Harvard professor and author Joseph Nye, who coined the idea of "smart power"
in international relations, visualizes United States President Barack Obama as
a consummate politician and statesman. Nye wrote recently that Obama is gifted
with the right "contextual intelligence" to combine soft power with hard power
in variable mixes to suit different situations to produce successful
"Contextual intelligence," Nye elaborated, "is the intuitive diagnostic skill
that helps a leader align tactics with objectives to produce smart strategies
in different situations." From all indications, Obama's "contextual
intelligence" was trained on the Kremlin last week. The Russians are thrilled.
They don't know much about "smart power" and habitually trust
"hard power", but they are au fait with tactics and strategy. The Kremlin is
warming to Obama. But detractors ranging from hardliners in the US to "New
Europeans" and Iranians have cause to worry. They dread that if Obama pursues
this obscure Marxist-Leninist track to its logical conclusion, he and the
Kremlin leaders might enter into trade-offs and it could be at their expense.
A dalliance doubtless began in Germany when US Vice President Joseph Biden said
while addressing the annual Munich conference on February 7 that it was "time
to press the reset button" and revisit the several areas where the US and
Russia could work together. To be sure, there were elements in Biden's speech
that were forceful, such as when he said the US "will not recognize any nation
having a sphere of influence" or when he reasserted US support for Georgia and
Ukraine's bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
But, on the whole, Biden signaled Obama's readiness to take a different tone in
dealing with Russia. Moscow promptly embraced the overture. "What we've heard
lately from representatives of the new US administration with regard to the
future of Russian-American relations has received a positive reaction in the
Kremlin," a Russian spokesperson said, adding, "Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev is ready for thorough and joint work on the entire agenda of bilateral
By the time the Kremlin spokesperson spoke, US officials were already heading
for Moscow. The first to arrive was US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Patrick Moon. His mission was to try to negotiate a deal with Moscow to open
new supply routes across Russian territory for NATO forces in Afghanistan. A
pleasant surprise awaited Moon - the Russians readily agreed. By Friday,
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was explaining, "We confirmed without delay that
we are ready to do this ... and this transit will go ahead within the next few
This agreement is extremely important for the US. It virtually creates a joint
Russian-American logistics hub for NATO forces in Afghanistan. A Russian
regional expert compared the cooperation with land-lease supplies during World
War II. The agreement envisages that the US will reach its container cargoes
for Afghanistan at the Baltic port of Riga, Latvia. From there, the containers
will be transshipped by rail across Russia and Kazakhstan and further either
via Uzbekistan or via Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Moscow is committed to
processing each American transit request within 24 hours.
Meanwhile, the arrival of US Under Secretary of State William Burns (a former
ambassador to Russia) in Moscow on Wednesday significantly enhanced the nascent
contacts. His mission aimed at matching the two respective countries'
wish-lists for better relations so as to transfer them to the forthcoming
meeting between Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva and
further on to Obama's first meeting with Medvedev at the Group of 20 summit in
London in April.
Momentum is building in US-Russian exchanges. Burns gave an extensive interview
to Russia's Interfax news agency in which he stressed that an opportunity was
at hand for the US and Russia to "reset our relations on a more productive
plane"; that "mutual frustrations have tended to obscure our mutual interests"
and "it's time to look ahead"; that the effort in the coming weeks should be to
"translate those good intentions and that positive rhetoric into practical
progress"; and that "we can structure our relationship in ensuring that we work
together more systematically ... and build more structural relationship".
As regards specific issues, Burns highlighted the US's and Russia's "common
interest in ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons capability, a
nuclear weapons potential" and, second, the "interest in ensuring that
Afghanistan does not become a platform for the export of violent extremism from
which both of us [US and Russia] have suffered".
Equally, while insisting on the raison d'etre of the controversial missile
defense program, he implied that the Obama administration was reviewing the
possibility of new forms of cooperation with Russia. In a similar vein, while
acknowledging in principle the right of Ukraine and Georgia to seek NATO
membership, Burns made it clear that the two countries' accession was ruled out
for the foreseeable future.
Burns hinted at the possibility of expanding and deepening the scope of
US-Russia cooperation on Afghanistan. Obama seems to be jettisoning the George
W Bush administration's policy of keeping Russia out of Afghanistan at any
cost. But Burns stressed that in return, Washington expected Moscow to
cooperate on the Iran nuclear issue.
Is Obama wooing Russia? But there is hardly any time for courtship. What we are
witnessing is an unceremonious plunge into a marriage of convenience. The sheer
force of circumstances has brought Washington and Moscow together. At the heart
of it all lies the US's economic crisis that forces Obama to rethink old
adversarial relationships and the efficacy of "hard power" as such. After all,
to borrow the words of noted Russia expert Alexander Rahr of the German Council
on Foreign Relations, "The end has come for all kinds of egoism."
