Handle with Care

Edward Goldberg


Published on May 19, 2005
© 2005- The Baltimore Sun

FIVE YEARS AGO, George W. Bush barnstormed America preaching his sermon of compassionate conservatism. Like most sermons, this homily was tucked away and forgotten. However, maybe it's time to resurrect compassionate conservatism - not as a guidebook for domestic policy but as a philosophy to help guide America in its relations with Russia.

For Russia is America's enigma. A defeated but growing power, gaining dominance in a world where energy reserves are synonymous with power. A country that touches on nearly every important geopolitical area in the world. A nuclear power and, in America's eyes, an undemocratic democracy. But regardless of how undemocratic Russia's democracy is, Russia is a country that America cannot ignore.

Russian crude oil output actually exceeded that of Saudi Arabia this spring. In 2004, Russia was the world's largest natural gas producer. It has the world's largest natural gas reserves, with 1,680 trillion cubic feet, more than twice the reserves in the next-largest country, Iran. Today, 30 percent of the European Union's oil imports and 50 percent of its natural gas supply are from Russia.

The economic arteries of our major trading partners are now dependent on Russian energy. Yet for reasons that are difficult to explain, U.S. foreign policy toward Russia during the last four years has been muddled.

What we need is a policy built around the mantra of compassionate conservatism, a policy that insists on the United States publicly disavowing any anti-democratic actions within Russia, for the forces of democratic advancement within Russia must know that they are not alone. At the same time, the forces of regression must be made aware that there is an international price to be paid for undemocratic behavior.

U.S. policy toward Russia must emphasize the compassionate. Frankly, this is the more difficult part of the policy because it implies an understanding of Russian culture and a willingness to deflect the political criticism of former cold warriors in Washington. For unlike Ukraine, Latvia or Poland, Russia was not freed from an occupying force at the end of the Cold War. Russia was the loser, forced to revolutionize and, in the process, bring upon itself all of the inequities, recriminations and false memories that are unleashed when change is brought on by defeat.

In understanding the Russian political culture, we must be mindful of the conservative political pressure on President Vladimir V. Putin, still partly fed by Russia's historic suspicions of the West. The Bush administration must appreciate that Mr. Putin needs space and political cover within his culture to move reforms forward. It is very easy to constantly criticize Mr. Putin over the apparent back and forth of change in Russian society while ignoring the progress that has been made.

The United States also must be aware of the hypocrisy factor in its view of Russia. Sometimes it must appear in Moscow that Russian mistakes or oversteps are immediately perceived in the United States as proof that the evil empire prevails.

Mr. Putin rightfully got his hand burned by trying to involve himself in the Ukrainian presidential election. But besides seeing this as instant proof that Russia is reverting to a policy of autocratic imperialism, we must ask ourselves how many American presidents, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt, have done similar things in Latin America.

Russia is going through its second revolution in 90 years as it experiments with learning how to become a liberal society. It is naive to believe that Russian culture, after 700 years of severe autocratic leadership, can turn into a full-blown democracy overnight. This process will take several decades.

Without acquiescing to or publicly accepting its nondemocratic policies, the United States must treat Russia with the respect accorded to the growing energy power that it has become and the historic power that it perceives itself still to be. If the United States fails to do this, Russia will push back against the pressure of a world that it senses does not recognize it as being exceptional.

Whether that thrust is manifested through greater authoritarianism within Russia or less respect for its neighbors, the historic analogy is apparent. If the United States ignores Russia, if it fails to develop a creative policy to assist Russia in its continuous transformation to democracy, the effects on the world would not be too dissimilar from when Lenin abruptly destroyed Russia's last fledging democratic government.

Edward Goldberg, president of a New York-based consulting firm, advises companies conducting business in Russia.

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