President Bush and his Russian counterpart have not yet met in Kennebunkport, but Lou Dobbs has already figured out what will happen this coming Sunday and Monday in Maine. A few weeks ago, the CNN anchor had this to say about the upcoming summit between the American leader and Vladimir Putin: “A meeting in which I’m sure both men will look deeply into one another’s eyes and come up with the architecture of a brilliant geopolitical relationship between the two countries.”
Who can blame Dobbs for sounding so cynical and sarcastic? He has, after all, identified the one thing that will not happen during the upcoming talks. Bush and Putin will undoubtedly trade many fine words during their session in the sun, but they will not do much to improve ties between America and Russia.
Moscow, unfortunately, now has an agenda that clashes with ours. The Kremlin no longer feels itself tethered to America—or even to Europe. “Until recently, Russia saw itself as Pluto in the Western solar system, very far from the center but still fundamentally a part of it,” wrote Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center last year. “Now it has left that orbit entirely.”
As Russia leaves the West’s orbit, it is making common cause with China and regimes that are challenging America. As a result, the authoritarian states are now acting in like-minded fashion. And as they do so, they are changing the international system.
Why is the world in such disarray? Because America has been so powerful, analysts believe the answer must lie in some recent defect in Washington’s stewardship of global affairs. The common assessment is that the Bush administration is unnecessarily belligerent, inexcusably clumsy, and otherwise ill-advised. But criticisms of this sort fail to take into account the context in which American policy-makers must operate today. As Henry Kissinger said in July of last year, “There’s never been a period in history in which so many changes were taking place simultaneously.” In particular, we are passing from the post-cold war hegemonic era. What we see today is the emergence of a balance-of-power arrangement in which weaker nations can easily frustrate the United States. The world can be stable in any sort of system, but it is almost never safe when it transitions from one system to another.
So the stakes will be high this weekend when George Bush sits down with Vladimir Putin. But as Dobbs suggests, no amount of eye contact between the two men will settle the differences between America and Russia. They seem to be meeting more—they last got together earlier this month at the G8 conclave in Germany—and accomplishing ever less.
Of course, there is no harm in the occasional chat in a shoreline setting, but it is time for our President to begin thinking more about how the world is changing—and how the U.S. can continue to lead in a new and much more difficult environment.