July 26, 2012 · 0 Comments
By Daniel Warner:
A recent story about a silly complaint in Moscow concerning the “healthfulness of hamburgers” by Andrew E. Kramer makes the comment that the United States and “Russia are going through a rough patch over differing approaches to the Syrian crisis.” (The International Herald Tribune, the global edition of the New York Times, July 26, “Gripe at McDonald’s spurs anti-U.S. gibes.”) Indeed, Russia has just voted against a third Security Resolution dealing with Syria but the problems between the United States and Russia are much deeper than hamburgers or Syria.
President Putin recently signed a law requiring private organizations that receive foreign money to register as foreign agents, an obvious attempt to limit western organizations associated with the opposition. On the American front, the U.S. Congress is debating imposing visa and banking restrictions on Russian officials accused of human rights abuses in the death of Russian dissident Serge Magnitsky. The bill has passed the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee. A delegation of Russian senators was recently in Washington in a last-ditch lobbying attempt to persuade their fellow legislators not to pass the bill. The Russians have warned that passage of the bill would damage relations between the two countries “for years to come.”
Following the division between mainland China and Taiwan in 1949, a debate raged in the West about “Who Lost China?” The argument frequently surfaced during the McCarthy era in the United States and was often referred to during the opening to China by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. The recent stalemate over what to do in Syria highlights recurring difficulties between the U.S. and Russia that could lead to future questions similar to the one about losing China.
Some relevant recent events to ponder in addition to Syria, hamburgers and limits on foreign organizations: 1) U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation Michael McFaul was roundly criticized in the Russian press for receiving opposition leaders soon after his arrival in Moscow. In May, he also made comments to the effect that Russia had bribed the Kyrgyz leader to remove U.S. bases from Kyrgyzstan. 2) President Putin did not attend the last G8 meeting at Camp David saying he had more pressing business at home. Although Presidents Putin and Obama did meet for two hours on June 18 during the G20 summit, the “dour demeanor” of the leaders indicated no real progress, certainly not on the main topic of conversation, Syria. 3) Russia’s top military officer warned that Moscow would strike NATO missile defense sites in Eastern Europe pre-emptively as bi-lateral talks are stalemated over the deployment of an anti-missile system the United States claims is designed to stop Iranian attacks. 4) The 2008 Bucharest ministerial vote to allow Georgia and Ukraine to be future NATO members remains a sticking point as is the Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries.
The Syrian conflict in this respect could be a defining moment. Michael Ignatieff ‘s recent blog in the New York Review of Books argues that “The Syrian conflict has triggered something more fundamental than a difference of opinion over intervention, something more than an argument about whether the Security Council should authorize the use of force. Syria is the moment in which the West should see that the world has truly broken into two.” The two sides he describes are “A loose alliance of struggling capitalist democracies…face to face with two authoritarian despotisms – Russia and China…” We are now, according to Ignatieff, in a struggle between “Our idea that history had a libretto of freedom” and “A vaste swathe of the globe, from the Russian border to the Pacific, including the tributary states of the Russian near-abroad, (that) is now in the hands of venal, ruthless, deeply corrupt, single-party elites.”
How did this division take place, specifically with Russia, after the euphoria of the fall of the Berlin Wall? It might be worthwhile to imagine what political scientists call a counterfactual exercise. What would have happened in the 1990s if NATO had truly reached out to Russia beyond merely offering the Partnership for Peace (PfP) and the special NATO-Russia Dialogue? For example, minimally, what would have happened in 1990 if Russia had been invited to join NATO to form a true European security community extending from Vancouver to Vladivostock? Or, even more radically, what would have happened if NATO had disbanded after the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact in 1991? If there was no longer the Warsaw Pact, why did NATO, a collective defense organization formed to defend the West from eventual aggression by the Soviet Union, continue to exist after the collapse of the Soviet Union?
The view from Moscow is indeed quite different from the view from Washington. Look at Russia’s borders. The Baltic countries are now members of NATO with Ukraine and Georgia promised future membership. It does not take much to imagine that if Canada or Mexico became members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) how Washington would react. (See Cuban Missile Crisis). Could we call Mexico, Canada and much of Latin America the near-abroad for the United States? Is the Monroe Doctrine principle applicable only to American exceptionalism?
As proof of the binary split between “capitalist democracies” and “authoritarian despotisms,” Ignatieff is particularly sensitive to the failure of the “responsibility to protect” in Syria, placing the blame on Russia and China’s failure to sign on. However, as one of the authors of the Report on the responsibility to protect, he gives no space for why the Russians and Chinese oppose intervention in Syria or to some of his fellow authors. The euphoria of the responsibility to protect and its liberal interventionism was played out in Libya. The United Nations Security Council, thanks to abstentions by China and Russia, agreed to protect civilians in Benghazi. That is what Resolution 1973 clearly called for.
However, the aggressive military action for regime change by NATO and certain countries quickly soured Russia and China; they both recognized that the supposed divide between humanitarianism and the political had been crossed. Soon after the politicization of the intervention became evident, it was condemned by Russia and China. Having learned what the responsibility to protect led to in Libya, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov later said about Syria: “Russia will never allow the United Nations Security Council to authorize a Libya-style operation to resolve the political crisis in Syria.” He was further quoted as saying:”The international community unfortunately did take sides in Libya and we would never allow the Security Council to authorize anything similar to what happened in Libya…A second Libya would be a disaster for the Arab world and world politics.” Cornelio Sommaruga, one of the authors of the Report, was even more critical of the Libyan intervention and the crossing of the political/humanitarian divide: “The original terms of the UN resolution were quickly overtaken by events. The responsibility to protect is being murdered.”
The famous “reset button” attempted by Hillary Clinton and Sergey Lavrov in Geneva needs to be reset in both capitals or else the “Who Lost Russia?” question will make front page news. And the cause will not be just the “healthfulness” of McDonald’s hamburgers.
Daniel Warner is a political scientist living in Geneva, Switzerland, and the author of “An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations”.