For Russia, too, the chill in relations with the US is unsustainable. It is all
very well for Moscow to visualize itself as an independent power center in a
multipolar world. But the hard reality is that Russian policies have run into
difficulties and instead of becoming a power center, it faces the danger of
becoming a lone power. Moscow is unwilling to join Europe on Western terms, but
its efforts to build up a bloc of post-Soviet states in Eurasia haven't made
There is a growing unreality about Moscow's much-touted bonds with Beijing. The
partnership is increasingly turning to the latter's advantage. While professing
"strategic partnership" with Russia, China is shamelessly courting Washington.
Obama has become an obsessive priority. And Beijing feels flattered at the
Obama administration's overtures. Thus, in the sensitive triangle of
US-Russia-China equations, Moscow has become the odd man out at the moment.
At the same time, Washington is also being pragmatic. There is strong
opposition in Europe about the deployment of the missile defense system,
especially with the Russian offer to refrain from deploying the short-range
Iskander missile in Kaliningrad. As for NATO expansion, major European allies
do not favor the idea; public support is lacking in Ukraine for NATO
membership; Georgia's breakaway provinces become a problematic issue. Over and
above, the Afghan situation is touching crisis proportions and Washington needs
all the help from Russia it can mobilize. Besides, Iran is a difficult country
and while a policy of engagement is feasible, there is huge uncertainty as to
where such a process would end up. Moscow's help may prove useful.
Indeed, this very possibility worries Tehran. The official Iranian news agency
lashed out at Burns' visit to Moscow as a diabolic move to "involve Russia in
the West's game against Iran". It comes as a setback to Tehran that Lavrov
announced during a visit to Israel on Monday that Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah
in Lebanon would be excluded from the Middle East peace conference Moscow is
holding. Lavrov said the conference would be restricted to the participants of
the Annapolis meet in the US in November 2007, which excluded Iran as well.
Tehran gets an early opportunity to probe the new layout, as Defense Minister
General Mostafa Mohammad Najjar began an official visit to Russia on Monday.
But Iran and Hamas and Hezbollah will not be the only parties to notice the
nascent US-Russia warming up with a sense of unease. The erstwhile Warsaw Pact
countries of Central Europe, which enjoyed Washington's patronage in standing
up to Moscow, may feel let down. The Central Asians may lose the space to play
Moscow and Washington against each other and derive advantage. China will have
by now raised its head above the parapet to see what's going on.
Hardliners in America have virtually gone ballistic. They find Obama's overture
to Russia appalling. The proponents of the "Great Central Asia" strategy are in
a state of shock. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central-Asia Caucasus
Institute at Johns Hopkins University, thinks the Russian transit route for
Afghanistan gives Moscow "exactly the same type of control over our war
material pipeline as it has over the natural gas pipelines to Europe". Starr
warns that the Russian military has "learned nothing and forgotten nothing"
from its defeat in the Afghan War at the hands of the US Central Intelligence
Agency and is planning revenge.
Finally, Russia, too, has its hardliners who harbor visceral hatred towards the
US. As Starr's counterparts, they see Washington's policies as single-mindedly
aimed at frustrating Russia's efforts to emerge as a global player. They see
the US as Russia's main adversary.
It is far from clear whether these detractors have been thrown out of business
or not. The point is, the US-Russia platter contains several contentious issues
and things could develop either way. Obama is unlikely to concede Russian
domination of Central Asia. The great game over Caspian energy is also doomed
to continue. The US cannot learn to live with the current level of Russian
control over energy supply and transportation routes to Europe as this has
implications for trans-Atlantic leadership.
Russia, too, is unsure of US intentions in Afghanistan. Russia's ties with Iran
are wide-ranging and far too strategic in a wide arc stretching from the
Caspian to Central Asia or from radical Islam to natural gas to be sacrificed
at the altar of Russian-US relations. The tentative nature of the current
processes is evident from the summing up by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister
Alexander Grushko: "It is too early to judge about the ultimate parameters of
Barack Obama's foreign policy course. The messages we [Russia] are receiving
today inspire optimism and give the hope that Russia and the US could resume
substantial dialogue aimed at achieving tangible results on key problems."
The Annual Threat Assessment of US Director of National Intelligence Dennis
Blair underscores fundamental Russian challenges to US interests. In his
testimony last Thursday at the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Blair
pointed out that Russia was exploiting US overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan
to challenge the US-led international political and economic institutional
order; Russia continues to rely on its nuclear deterrent and retaliatory
capability against the US; Russia is constantly signaling its political
resurgence and reminding the US of its global military relevance; and Russia's
neighborhood policies could generate potential flashpoints.
Obama will be hard-pressed to find the right balance in ties with Russia. But
he has no real choice but to be "smart” in dealing with Moscow. As Nye
explains, Obama's resort to smart power is also a matter of expediency - a
product of our complex world where the US may be the only superpower, but
preponderance is not empire, and where America can influence but not control
other regions of the world such as Eurasia.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign
Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.