Archive for Monday, January 29, 2001

Bush right to delay Putin meeting

January 29, 2001


— Europe comes before Russia, and not only in the alphabet now: President George W. Bush will move slowly to engage Vladimir Putin in a working dialogue after shoring up trans-Atlantic relations.

Bush's still-unfolding choice to use all deliberate speed in dealing with Moscow is based on sound principles. But it also faces pitfalls. The new administration has to sort out exactly what "Europe" is in the 21st century. It must also determine what kind of Russia Putin aims to command. Neither of these tasks is easy.

In its first important shift in foreign policy emphasis, the Bush White House has indicated to Moscow that the new president will consult fully with America's chief European allies on missile defense and other issues before sitting down with Putin, U.S. and European officials tell me.

The first contact between Bush and Putin is not scheduled to occur before the July summit of the Group of Eight big powers in Italy. Even then, Moscow has been told, the two leaders will engage in no more than a "get-acquainted" session in Genoa.

The pause should not come as a complete shock to the Kremlin. Bush laid out his intention to take a slow boat to Russia in his presidential campaign. He repeatedly emphasized that his first priority would be reaffirming American alliances and friendships abroad.

The pledge makes strategic as well as political sense. To move forward smoothly on national missile defense, Bush will need to overcome European misgivings and minimize Russian and Chinese opportunities to play the allies against Washington. It buys him time to look more carefully at the controversial weapons system as well.

His hopes to have friendly nations take over some of the defense burdens that U.S. troops now carry abroad also requires prolonged and deft diplomacy with the Europeans and Japan.

Bush and campaign aides also promised to pull back from what they saw as intrusive and unproductive U.S. involvement in Russia under Bill Clinton, who assigned top priority to integrating Russia into a global order of free-market democratic nations.

Putin can live with less U.S. involvement in Russian affairs. But the Kremlin worries that Bush is drawing sharp, ideological differences among the world's major nations and consigning Russia to the status of an enemy, potential or current. A worried Putin has asked friends in the West why Russia is being treated differently, as Bush's lack of enthusiasm for immediate talks with him has become clear.

The contrast will be glaring by early summer: After attending a hemispheric summit in Quebec City in April, Bush is due to go to Sweden in mid-June for a semi-annual presidential meeting with European Union officials. Discussions are also under way about Bush visits to European capitals and convening a NATO summit in Brussels in the same period.

Bush's presence at a NATO gathering so early in his presidency would carry powerful symbolism. It would underline the U.S. attachment to NATO as the bedrock of U.S.-European relations and perhaps diminish the claim of the European Union to growing global importance. That result would not bring grief to some members of Bush's foreign policy team concerned about growing EU influence on defense.

At the same time, the Bush team seems aware of the need to balance alliance-centered strategy with outreach to Russia. Steve Hadley, an expert on European and Russian affairs who is Bush's deputy national security adviser, predicted to a Washington audience earlier this month that the president would push hard to move U.S.-Russian relations "beyond the Cold War logic" of mutually assured destruction.

U.S. and Russian officials "need to develop a common framework to show that a mix of offensive and defensive weapons systems is, in fact, stabilizing," Hadley said, outlining a basis for a new strategic approach to Moscow. "We can arrive at a lower nuclear posture."

But the Bush administration needs to do more than voice hopes for cooperation while it is waiting for the diplomatic stars to move into alignment six months from now. The president should dispatch Secretary of State Colin Powell to Moscow to deliver a personal message from Bush to Putin by the end of March, well before a NATO summit is announced.

The Russian leader needs to hear directly from America's top diplomat how the coming pause fits into a strategy that will not automatically consign Russia to a lowly or enemy status.

Getting right, and tight, with friends first is common sense. So is avoiding reinventing the Cold War.

Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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