U.S.-Russia relations still rocky, say scholars

April 16, 2010, 1:05 a.m.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, The Daily incorrectly reported that Philip Taubman moderated the event. In fact, he was a panelist.

The Soviet Union no longer exists, but as both the United States and Russia struggle with the identity of the former superpower, the question remains: what is it?

This question proved the driving force behind the Stanford U.S.-Russia Forum (SURF) panel on Thursday, when three experts gathered to discuss the nature of U.S.-Russia relations before community members, students and 25 competitively selected Russian delegates.

Political science professor Stephen Krasner, the former director for policy planning at the U.S. State Department, and Thomas Fingar Ph.D. ’77, the former deputy director of National Intelligence for Analysis and chairman of the National Intelligence Council, discussed the policy challenges that arose following the collapse of the bipolar Cold War era and how Russia must overcome cultural and political turmoil to face the wide range of rising powers changing the game of international relations.

Philip Taubman ’70, a consulting professor in the Center for International Security and Cooperation, was also a panelist.

Fingar relied on his background in intelligence to illustrate the ways in which the end of the Cold War forced a complete revamping of the American intelligence community.

“The Cold War was a terrible time for a lot of people, but boy, was it predictable,” Fingar said.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. government faced the monumental task of confronting a world wider than the walls of the Kremlin. After the September 11 terrorist attacks showed America that non-state actors could inflict high damage on even the world’s most powerful countries, the government realized it needed to revamp a structure designed for a traditional enemy that no longer existed.

“For much of the world, for decades, all [the United States] cared about was, ‘Are they on our side or on the Soviet side? And if they’re on the Soviet side, how do we get them to our side?” Fingar said.

“We had been protecting our way of life, and we’ve now moved down to the need to protect any American anywhere in the world from any threat,” he said. “The astonishing thing to me is that we haven’t made more mistakes than we have.”
The three speakers largely agreed that rough periods in U.S.-Russia relations in the past two decades have stemmed from President Clinton’s decision to expand NATO, despite promises to the contrary. The Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991 provided an opportunity to move forward in cooperation, but the speakers agreed that the clashing prides of the two nations made a spirit of equality impossible.

Krasner, whose studies have focused on questions of sovereignty, posed another explanation for difficulties in dealing with Russia — a theory that, if accepted, would have large repercussions for American action.

“It’s kind of a petro[leum]-mafia state,” he said, asserting that Russia’s actions cannot be counted on to make sense in traditional terms, but rather are shaped by the personal economic interests of Prime Minister Putin and his allies.

Asked about the potential for success of President Obama’s recent friendly overtures toward Russia, Krasner said, “I can’t tell you, because I don’t know what the effect of various policies are on Putin’s bank account.”

While Russia has had decades to observe the effect of special interest lobbying on American policy, the United States has had far less time to study Russia’s post-Soviet system.

“These views were not as optimistic as I expected them to be,” said Yury Isaev, press attaché of the Russian consulate, after the talk. “The real process in Russia that there is not such a great level of corruption in real life, and a lot of Western countries also have this same problem…the views of Mr. Krasner were more pessimistic than others.”

Beside corruption, the three speakers painted a portrait of Russia as a toppled power unnerved by a new political balance and flailing in the shadow of China’s looming growth. As U.S.-China relations have grown and Russia’s relative power has continued to decline, the panel believed that the nation had not yet developed a coherent way of remaining relevant.

“The U.S., which remains a superpower, has turned more and more of its attention to China, so Russia is going to develop an inferiority complex,” Taubman said.

“They want a seat at the table more to play defense than to promote a positive agenda,” Fingar agreed.

Login or create an account