Neither U.S. nor Russia needs a new Cold War
By NICOLAI N. PETRO
As President Bush prepares for the G8 summit in St. Petersburg opening Tuesday, he is being pushed by many in his party to end the strategic partnership that the United States has enjoyed with Russia for the past 15 years, and replace it with a new, softer Cold War.
The reason, ostensibly, is the "values gap" that has emerged between Russia and the West. As Vice President Cheney put it last month, in Vilnius, Lithuania, the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin has restricted the rights of her people, used intimidation and blackmail against her neighbors, and interfered with democratic movements.
While Cheney's was the leading voice at this conference, an even more candid picture of this "soft-war" strategy was provided by Bruce P. Jackson, a former U.S. Defense Department official who worked with Cheney in the late 1980s. Jackson said, "There's nothing wrong with a battle of ideas. It's a soft-power competition. It's desirable."
Our new competition should involve contrasting our institutions with theirs, free markets with state monopolies, and "our democracy" with their "managed democracy." The one thing to avoid, said Jackson, is militarized competition.
To defuse such possible criticism, Bush administration spokesmen have been quick to assure the public that no matter how hostile the rhetoric, there can never again be another Cold War. The reasons are simple: First, there is no longer any global conflict over ideology. Second, both countries share an interest in fighting terrorism. And third, both have much to gain from trading vital energy resources needed by the West for investment in Russia.
What their cheery assessments fail to point out, however, is that the advocates of a new Cold War do not believe they risk anything in defining Russia as an enemy of Western values. The reason is that Russia needs Western investment and technological know-how far more than the West needs Russian natural resources. The new Cold War would thus be a war of choice, just like the war in Iraq.
But why choose to engage in this conflict now? Beyond advancing the general cause of democracy abroad, Russia is seen as having no choice but to accommodate American interests, because it would be too costly for it to do otherwise. Its wealth of energy resources makes Russia more, not less, dependent on Western consumers, since it will be several years before Russia can build alternative pipeline routes to China. That makes this an opportune moment to strike a blow for Western democracy and American interests -- before Russia is strong enough to establish her own priorities.
Just as in Iraq (where Cheney also played a prominent role in articulating the U.S. administration's case for war), the prescriptions laid out in Vilnius are deceptively simple. In fact, they are based on: selective information about the state of Russian democracy; demonizing President Putin as "unfairly and improperly" restricting his people's rights; and touting as alternatives to him unspecified democratic opponents (such as future versions of Ahmed Chalabi, whom the Bush administration initially pushed forward as a leader for Iraq), who today have trouble garnering even 5 percent of the popular vote.
Russia's response, however, is not so predictable. So far, Putin has reacted with a moderation that belies all Cheney's caricatures of Russia. Another notable difference is that not one of America's Western European allies is eager to embark on a new anti-Russian crusade. In fact, they have been expanding commercial and political ties at the same time that Cheney is telling them not to.
At the recent European Union-Russia summit, E.U. Foreign Minister Javier Solana responded to questions on Russia's backsliding on democracy by stressing the "shared values and shared interests" that bind the European Union and Russia. Today, he said, it is hard to imagine the European Union without close ties to Russia. Any effort by the Bush administration to ostracize Russia would thus dramatically widen the rift that emerged over the war in Iraq between the United States and her former allies.
Paradoxically, in this instance it is Russia that can save the United States from its own worst impulses. While there are many in Russia who would like to respond tit-for-tat to the Bush administration's rhetoric, Putin's measured, statesmanlike response to Cheney's taunts is the best hope that the current chill will not slide into outright hostility.
I hope that the Russian government's sense of historical responsibility is enough to see both countries through this difficult period -- at least until a new U.S. administration can respond to Russia's desire for a new relationship with the West in a way that puts the Cold War where it belongs: in the dustbin of history.
Nicolai N. Petro, who teaches political science at the University of Rhode Island, was the State Department's special assistant for policy on the Soviet Union under George H.W. Bush. His latest book is "Crafting Democracy." Distributed by Scripps Howard.