As far as I know, it is completely unprecedented that a group of five distinguished former diplomats of any nationality would meet under the auspices of a highly respected think tank in Washington to express unanimous criticism of United States policy toward another major world power --- in this case, Russia. The event reported below is made even more significant by the fact that the group in question consisted of three former American ambassadors to Moscow and two former Russian ambassadors to Washington. Their action conveys a powerful message to the Bush administration --- namely, that the United States has again pursued a policy that has violated a cardinal rule of the diplomatic profession: never publicly support a policy objective that the United States has neither the means nor the will to achieve, and which, when not successfully accomplished, will undermine the credibility not just of the U.S., but of any allies who have been so unwise as to associate themselves with the U.S. in that undertaking.
Former secretary of state James Baker articulated virtually the same principle with characteristic clarity and strength last week at a forum at George Washington University. (I am paraphrasing his views here). Baker said that it was correct and necessary for the United States to stand firmly against Russia when it is creating trouble unnecessarily and arbitrarily, but that this must only be done when the issue is absolutely clear, and when the rest of the international community is united behind America in its determination to resist an unacceptable Russian initiative. This principle obviously makes sense only when it is clearly within our means to prevail, and when we have the will and the power to enforce our public stand. Likewise, that posture makes sense (Baker wisely emphasized) only if America is also prepared to engage in a constant and creative search for issues and situations where U.S. and Russian interests are identical or compatible, and to energetically pursue every reasonable opportunity to cooperate with Russia in the achievement of positive results in those cases. (Examples: The environment, international terrorism, transnational criminal enterprise, nuclear non-proliferation and arms reduction, disease control, etc.)
The Bush administration has consistently failed to understand and build on the principle that maintaining a balanced and constructive relationship with another major international power (one that can be either a rival or a potentially valuable partner --- or both) is by definition always a two-way street. This is well illustrated in the story below --- another sad case of the inability of the crowd in Washington today to "get it".
Russia backs off from cooperating with U.S. on Iran
By Steven Lee Myers
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Russia has announced that it will not participate in a meeting with the United States this week to discuss Iran's nuclear program, the most significant indication yet of how Russia's war with Georgia has spoiled relations regarding other security issues.
Moscow's move apparently scuttled the meeting. The Foreign Ministry issued a biting statement Tuesday that criticized remarks last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who declared that Russia had taken "a dark turn" away from democracy and respect for international norms.
"We would very much like Washington, in the end, to make up its mind what kind of relations they want with Moscow," a ministry spokesman, Andrei Nesterenko, said in the statement. "If they want to punish Russia, that is one thing. If they agree that we have common interests that need to be jointly advanced, then that's another."
Sean McCormack, the State Department spokesman, said in a briefing Tuesday that the decision to cancel the meeting was mutual and not a game of tit for tat with the Russians. "We agree with them the time is not right to have a meeting at the ministerial level," he said.
Russia and the United States, with China, Britain, France and Germany, had been scheduled to meet Thursday in New York to discuss additional punitive actions against Iran after a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency criticized Tehran's failure to answer questions about its nuclear activities.
Russian officials had already made clear that they did not support new sanctions beyond three rounds already approved by the United Nations Security Council.
Rice was scheduled to meet her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, on Wednesday on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
A senior administration official acknowledged that relations with Russia were in "a very rocky period" that tested the administration's efforts to continue to cooperate on security issues even as President George W. Bush and his aides strongly criticized Russian actions after the brief war with Georgia.
"They definitely don't share the same sense of urgency that we and some of our European partners have," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.
A former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Jack Matlock, and other former U.S. envoys have decried the poor state of ties with Russia and said NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine was not in Washington's or the alliance's interest, Reuters reported from Washington.
At a gathering of five former U.S. and Russian ambassadors, Matlock questioned a central tenet of Bush administration policy: Its firm support for the NATO membership bids of both nations.
Some European countries have doubts about the policy, and some U.S. analysts have blamed it for helping provoke the brief war last month between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
Since Russian troops crushed Georgian forces in that conflict, U.S. ties with Moscow have plummeted.
"To simply say every country should have the right to apply to any alliance it wants, that's true," Matlock said at the forum in Washington, which was sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But an alliance and its members should also have the right to determine whether it's in their interests to take in a member."
"I'm saying it's not in the United States' interests, and it's not in NATO's interests," said Matlock, who was ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991 under President George H.W. Bush and his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.
Georgia had not settled territorial disputes with its neighbors and appeared to want to use the NATO military alliance to help resolve them, Matlock said of its conflict with Russia.
As for Ukraine, which like Georgia is a former Soviet republic, most of its population opposed membership and joining NATO would risk splitting the country, Matlock said.
He added that genuine strategic cooperation with Moscow, which vehemently opposes NATO membership for the two former Soviet republics, would be nearly impossible "as long as we're pushing this."
Rice met President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia in New York on Tuesday on the sidelines of the General Assembly. A day earlier, she met Ukraine's foreign minister and pledged Washington's firm support for Ukraine's bid to join NATO.
But in Washington, Matlock and James Collins and Arthur Hartman, two other former U.S. envoys to Moscow, pointed to the consequences of ignoring Moscow's attitude on NATO expansion.
They shared a platform with two former Soviet ambassadors to Washington, Alexander Bessmertnykh and Yuri Dubrynin, who denounced the NATO expansion policy as a major irritant in relations.
"I personally believe that we need to go slow," Collins said, who added: "If we don't, we will find that this is not something that stabilizes but rather divides."
Hartman said that when the Soviet Union was collapsing in the early 1990s, it was a "great failure" that the West did not think creatively about a structure to replace NATO, because the main purpose of its existence, to defend against a Soviet threat, no longer existed.
Ukrainian is undeterred
President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine vowed Wednesday that his country would be undeterred in its bid to join NATO despite Moscow's opposition, Reuters reported from the United Nations.
Yushchenko reaffirmed his pro-Western government's NATO aspirations in a speech to the United Nations just weeks after the Russian military incursion in Georgia sparked international condemnation and stirred concerns in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
"Ukraine rejects pressure of any kind regarding ways to ensure its own security and to determine membership in collective security structures," he said at the annual General Assembly of world leaders. "Such attempts of infringement are short-sighted and counterproductive."