Robert Donaldson: The time has come for the second Reset

US-Russia relations are always at the center of attention among Russian and foreign analysts. That is why RIAC could not miss an opportunity to interview Prof. Robert Donaldson of the University of Tulsa, a renowned expert in Russia and US external affairs. Prof. Donaldson was kind enough to speak about the "reset", issues of mutual distrust, US foreign policy shifts and the latest trends in the Asia Pacific.


According to a recent opinion poll, 43% of respondents agreed with the statement that, as the United States plays a major role in international relations, the U.S. president should be elected by the whole world. How would you respond to that suggestion?


Well, that’s a very amusing thought. Clearly, the United States’ leadership is important in the world, and our president is important, but it is not easy to take into account the interests of such a diverse global community. I think that what is important is that our president works more closely with the leaders of other powers, and respects the interest of other powers, but is accountable to only the American people for his or her actions.


As an expert in Russia and Russia-U.S. relations, how would you assess the “reset”?


Mr. Obama was asked not long ago what kind of grade he would give his economic policy in the U.S., he said “incomplete” and I think this is also the grade that I would give the reset. I think it started off with some positive accomplishments, some changes in the U.S. position on missile defense, The Agreement on the New Arms treaty: new START, which was a good name, and the very important agreement that Russia would allow the transit of NATO goods to Afghanistan. Those are very positive developments, as is Russia’s accession to the WTO, which I believe the U.S. supported. On the other hand, there has been continuing misunderstanding on important issues, certainly related to the conflicts in the Middle East, the Arab Spring, particularly now – Syria, and continuous disagreement about the severity of sanctions on Iran. I think there is much more that can be done. After the election, I think it is a good time for a second reset.


So we are more flexible now?


Yes, as said your former president Medvedev, yes. And I think it is true of the second term of any American presidency, that sometimes they are able to do something more visionary in foreign policy.


And how do you think we can overcome the existing problems of mutual distrust?


It is very hard. Old attitudes and old stereotypes are slow to die, and the “cold war” thinking has not vanished in the United States or in Russia. We really need to think, to understand the message that your former president Gorbachev was always sending: “This planet is our common home.” And we not only face the threat of weapons of mass destruction, which could seriously harm all of civilization, but also climate change and issues of declining resources and poverty in large parts of the world. There are so many things that we need to work together on. We establish trust in stages, in steps. I think we have taken some steps, but we need really to respect each other’s points of view, listen to each other’s positions, and establish more mutual confidence in each other before we can work to solve these very important global problems.


APEC 2012 in Vladivostok attracted a lot of attention globally, and is widely spoken about as an indicator of the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region. Obama’s idea to shift U.S. foreign policy to the Asia-Pacific region is also widely known. What do you see as American foreign policy’s goals in the Asia-Pacific region in the economic, military and political spheres in the immediate future and in the foreseeable future?


Well, let’s start with the economic sphere. I think that Asia is the most important focus for American business, both in terms of exports and imports, and it’s not only China: Japan is still the world’s third largest economy. Obviously, South Korea is a very important rising economic power. There are also the nations of South-East Asia and India, where we see a lot of economic growth. These are vital economies for America. The American military presence in Asia is, I believe, more reassuring than threatening. I think the United States’ military agreements with Japan and Korea are important for the stability of East Asia. They are not meant to be threatening to China. China, of course, has been building up its own military capabilities, and has entered into some territorial quarrels with nations around the South China Sea and Japan. The position of the United States, I think, needs to be one of encouraging those nations to engage in peaceful dialogue and, by its own military presence, to deter any temptation to use military means.


Why do you think these territorial disputes in the South China Sea are escalating now?


