How do we improve our relationship with Moscow? Today, Prime Minster Vladimir Putin, during a televised question-and-answer session with the Russian people, helpfully gave us the answer. “We hear that one should build relations with Russia, taking into account its interests,” he said, referring to comments from aides to President-elect Obama. “If these are not just words, if they get transformed into a practical policy, then of course our reaction will be adequate and our American partners will feel this at once.”
Of course? Of course not. The assumption behind the strongman’s views is that Russia reciprocates friendship. American policymakers certainly believe this is the way the world operates. And, yes, that is the way geopolitics should work. Unfortunately, the historical record does not support this hopeful proposition.
Take the last eight years, for instance. President Bush’s policies were generally premised on the notion that America had to have good relations with the other great powers. So he adopted approaches–some farsighted and others uninspiring–that supported Russian ambitions most of the time.
Yet the Kremlin, taking full advantage of Bush policies, chose to exercise new-found strength by undermining the international system instead of reinforcing it. Moscow provoked Georgia and then invaded it, supported the Iranian nuclear weapons program, and tried to prevent necessary change in the Balkans, just to name recent examples of uncooperative–and grossly irresponsible-conduct. And we should not be surprised: the Russians maintain centuries-old goals and try to advance them whenever they see the opportunity. It is not as if we had no inkling as to what the Kremlin’s leaders would try to do next.
So, as Putin tells us, we can have good ties with Moscow if we continually accede to its wishes. But if we think our vision of the future is better-and there is no question that it is-we should do better than merely accepting the Kremlin’s ever-increasing ambitions. After all, the ultimate goal of our policies should not be achieving friendly relations with other nations. Our goal should be getting what we want.