Sunday, November 16, 2008

Getting Along With Russia

America has problem with getting involved in disputes that are really outside our area of interest. What kind of balance needs to be struck between tending our own garden and playing arbiter to international crises? We have sworn to be isolationists before. We didn't get involved with WWII until Pearl Harbor. So, why don't we continue to adhere to strict isolationism these days? I don't know, maybe because we didn't get involved in WWII until Pearl Harbor. That's quite a dilemma. Now we are supporting the right of countries like Georgia to join NATO and become little demagogues of democracy, all the while annoying the heck out of Russia. Why do we bother? Shouldn't we be more concerned with promoting stability? Shouldn't we just mind our own business? Well, yes and no. In a world that is becoming increasingly global in its scope, we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to shady practices by our neighbors. And Russia is Alaska's neighbor, after all. 

So, there's a separatist movement in Georgia. The georgian government brings the smack down, killing some Russian soldiers along the way. Russia brings the tanks and its all over. Russia wins. Georgia pouts. America is flustered. We have been rooting for Georgia all along. Now what? Well, there are a lot of common sense things we could do. For example, we need to have specific criteria for judging the severity of incidents, such as the Russian invasion of Georgia, to guide whether or not we need to get involved. Is our presence really necessary, and for what reasons? What exactly do we hope to accomplish by accosting Russia anyway? And that's basically what we decided to do. “No, Russia, that was a bad thing that you did.” You know what, I don't think Russia cares.

This may seem really grade schoolish or maybe even Oprah-like, but it really seems like our basic problem with Russia is a lack of understanding of its character. Its a crumbling empire whose vestiges of power are size and intimidation. Historically, it has remained distant from the influence of Europe. Russia has a distinct character, and takes pride in this distinction. In giving such visible support to former territories of the soviet union, we are threatening Russia's power, challenging their way of life, and essentially alienating them from global policy making. I have to say, Russia has done a pretty good job of gaining respect and attention – unfortunately by using the same tactics of control by sheer force of size in the business world, specifically in the oil market, that they formerly used on battlefield. 

So what should we do? Step lightly? Assuage their ego? Let democracy die!? Nothing quite so dramatic. Perhaps a reassessment on our nuclear arms policy, which is due to expire during Obama's term anyway. That should be interesting. Russia is worried that other countries are taking advantage of its relatively peaceful state to wage an arms race, and is certain that America is gunning for absolute dominion. Really, a hands off approach may be best. “If both sides can agree that their military forces do not really threaten each other, they will not have to sweat every detail over limiting them.” (“What Has Moscow Done?” Foreign Affairs, November 2008) 

Maybe it seems awfully naïve of me, but can't we at least pretend to trust Russia? Just a little bit? Don't we have enough bombs to blow up the world a few times anyway? Aren't we kind of going overboard? I always end up becoming things I previously made fun of – catholic high school student, philosophy major, ...what's next? It does seem awfully idealistic to advocate respect and trust (or at least the facade of trust) as possible ways to improve our relationship with Russia, but doesn't it also seem like common sense? I mean, what's the harm? Could this new approach possibly do worse than the ham handed attempts by both sides to control the other? We need to face that Russia and America essentially have a values conflict. We each have strong national character and vastly different ways of approaching the same problems. I'm not saying we're going to get along. But it seems like the issues I'm discussing are so, soft, I guess, that no serious analyst (that I've heard of anyway) has bothered to talk about them. But maybe if we put forth the first effort in just annoying Russia a little less, this whole personality conflict may be taken a little more seriously. It's worth a try. 

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