Putin and the Presidency

I want a president who is as formidable statesman as Vladimir Putin. Bush is, despite his admirable efforts in Iraq since the ’06 election, feckless by comparison. Putin is playing a different game — how does each move ricochet? How will each move shape the Europe of the 2020s or the 2030s?

On foreign policy, I sometimes think Andrew and I live in parallel universes. Unlike Andrew and Matt, I was very impressed by the latest WSJ op-ed from Lieberman and Graham. Here is Andrew’s characterization of the argument:

What they are laying out in very clear terms is the agenda of a McCain presidency. The agenda is war and the threat of war — including what would be an end to cooperation with Russia on securing loose nuclear materials and sharing terror intelligence, in favor of a new cold war in defense of … Moldova and Azerbaijan. I’m sure McCain would like to have his Russian cooperation, while demonizing and attacking them on the world stage, but in the actual world, he cannot.

The thing is, cooperation and forthright disagreement can coexist. Reuel Marc Gerecht always argues that Arab publics want democracy for their own reasons, not ours. Similarly, Russia is willing to cooperate on some issues that directly impact their own security interests. That won’t change when we call them on behaving like a spoiler state. The Russian-Iranian relationship has existed for a long time. Will rolling over for Russia over Georgia make them less inclined to act on behalf of Iran? The idea is a little odd. We forget that American magnanimity doesn’t actually heal all wounds or melt away all potential conflicts. (I worry that Obama and Biden don’t fully get this.) As for nonproliferation, a strong Russian state is simply less likely by nature to be a sieve for loose nukes.

And here is Matt’s:

Given that we have no way of forcibly dislodging Russia from Georgia, a person genuinely concerned with Georgia’s interests might see a bargaining opportunity. Here we have a missile defense program that terrifies the Russians, yet does us no good against the rogue states that are nominally its target. A deal could be struck here. A deal that would not only help secure our objectives in Georgia but would also allow the US-Russian bilateral relationship to refocus on vital issues of terrorism and nuclear proliferation rather than ethnic disputes in a remote mountain region.

Frankly, I think this reflects different time horizons. Matt and Andrew are both receptive to the attractive notion of a great power concert — let the Russians have their sphere of influence, and let’s play ball on the big boy issues. Which makes sense in theory.

But Russia isn’t just miffed about being humiliated. They’re not looking for a pat on the head. Right now, the Russian government aims to drive wedges between the Western allies — by exploiting Europe’s reliance on Russian energy, and particularly German reliance; by using its intelligence networks and its political weight in Bulgaria to make deeper defense cooperation within NATO difficult if not impossible; and by using a sophisticated information strategy to mislead Western publics about its activities in its so-called Near Abroad. Pro-Western forces in Ukraine are divided, just as the status of Crimea is becoming a live issue, one on which the Russians are making alarming noises. The Poles increasingly feel as though they can’t rely on Germany to protect their security interests. This is recipe for strategic rivalry and spiraling tensions. A more accommodating posture toward Russian will most likely make matters worse.

This doesn’t mean we should seek confrontation. It means that we should deepen our partnerships in the region, whether it’s on developing energy alternatives or in improving the deterrent capabilities of the region’s militaries. That is the agenda Lieberman and Graham are laying out — one that is as long-term as Putin’s. It’s not an agenda of war and the threat of war, but rather one that makes armed conflict less likely.