Senator McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for President, has, over the years, made a virtue out of inconsistency when the logic of consistency has not always been a virtue. This has been part of his appeal to independents and to others who gaze at the political world not from partisan eyes but through analytical lenses. What some observers may interpret as an inconsistency or paradox, others view as logical and well-formulated understanding. In this context, it is difficult to separate campaign rhetoric from serious policy, to differentiate politics from policy.
One apparent inconsistency in the campaign that involves U.S.-Russian relations is worth exploring. Earlier this year, the Senator surprised some observers by proposing that Russia be excluded from the G-8 group of industrial democracies. Then, on May 27th, in a speech outlining a comprehensive U.S. approach to foreign policy and proliferation that revealed clearly his internationalist mind-set, he urged continuation of cooperation with Russia on programs of mutual interest such as cooperative threat reduction (aka Nunn-Lugar or “loose nukes” program) and a host of related nonproliferation and anti-terrorist programs. How punitive action depriving Russia of the status among the G-8 would advance cooperation on nonproliferation has puzzled more than one observer. Senator McCain has since distanced himself from his G-8 statement on Russia, but the motive underlying his initial thinking merits some analysis and can shed light on his national security thinking.
Russia was invited to join the G-8 by President Clinton in 1997 at a time when the Russian economy was declining sharply, its political stability shaky, a barrel of oil a fraction of its current price, and its regional and international influence all but sapped of capability. Russia had participated on the margins of the then G-7 prior to 1997, and the thinking in the 1990s was that inviting Russia into the international cluster of important nations would bring them further into cooperation on matters over which the rest of the world had concerns – nuclear weapons, energy resources, regional stability, and the shift away from Communism and authoritarianism to an open society and democratic governance. Apart from that, Russia’s bare economy hardly qualified it for membership with the other seven and it had not transitioned into a democratic society, the two important eligibility criteria for membership in the influential group of industrial democracies.
Since l997, the price of a barrel of oil has skyrocketed, Russia has re-gained influence on its periphery and beyond. Its economy is now buoyant, its self-confidence restored, and its politics mostly settled, with one exception – the drift back to authoritarian governance – Russia would seem today to be more eligible for G-8 membership than it was a decade ago. When measured by Gross Domestic Production (GDP), the 2007 IMF ranking had Russia the eleventh largest economy in the world. When the country scores come out for 2008, its ranking will, no doubt, move up several notches. This has encouraged a bolder, more assertive foreign policy, use of its energy muscle to pressure neighbors, and greater determination to advance its interests on issues ranging from missile defense to shoring up is southern border with tough talk and behavior, actions that were unthinkable in the 1990s.
Russia’s contribution to national security and nonproliferation decisions in recent G-8 meetings has not been noteworthy for its exceptionality. Its voice has been heard more often and listened to more closely by the other G-8 members than in the past and this evolution has been in direct correlation to its growing economic clout. In the G-8 nonproliferation working groups, Russia has often stood with the United States on nuclear weapons, nonproliferation, and anti-terrorism issues by resisting strident language on disarmament, while jointly promoting initiatives to combat nuclear terrorism, promote responsible nuclear energy, and advance mechanisms for assuring an international supply of nuclear fuel so that countries will abstain from developing indigenous fuel cycle capabilities. Russia has been a cooperative, though often-times prickly participant, in the bilateral Nunn-Lugar cooperative threat reduction program aimed at reducing the proliferation threat from the states of the former Soviet Union and the larger ten year, twenty billion dollar Global Partnership which is the G-8 follow-on to the U.S. Nunn-Lugar program.
Russia’s helpful rhetoric in the G-8 on Iran has not been matched by its action towards Iran in the United Nations Security Council where it has acted to soften sanctions resolutions and in the IAEA Board of Governors where it has sought to tone down harsh criticism of Iran. This has understandably riled Senator McCain and others who believe that Russian cooperation is essential if Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons capability is to be stopped and reversed. Essential, but not fully forthcoming. This also explains why the proposed U.S. nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia, sometimes known as a 123 Agreement, has been buffeted by political turbulence in the Congress.
Russia’s drift back to its tradition of authoritarian governance and the recurring attacks on civil society and concentration of political power in Moscow wear badly on those, like Senator McCain, who have been enthusiastic promoters of programs that further democratic governance and open societies. Indeed, he has proposed that the world’s democracies form a voluntary consortium – a League of Democracies – as a problem solving alternative to international organizations prone to inaction or sluggish reaction to international crises. Presumably, McCain might consider excluding Russia from this consortium.
It is entirely appropriate to criticize the drift towards authoritarian governance in Russia because the backward political drift there is true, not fabricated for purely political reasons here. To remain silent is to ignore the core values underlying our political culture. Questioning the membership of Russia in the prestigious G-8 is one way of getting attention to the political regression. Similarly, ignoring the role that Russia can and must play in strengthening the global nonproliferation regime would be contrary to our national interest. We should encourage more Russia cooperation on nonproliferation and arms control matters even as we express our concern about political backsliding at home. When competing interests collide, as they often do, they can co-exist and survive and succeed if carefully managed. We need to cooperate with Russia on issues of mutual interest where we can, and to disagree with them on those issues where we must. Senator McCain’s maverick reputation and his propensity to speak his mind may allow him considerable running room to follow both foreign policy tracks toward Russia.