That’s a very good question. I think it is no accident that this is also the time of a leadership transition in China. The country is going through a period of internal discussion about, maybe even conflict between, differing views of China’s role in the world. Also, I think there are various differences about how strong the state and particularly the military should be, and about economic development. China’s economy is experiencing a slow-down, and of course, it is vitally dependent on oil and gas, resources that are thought to be present in the region: in the disputed territories. So, I think, the previous leadership, which emphasized China’s peaceful rise, is being challenged by some more nationalist and even military interests. One can only hope that this leadership conflict will be settled in the direction of those who want to resume the country’s peaceful rise.


Russia had been steadily strengthening its ties with the countries of the Asia-Pacific region. So, the question is: is cooperation between the U.S. and Russia possible in the Asia-Pacific region and in what areas?


Well, you know one interesting area would be actually in the Arctic regions, where I think there will be more activity as an unfortunate result of global warming. There will also be more activity in cooperation to develop Russia’s important energy resources in the Russian Far East by American multinational oil companies and so forth. This could be in Sakhalin and elsewhere. This could be one role America plays.


As far as security is concerned, Russia has the Shanghai Cooperation Organization with China and the Central Asian states that is especially important for reducing the threat of Islamic extremism in Central Asia. But beyond that, I gave a paper at the International Studies Association meeting in San Diego in March entitled “Is Russia still a Great Power in Asia?” I think the answer was utterly negative. Russia’s major influence and interests lie primarily in the former Soviet states, and its economic and cultural orientation, much like its demographic centre, is in Europe. Perhaps President Putin should be told that most of the powers in Asia, when they think about Asian security and even Asian diplomacy, don’t think about Moscow as a key participant in those issues, as it was during the whole period of the Cold War and even before.


Is it in the U.S. interests to engage Russia more in the Asia-Pacific’s political agenda in order to together represent a kind of counterbalance to China? Is there another means of deterring China?


I think it depends. Russia’s position on the North Korean nuclear challenge has been very constructive and necessary. The six-power talks necessarily include Russia. Russia has growing relations with South Korea, and that’s important. The real issue is that there should be some settlement to this long-standing territorial dispute between Russia and Japan. The United States, obviously, is very openly committed to Japanese security. We do not get involved in the dispute over whose territory the four Southern Kuril islands are, but Russia and Japan’s failure, over many decades, to solve this issue really limits the extent to which Russia can be involved in a cooperative East-Asian security regime. If the current leadership disputes with China turn out badly for the region, and if more nationalist and militarist elements seem to prevail, then all four states – Korea, Russia, China and the United States – will have greater motivation to think about security cooperation. But Russia and Japan need to solve their problems soon.


What about the partnership between the U.S. and India? The question is whether or not the U.S. administration perceives India as a counterbalance to China?


Well, yes and no. Obviously there is a history of border conflict and rival systems between India and China. It is very clear that India developed its nuclear weapons capabilities as a challenge or a counterweight to China. But India’s foreign policy is one that is primarily interested in India’s growing military and economic strength, and that is not contrary to the interests of the United States. But I do not think that India will let itself be used in some kind of game of rivalry over China. The Indians are a very proud people. The U.S. continues to have a very unhappy alliance with Pakistan. So, I think there are more complications in India’s position both toward China and toward the U.S. that would make that unlikely.


You speak about different powers, different influence centers. Many countries want to maintain some kind of neutral position between the growing power of China and increasing U.S. influence in the Asia-Pacific. Do you think the smaller states, especially the countries of the Asian-Pacific region, can maintain this independence, this centrality? Is it even possible?


Oh yes, I think so. Since the very bad times of the late 1990s, the “Asian economic crisis,” we have seen a real rise in both economic and political stability in the ASEAN area. And the United States, I think, has supported them both, in trying to ensure the military stability of the region, but also in growing economic ties. We have good relations with the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, much better relations with Vietnam, we are now opening up ties with Myanmar. This is all about ties. America does not really face any real conflicts in the region, and a large portion of our fleet is based in Singapore. These are strong economies where the U.S. presence is reassuring and where the U.S. commitment to Asia is seen not as a threat, but as a welcome development given the lengthening shadow of China.