Column: Making frenemies with Putin

Reuters News
Posted: Sep 10, 2013 1:39 PM

By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman

Anyone who ever worried that Barack Obama might not be Made in the USA should take comfort from his quintessentially American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to give temporary asylum to Edward Snowden: pouting.

Democratic and Republican presidents alike tend to believe that if other countries don't act like our "friends," then they must be our enemies. This attitude creates unrealistic expectations that slow the healing of old injuries, and subverts the potential for a meeting of minds on critical issues — such as Syria's chemical weapons arsenal.

It's a truism that nations have interests, not friends or enemies. This may sound cynical, but interests act as lighthouses on the rocky shores of foreign policy. In a storm, they help governments distinguish between what they must do to survive, and what they might wish to do if seas were calm.

It is deeply in the interest of the United States to engage other countries in umpiring the peace of the world — and thereby make itself less of a target. Russia has an equal interest in helping Syria, its neighbor and ally, out of the messy corner into which President Bashar al-Assad has painted himself. Moscow also needs to contain the regional damage that could otherwise spill into Putin's backyard. We can and should work together, letting our interests rather than our passions guide us.

History shows that Russia is neither America's permanent ally nor our permanent enemy. In the 19th century, czarist Russia was the closest thing the United States had to a friend. In the Civil War, it alone of the great powers offered succor to the Union, and shortly after Moscow sold Alaska to the United States in preference to Great Britain, which controlled adjacent Canada.

In contrast, parliamentary England was the closest thing we had to an enemy at the time. The United States came to blows with Britain in 1812, narrowly averted another fight in 1861 over the Trent Affair, and sued Her Majesty's government in 1872 for aiding and abetting the Confederacy.

How did we overcome the propensity for suspicion and irritation between Washington and London that dated to the American Revolution of 1776? How might we overcome the same propensity towards conflict with Russia — which dates to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and now bedevils cooperation?

Time really does mend most wounds. Especially if we don't pick at them. So it would help if we give trade relations the chance to build an interdependence that is mutually beneficial — as it has been in the past.

The United States was extremely protective of its independence from Great Britain for at least 100 years after the Revolution. Anything Britain did that reeked of bossing us around prompted demands for retaliation by both Congress and the White House. Americans were acutely sensitive to British high-handedness and, in the parlance of the times, loved to twist the British Lion's tail or at least thumb their noses at him whenever possible.

In this respect, the farsighted policies of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton are instructive. Despite clashes that led many in Congress to advocate a trade war with Britain in 1789 and a naval showdown in 1794, Hamilton advocated trade relations — and peace — that would allow America to prosper in the long run.

Better to swallow a little pride than a lot of grapeshot, Hamilton reckoned. As a consequence, British investors underwrote America's industrialization over the course of the 19th century. And then the United States stood at Britain's side through two terrible world wars in the next.

The Cold War between Washington and Moscow ended barely 20 years ago. Healing it means refusing to interpret minor differences as major ones. Our biggest beef with the former Soviet Union was its oppressive control of Eastern Europe, its threat to expand into Western Europe, and its nuclear-powered aim to "bury" the United States.

All that is gone. Russia is now getting the big things right in its foreign policy, and it's on this that U.S. policymakers should focus. Russia's goals and actions no longer require U.S. troops at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. Putin's cooperation on anything else is gravy.

In the words of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters' World War Two ditty, we need to "ac-centuate the positive, e-liminate the negative . . . and don't mess with Mister In-between."

We also shouldn't be surprised that Russian leaders sometimes look for simple ways to salve national pride, considering the bruises with which they exited the Cold War. When Putin flaunts Russian independence by sheltering someone on our Most Wanted List — which he has a perfect right to do according to the customs of sovereignty — it makes no sense to let him get a rise out of us.

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And on those occasions that he exercises constructive leadership — as he may have with his following up on Secretary of State John Kerry's offhand remark about Syria's chemical weapons — we ought to applaud as loudly as if the gesture came from Germany or Japan, other onetime enemies. If Putin actually convinces Syria to stand down and place chemical weapons under international control, Americans should be the first to compliment Russia and the last to complain about anyone stealing our thunder or glory.

Skillfully managing flashpoints like these is imperative. Yet in the long run there aren't a lot of shortcuts to consistent amity. Trade is the surest road. This is demonstrated not only by America's experience with Britain, but also by France's relationship with Germany and Japan's with China.

Between 2009 and 2011, U.S. exports to Russia rose by 57 percent, ameliorating our negative balance of payments, while total U.S.-Russia trade increased over 80 percent. Last year, Russia joined the World Trade Organization and signed an agreement with the U.S. to respect our intellectual property. We still buy far more than we sell, which means that Americans are excellent customers for Russians, who have a growing incentive to stay on our good side — providing that we don't make it humiliating for them to do so.

This is the big story about U.S.-Russian relations, not Snowden, nor whether or not Putin cooperates with Obama, or any president, on each and every regional issue. That just ain't gonna happen — and expecting it only makes foreign governments want to twist our tail harder.

(Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman is a Reuters columnist. Opinions are her own)