IF summit communiques are to be believed, the ``pragmatic partnership'' between the United States and Russia remains sound. But in discussion of outstanding foreign-policy questions - from Bosnia to Russia's role on the territory of the former Soviet Union - the recent summit demonstrated that the real challenges to this partnership are only beginning.
Those most bullish on the state of the relationship have attributed its strength to Russian reform and Western policy. But there is a third factor that is usually ignored: the impact of Russia's internal crisis on its external ambitions. Many of the benefits in the US-Russia relationship are the result of Russia's withdrawal from the world to concentrate on its problems at home.
On key global issues, such as the Middle East or North Korea, US expectations have been shaped by a Russian policy that is largely dormant or symbolic. At times, Russian annoyance at this state of affairs has inspired short-lived diplomatic initiatives, such as the proposal for an international conference on North Korea, designed to remind Washington and the world that Russia intended to remain a player, even if its capacity to do so was temporarily diminished. But this period of Russia's withdrawal from the world is ending. As Russia regains its strength, the real test will be: Can the partnership survive Russia's reemergence as a global power?
The maintenance of the US-Russia partnership is by no means the most likely outcome. Neither is US-Russia confrontation, at least in any sense reminiscent of the US-Soviet rivalry. Rather, on many issues, the two powers appear headed toward a broad strategic disengagement. There will be no rivalry in Latin America or the Pacific. And on some issues, such as nuclear proliferation, US and Russia will continue to see eye to eye.
What should be of greatest concern, however, is that even if this broad strategic disengagement comes to pass, strategic frictions will remain. These frictions will occur because in key regions of the world no clear separation of Russian and US interests into separate spheres is possible or desirable. These areas of friction include East Asia, particularly the growth of China's power; the security orientation of the states of Central Europe; and the new states on Russia's periphery.
In East Asia, Russia's weakness means it must pursue a policy of appeasement toward China. However, this policy cannot be a permanent reflection of Russia's enduring interests in the region nor of its anxiety over the growth of Chinese power. East Asia is already a region of great instability. Russia's return as a diplomatic player seeking to limit Chinese power will add an additional complicating factor to Washington's policy in East Asia.
In Central Europe, a strategic vacuum exists. Russia's weakness forces it to defend the status quo with regards to the expansion of NATO. In the West, voices in Bonn and Washington are beginning to talk openly of working out membership criteria to permit the alliance's expansion to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. This question not only will decide the shape of Europe's future security architecture, but whether Russia will be part of that architecture or a disgruntled challenger to its future stability.
In the new states it calls the ``near abroad,'' Russia has vital strategic interests. Despite the recent Russian troop withdrawals from the Baltics, it is becoming increasingly clear that a strong Russia intends to pursue these interests through exercising special rights in the region that at best limit the sovereignty of the new states. Russia's attempt to carve out a sphere of exclusive control will increase tension between itself and its neighbors, as well as with countries in the West. It could potentially draw in outside powers. Further, the more Russia is successful in its quest for a sphere of influence, the more it will call forth polices in the West, such as NATO expansion, that seek to deepen its isolation. This cycle of diplomatic action and reaction could create a Russia that is a permanently discontented power, placing at risk both reform at home and any hope of cooperation abroad.
At the summit, we heard congratulatory speeches about the renewal of Russian power and the strong state of US-Russia relations. But we should remember that the serious challenges lie in the future, as Russia regains its strength and the US must address for the first time the real strategic frictions of the relationship.
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