When President Obama was overheard telling Russian president Dmitri Medvedev that he could be “more flexible” in negotiations on missile defense following the election, Governor Mitt Romney was quick to pounce, calling Russia America’s “Number one geopolitical foe.” The New York Times accurately observed that “his comments display either a shocking lack of knowledge about international affairs or just craven politics.”
Romney’s characterization of today’s Russia was not only an absurdity but also an insult to the achievement of two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who ended the geopolitical rivalry with the Soviet Union even before Russia broke out of its communist straitjacket to become an independent state with a capitalist economy. Furthermore, he ignored the fact that Obama was doing no more than one of our best recent Republican presidents, George Herbert Walker Bush, did in 1987. When he was still Ronald Reagan’s Vice President, he privately told Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to ignore his campaign rhetoric during the upcoming 1988 presidential election since he would have to sound tougher than his policies as president would be.
Furthermore, when the first President Bush met Soviet President Gorbachev at Malta in December 1989 both agreed to a formal statement that their countries were no longer enemies. It was on that basis that the Soviet Union gracefully relinquished control of Eastern Europe and, having been assured that NATO would not expand its jurisdiction to the east, agreed that a united Germany could remain in NATO. The Soviet Union, therefore, ceased to be a “geopolitical foe” before the Soviet Union broke up, and the successor Russian Federation, with less than half the Soviet population, has never been a real geopolitical competitor.
Some might say it doesn’t matter much if a distorted image of Russia is used as a punching bag in our political free-for-all. Isn’t Russia so weak that we can safely ignore what its government thinks, inventing at will false images for our political games? No, that is a dangerous diversion.
Disagreement with Russia is something to worry about. Without Russian cooperation we will not be able to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. Without the use of Russian transportation facilities and airspace, we can neither maintain our forces in Afghanistan nor withdraw them safely, routes through Pakistan having become insecure. Russia cooperates with the United States in its war in Afghanistan because Al Qa’eda and the Taliban are as much Russia’s enemies as they are ours. Is this the action of a geopolitical foe? How would a President Romney either support our forces in Afghanistan or get them out safely without Russian cooperation? And that’s just for starters.
While Russia does not have all the people or the military power of the Soviet Union, it still has a nuclear arsenal with destructive power comparable to America’s. It sits on an enormous expanse of the earth’s real estate, sprawling over eleven time zones. That territory is filled with human and natural resources of a quality (and the latter of a quantity) to match any country on earth. The fact is that in today’s rapidly changing world, the United States needs cooperation with Russia to deal with the most serious problems both countries face: halting the spread of weapons of mass destruction, countering the threat of terrorism, coping with humanitarian emergencies in failed states, slowing and reversing the destruction of the environment, severing the tentacles of organized crime, preventing the spread of diseases, old and new. Regarding all of these challenges, Russian and American interests coincide. Neither country can deal with them effectively alone or even together, but only in concert with other countries. From the point of view of each country, the other will be either a part of the solution or a part of the problem.
Thank goodness we have a president who does not look at foreign policy in partisan terms. President Obama has not hesitated to adopt some the best and most successful elements of U.S. policy during the Reagan and first Bush administrations, policies that had Democratic backing because they were in America’s interest. Obama has endorsed Reagan’s vision of a nuclear-free world and worked successfully to take steps in that direction despite Republican opposition that is in direct contradiction to the Reagan heritage most Republicans claim to revere.
Obama’s efforts to come to terms with Russia regarding missile defense is one hundred percent in America’s interest because without it we will not be able to gain Russian cooperation on many other important issues. Ronald Reagan would have jumped at the chance to have a joint program with the Soviet Union—in fact, he repeatedly proposed to Gorbachev a shared program of missile defense. It is most unfortunate that Gorbachev was unable, because of political conditions at home, to accept the offer.
Governor Romney’s reflexive insult to Russia demonstrates that he either does not understand American’s most vital interests in the world, or that he considers those interests second to his personal ambition.