he would have recognized that Putin will agree to no resets of the relationship — no treaties on missile defense or nuclear arms limitations — that do not benefit Russia and disadvantage the United States.
The 21st century has ushered in an era of competition among divergent visions of how mankind should be governed. Liberal democracy is one. Autocracy is a second. The third is Islamism, which it would not inaccurate to describe as theocratic autocracy. In any case, more and more, the autocrats and Islamists have been finding common ground and making common cause against the liberal democracies.
Obama conducted a meaningful experiment. But now the data are in and they indicate that American policies require readjustment — they need to be reset — in line with what we should by now have learned.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.