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.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.