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What a Biden focus on ‘American values’ means for ties with Russia

December 1, 2020
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During his time as deputy secretary of state at the end of the Obama administration, Antony Blinken became known as the values guy – constantly underscoring in staff meetings, Washington speeches, and while traveling abroad how American values of democracy and human rights are at the core of U.S. foreign policy and global leadership.

“We are not the leader of first choice because we’re always right, or because we’re universally liked, or because we can dictate outcomes,” Mr. Blinken said in a June 2015 speech at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “It’s because we strive to the best of our ability to align our actions with our principles, and because American leadership has a unique ability to mobilize others and to make a difference.”

That focus on American values, plus an accompanying commitment to strengthen and lead alliances from Europe to Asia, are expected to form the twin pillars of Mr. Blinken’s foreign policy vision as he takes the helm of the State Department next year as President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of state.

Yet while U.S. allies and partners are already welcoming America’s impending return to a more traditional and internationalist conception of its leadership role, U.S. adversaries will almost certainly be less happy about the reorientation.

And perhaps none of those adversaries will be more unsettled by a robust U.S. return to the global stage and efforts to reestablish moral leadership, foreign policy experts say, than the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin has worked hard over recent years to undermine U.S. alliances – particularly with Europe – as well as faith in and the spread of such American values as democratic governance and universal human rights. Moreover, he has taken advantage of a U.S. pullback from leadership – for example in Syria or in diplomacy with Iran – to advance Russian geopolitical goals.

So to the extent Mr. Biden’s foreign policy intends to challenge the recent advances of adversaries like Russia and do so by fortifying alliances while reemphasizing American values, a more combative U.S.-Russia relationship is very likely on the horizon, experts in big-power relations say.

“It’s already quite clear from what Biden said during the campaign and since the election as he’s announced his national security team that he’s going to put America’s alliances and the values component front and center in his foreign policy,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow in U.S. foreign policy and European affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

“Biden will make a point to stress his commitment to America’s allies and to democracy and freedom,” he adds, “and that will stick in the craw of the Russians and others who have seized on a move away from those commitments.”

Not a policy, but a “mess”

It is not as though U.S.-Russia relations have enjoyed an extended honeymoon that is about to come to a screeching halt, experts say. Despite what Mr. Kupchan calls President Donald Trump’s “affection” for Mr. Putin, the Trump administration has also ramped up sanctions against Russia and approved sales of offensive weaponry to Ukraine’s besieged government, which still finds parts of its territory occupied by Russia.

The problem, he says, is that there has been no clear policy guiding U.S. action toward Russia – with the president indulging his “friend” Mr. Putin while top White House advisers and many in Congress have taken a more confrontational and punitive approach.

“We haven’t had a Russia policy under Trump, we’ve had a mess. Under Biden there will be a Russia policy,” says Mr. Kupchan, who served as the National Security Council’s senior director for European Affairs in the Obama-Biden administration.

And as in Mr. Biden’s overall foreign policy approach, a Russia policy is likely to elevate expectations in terms of human rights and acceptable international behavior in any diplomatic outreach, some international relations veterans say.

“What the Blinken selection for secretary of state and other choices for the national security team tell me is that we’ll see something a little more active and more elevated in terms of the place of human rights and values in the Biden foreign policy, and I’d expect to see that shift in U.S.-Russia relations as well,” says David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President George W. Bush.

Mr. Kramer says he’s expecting a clearer and unambiguous message from Washington to Moscow. “I’m hoping Biden tells Putin: ‘Get out of Ukraine, stop interfering in our and other countries’ elections, and stop committing gross human right abuses on your own people,’” says Mr. Kramer, now a senior fellow in the Vaclav Havel Program for Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University in Miami. “‘And when you do all that, give me a call.’”

No Russia “reset”

Since Mr. Biden’s victory a month ago, more speculation has focused on how the new president might deal with the other major adversary in global affairs, China. Mr. Biden is expected to adopt some of the more confrontational stance toward Beijing that President Trump has instituted, while eschewing the overall cooperative approach from the early Obama years that envisioned ushering a rising giant to the table of Western-modeled global leadership.

Similarly, when it comes to Russia, the Biden administration is not expected to rekindle old hopes of welcoming Moscow to the table of Western democracies. A common theme Mr. Blinken espoused during the presidential campaign is that a Biden administration would not engage the world “as it was in 2009, or even in 2017” when the Obama team left office.

Thus there will be no talk of a “reset” with Mr. Putin, as Mr. Blinken (and his boss) have turned more hawkish on Russia.

The question will be how much attention the new administration will be able to give to setting a more confrontational tone, as Mr. Biden focuses on domestic issues, from the pandemic to rebuilding the economy.

“Over the last few years, and from Ukraine to Venezuela, the Russians pushed into new areas and in increasingly provocative ways, but they didn’t meet with a lot of resistance or pushback” from the U.S., says Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. “If a Biden administration does take a tougher stand and adopts more punitive measures,” he adds, “it will cause Putin to recalculate the cost of his actions and perhaps to recalibrate.”

But even if Mr. Putin is prompted to “become more cautious down the road,” Mr. Gvosdev says he also would not be surprised to see Mr. Putin use the waning days of the Trump administration to take some bold steps. For example: rushing to complete the final 100 kilometers of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Western Europe, or a provocative confrontation or two with U.S. forces in the Baltic.

The point, Mr. Gvosdev says, would be to establish that Moscow can also play tough if there’s going to be a more hawkish team in Washington pursuing a more activist human rights agenda.

Pragmatic orientation

The incoming Biden foreign policy team is indeed expected to underscore democratic governance and a return to a more universalist conception of human rights from the narrow focus on religious freedom pursued by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. But at the same time, the sheer enormity of the domestic challenges awaiting Mr. Biden means no one should expect a rush to bold actions on the global front, most foreign policy experts say.

“The Biden team is largely pragmatic in orientation, so they’re not going to be looking either to carry out regime change or to use lofty promises to cajole adversaries into changing their stripes,” says Mr. Kupchan, who is also a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University.

For U.S.-Russia relations, that pragmatism means cooperation could be limited to arms control – perhaps a quick five-year extension of the New START Treaty, which expires in early February – and perhaps some effort to work together in the Arctic.

Mr. Blinken has also spoken of using Mr. Putin’s discomfort with Russia’s growing dependence on the Chinese giant to its east to encourage a more cooperative relationship.

“I do think we’ll see even more of the U.S. strategy to loosen the quasi-alliance that has emerged between Russia and China,” Mr. Kupchan says.

But no one expects such underlying concerns to prompt a friendlier Mr. Putin any time soon.

“Anyone hoping for more cooperation between the U.S. and Russia had better rein in those expectations,” says Mr. Kramer. “You’re about to be very disappointed.”

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