US-Russia talks on Syria: A balance of ideals, interests

In the US-Russia talks on Syria's chemical weapons, the two countries may clash over Moscow's interests and American ideals. Such disputes can be resolved, as US history shows.

AP Photo
Secretary of State John Kerry speaks next to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, during a Sept. 12 press conference in Geneva, Switzerland, before their meeting to discuss the crisis in Syria.

If each American could be a fly on the wall during the Russian-US negotiations over Syria, they might witness a traditional clash between Russian “realism” over the country’s own national interests and American “idealism” over a moral issue like chemical weapons.

This type of confrontation has already played out over Syria – in public. On Tuesday, for example, President Obama said the United States was an “exceptional” nation that must stand for global values, such as the international chemical weapons ban. On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced such an American presumption of superiority as “extremely dangerous.”

Mr. Obama said the US has been “the anchor of global security” based on its unique “burden of leadership.” Mr. Putin says the US must act abroad only with the approval of the United Nations Security Council – meaning, only without Moscow’s veto – as this was in America’s “long-term interest.” (He didn’t describe it as an ideal.)

This fundamental conflict, in which Russia operates almost solely on geopolitical interests and power relationships while the US usually starts out asserting its ideals, is what must be resolved in the talks over Syria. Then perhaps the two countries can come up with a diplomatic resolution on Syria’s chemical weapons. (Basic facts also need resolving: Putin disputes Obama’s statement that the Assad regime carried out the Aug. 21 gas attack.)

Russia’s many insecurities – about potential enemies, its declining population, its unstable politics – keep its leaders focused on interests more than ideals. Putin’s domestic interests drive him to create the illusion of Russia as a great power. But he is often reminded otherwise. His authoritarian government, for example, is highly dependent on oil and gas exports, yet this week he learned the US will overtake Russia this year in the production of liquid fuels such as crude oil.

The US itself is often divided between two similar foreign-policy camps – the “realists” (such as Henry Kissinger) and the “idealists” (such as Woodrow Wilson). In his address to the nation, Obama jumped between the two camps, trying to appeal to both, which may account for the poor reception of the speech among the foreign-policy elite.

Resolving this apparent clash in the US has not always been easy. But it is possible when there is a confluence of narrow national interests and broader principles and moral imperatives.

Take the Monroe Doctrine, set down in 1823, that insists no foreign power can dominate Latin America – for the interest of US security – while also asserting the ideal of self-rule in the region. Or consider that US presidents during the cold war who sought to protect US interests in western Europe while also promoting liberty in communist-dominated countries.

When realists and idealists are more sensitive to each other’s basic reasoning, common ground is possible. The principle and the practical overlap.

This is not new for the US. Thomas Jefferson said that America’s “interests soundly calculated, will ever be found inseparable from our moral duties.”

If there is a fly on the wall in the US-Russia talks, perhaps it can say those words.

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