The Atlantic Council is known for narrowly-crafted study groups in which conclusions follow consistent themes: greater U.S. concessions and trust in rogues and adversaries. In 1998, for example, the Atlantic Council sought a partial lifting of the U.S. trade embargo on Iran as “a key gesture of good faith.” Subsequent intelligence shows that as the Atlantic Council’s hand-picked study group counseled increased trade with Iran, the Iranian leadership was on an international buying spree in support of its nuclear and ballistic weapons programs.
In a 2001 study group, Lee Hamilton, James Schlesinger, and Brent Scowcroft—the latter now interim head of the Council following Chuck Hagel’s move to the Pentagon—lamented the congressional tendency to wield sticks rather than carrots against rogues, and criticized legislation requiring the State Department to produce its annual Patterns of Global Terrorism report, since such reporting placed Iranian terror sponsorship front and center in the public debate and became an impediment to public willingness to make a deal with Tehran.
Two years later, the Atlantic Council issued a study group on Libya suggesting political reform should not be the focus of diplomatic engagement, because it would naturally follow when Libya’s isolation ended. Gaddafi’s “arbitrary, authoritarian style is increasingly out of step with the rest of the world,” retired diplomat Chester Crocker and Atlantic Council international security director C. Richard Nelson observed. Gaddafi, of course, felt differently up to his dying day.
With Scowcroft in the chairman’s seat, the Council is doubling down on the trend. Ellen Tauscher, a former congresswoman, arms control negotiator, Atlantic Council “Scowcroft Center” vice chair and advisor to a presumptive Hillary Clinton 2016 run, has unveiled a new initiative which she has named “Mutually Assured Stability.” The project, explained Tauscher and her Russian partner, former Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, in a press release last week seeks to “help reframe US-Russia relations and get past the Cold War-era nuclear legacy in our relationship, particularly the dominant paradigm of ‘mutual assured destruction.’ The goal is to reconfigure the bilateral relationship towards ‘mutual assured stability’ and refocus arms control and disarmament toward the development of reassuring measures, and thus help promote closer cooperation between Russia and the West.” Their founding statement makes clear their goal is to achieve a missile defense pact before the upcoming Obama-Putin summit.
What neither Tauscher nor the Atlantic Council appear to blink at is the fact that their institutional partner—the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)—was created by the Kremlin to act as its representative in the NGO world. Perhaps with Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon, Scowcroft’s goal is to transform the Council into something akin to RIAC’s political equivalent. At the very least, the Kremlin is using Tauscher as its useful idiot to suggest wider policy support for Obama’s earlier hot-mic blunder.
Tauscher may believe her turn of phrase is catchy or creative. But, even if it was, no policy should be crafted around a slogan. The basic premise behind “Mutually Assured Stability” is deeply flawed. The idea that “Mutually Assured Destruction” still guides U.S.-Russian interaction or represents the problem in bilateral relations is shallow, and confuses symptoms for the disease. Russia is a declining power, facing a demographic cliff. Even the Kremlin realizes that the real threat to Russia comes not from the United States and its strategic missiles, but rather the threat posed by a booming and populous China abutting a demographically-drained and resource-rich Russian far east, a region long ignored by the Kremlin.
Nor is the distrust between Moscow and Washington rooted in disarmament or lack thereof. It should be no surprise that the Kremlin encourages Tauscher’s one-issue crusade, because to make an augmented arms control agreement the sole agenda item in bilateral talks would remove from the table Russia’s dismal human rights record, the Kremlin’s assistance to the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad, Russian support for the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program, Moscow’s opposition to NATO expansion, its willingness to blackmail Europe with oil, and Russia’s continued occupation of Georgian territory. Perhaps if certain Russian politicians did not pine for the supposed glory of the Stalin-era Soviet Union, then the Russian brand name might be somewhat better.
Tauscher has always been a bit of a self-promoter. When she joined the State Department, she hired a press team to blast out speeches and remarks irrespective of whether the policy community wanted her emails or not—unsubscribing was not an option. She may miss being in the spotlight and may believe that she can still negotiate a deal, and that the Logan Act need not apply. Perhaps she feels that her personal friendship with Ivanov and other Russian leaders will suffice. Like President George W. Bush, perhaps she feels that she can stare in Putin’s eyes and see his soul. On this fact alone, however, Tauscher and the good folks at the Atlantic Council should reconsider their headlong embrace into Kremlin useful idiocy.
Many Russia hands increasing question Putin’s staying power. His stage-managed photo opportunities increasingly look silly not only to the Western audience but to the Russian one as well. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin—a Kremlin hardliner—increasingly looks willing to make a push to leadership. The consistently left-of-center Open Democracy describes Rogozin as a man “who has built his career on nationalism and the exploitation of voters’ quasi Soviet imperial sentiments” based upon “anti-Western, anti-American” sentiments. And the Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth described Rogozin as “disdainful of liberal democracy” and promoting a “belief in a foreign threat and a robust and combat-ready military to counter this danger.”
Four years on, it is safe to say the United States and Europe received little benefit from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “reset policy” with Russia. Many Obama administration officials privately acknowledge the frustration that their policy did not achieve the desired results. Most honest analysts regardless of where they stood in 2009 recognize that the problem with bilateral U.S.-Russian relations lays in a retrograde, zero-sum mindset that afflicts Putin and his inner-circle. Tauscher seems not to be among them. If “Mutually Assured Stability” is Tauscher’s idea to keep in the limelight, perhaps it will be laughed off as such. Let us hope that the White House can see through the fact that the initiative is based neither on scholarship nor in realist political analysis, but rather on the desire essentially to launder talking points from a Kremlin think tank. If the United States seeks stability, its path will not be through the Kremlin.