Changing the Viewing Angle


Attempts to move toward a political settlement in Syria are ongoing, despite universal skepticism and expectations that everything is about to explode once again. John Kerry’s visit to Moscow is likely designed to coordinate moves for the next steps forward. I’ve already had occasion to write in these pages that the mere fact that Russia and the U.S. are interacting productively regarding Syria is a pleasant surprise, especially considering the overall inauspicious background between Moscow and Washington.

It’s worth mentioning (lest we get carried away) that the Syrian rapprochement is not, to put it in legal terms, a precedent-setting case. There’s no basis for expectations of a new “détente” or a “reset” between Russia and the U.S. The modern world is generally situational. We’ve come into agreement on one particular issue; we can solve it to mutual satisfaction. That’s it. There are no implications for the relationship as a whole. Given the current level of mutual distrust and, to be honest, antipathy, a capacity for even modest cooperation is not so bad.

Relations between Moscow and Washington will never again dominate the international agenda as they did during the Cold War. Back then, they in fact constituted the core of world politics. Now, global politics is more diverse and more crowded — a multitude of players are acting independently of the grandees or dramatically boosting their weight. Nevertheless, the Syrian case once again reminds us that much depends on Russia and the U.S. even today. Is there a chance that their perceptions of each other will improve?

In the foreseeable future, there’s little hope. Both sides view each other through the prism of the Cold War, or more precisely, its consequences. It so happened that 25 years later, the interpretation of its ending, and even of who in fact won and who lost, differs radically. The United States considers Russia the “transgressor of the convention,” transgressor of the world order that emerged after 1991. Accordingly, Washington interprets any steps by Moscow that demonstrate non-recognition of the hierarchy that developed then as something unlawful. Russia, in essence, denies that at the time an order was established, while it interprets U.S. actions since the early 1990s as a step-by-step destruction of the legal framework in effect earlier, in times of a far more stable world order. It turns out that the mechanism works like that of a good watch — it winds itself on the arm from movement.

In order for Russian-U.S. relations to move into a different phase, a change of viewing angle is necessary. It’s necessary to overcome the inertia that came about after the Cold War. On the part of the U.S., it’s the rather arrogant notion that Russia simply doesn’t have the right to be obstinate and should come to terms with its regional status. Moreover, the limits of its status are defined not so much by Russia’s wishes as by what more important players will allow it to do. On Russia’s part, it’s a fixation on America as the cause of any and all troubles, a rather unhealthy fixation that borders on a belief in American omnipotence. It’s a latent complex rooted, once again, in the conclusion of the Cold War.

Both views are, in principle, explicable, but in the long term they’re counterproductive. It would seem there are first signs that the perception will begin to change. As far as Washington is concerned, it has to acknowledge that Moscow has built up its military and political capabilities and in some areas is capable of acting in the very same manner America itself did for two decades. Like it or not, it has to be taken into consideration, which means the relationship becomes more serious and businesslike. Russia, for the very same reason, might stop having an inferiority complex and stop proving to itself its own competence. As these positions strengthen, the space for pragmatic cooperation will expand.

What can we cooperate on? There’s the standard set of “common interests” that officials from both sides often list when they want to add something positive to a depressing discussion. The fight against terrorism is on the first line. Yet practical experience in this arena, whether in the 2000s or the 2010s, isn’t replete with successes. Big countries that confront this evil tend to rely on themselves.

Cooperation, especially if it’s not by allies, is of a limited and sporadic nature.

In the case of Russia and the U.S., a far broader topic might be more promising — global governance. Not in the sense that Moscow and Washington will “assign” the planet for two; that’ll never happen again. But it turns out that on the basis of a combination of factors — military and diplomatic potential plus political will and a great power tradition — Russia and the U.S. are best placed to resolve conflicts and stimulate this or that important process. For the time being, joint efforts are an exception, but in the future they might become more regular.

Especially since, for example, it’s easier for Russia to work with the United States as a sovereign state than with the European Union, where the process for making any decision is diffuse and complicated by a multistage structure. This, by the way, is yet another feature of the modern world — the functionality of institutions is frequently more important than even a convergence of interests. So in proportion to the degree to which the legacies of the end of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st century are overcome, a healthy pragmatism might pave a way for itself.

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About Jeffrey Fredrich 190 Articles
Jeffrey studied Russian language at Northwestern University and at the Russian State University for the Humanities. He spent one year in Moscow doing independent research as a Fulbright fellow from 2007 to 2008.

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