For a candidate whose foreign policy expertise was presumably sharpened by his two year mission in Europe, Mitt Romney’s pronunciations on the Russian Federation are especially surprising. In recent weeks, Romney’s views on Russia have come into focus and become more widely scrutinized, notably in recent articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post.
In one exceptional and already notorious case, the Republican candidate elect stated that Russia was the United States’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Although he would admit that states like Iran and North Korea pose a greater immediate threat to global stability, Romney appears to cling to the implicit assumption that a post-Soviet Russia still poses the gravest danger to American interests. In particular, he has cited Russian support for rogue nations at the United Nations; given Russia’s status as a permanent member of the Security Council, the Kremlin is able to shield regimes such as Bashar al-Assad’s despotic and cruel regime in Syria from international censure.
The logical fallacy behind Romney’s conception of Russia as America’s greatest enemy is apparent. Despite Romney’s determination that the anchor of the former Soviet Union remains a serious threat to American freedom, the reality suggests otherwise. Admittedly, Russia today is mistrustful and suspicious of American motives, particularly regarding the construction of a missile shield in Central and Eastern Europe. At home, Russia is far from a free country; “managed democracy,” a term too often used by Western media outlets, has served as a byword for Vladimir Putin’s “United Russia” party’s domination of the political sphere for more than a decade.
But Russia hardly qualifies as the U.S.’s most pressing adversary. Rather, both the modern Russian Federation and the United States face similar challenges: both struggle, though in different ways, with the threat of Islamic-inspired fundamentalist terrorism. While the United States may face the impending question of how to deal with rising Chinese economic power, Russia has already been forced to accept economic second-power status. Unlike the U.S., Russia faces acute immediate challenges: she must confront an imminent demographic crisis arguably worse than anything faced by the least fecund Western European countries. While Russian GDP growth had been phenomenal under the first few years of Putin’s administration, the long-term outlook for an extractive-resource and, specifically, petro-state economy seems uncertain.
Both Russia and the United States face similar challenges, albeit to different extremes, of how to reduce large nuclear arsenals, push back terrorism, and address long-term competitiveness issues. In the post-Soviet era, the two countries have been on remarkably good terms considering their Cold War relations. With that in mind, the Republicans’ apparent desire to return to imminent nuclear-war rivalry is quite baffling.
Mr. Romney would do well to avoid characterizing Russia as evil. His own understanding of Russian relations can in part be informed or explained by the suggestion that he views foreign policy as a “zero sum" game. Such an outlook bears a depressing resemblance to former president George W. Bush’s pronouncement to the effect of “you are either with us or against us.” Good or evil, blessed or satanic; these are the kinds of counterproductive, black and white judgments that Barack Obama, however successful or not he has been at foreign policy, has at least avoided in his administration. It would be a shame to revert to this good-evil divide.
Instead, Romney and the American public would do well to recognize who is working to deliver reform and democracy in Russia and who is hindering this effort. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index regularly lists the world’s largest country as among the most corrupt. In many cases, large-scale corruption has also turned Russia into a violent and lawless state. Witness the now well-known death of Moscow lawyer Sergei L. Magnitsky and the U.S. Congress’ subsequent effort to pass the “Magnistsky Act” aimed at targeting corrupt bureaucrats and security officials thought to be behind Magnitsky’s death after he exposed a massive fraud. Romney and the Republican Party would do well to draw the distinction between an ill-informed view of a “Russia” driven by ulterior motives and the reality: the desire of Russians to secure a more ethical and democratic future for their country.
Russia is not the U.S.’s best friend, but neither should the two states be anything approaching real enemies. Romney’s conception of Russia is indeed confusing to today’s generation of young Americans who have grown up in a post-Cold War era, and who in many cases know—or are among—the millions of former U.S.S.R. immigrants who have moved to the United States.
Russia has changed and modernized considerably since the fall of the Soviet Union. Any visitor to today’s Moscow would surely balk at the idea that the capital represents Washington D.C.’s top adversary. Romney’s own misguided stance re-emphasizes the need to interact with contemporary powers through diplomacy and understanding rather than jingoistic and uninformed nationalism.