It is such a shame when the agreement between presidential candidates seems to come over the one issue that it shouldn’t. Amongst talk of the bailout, striking into Pakistan and health care, both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) used Friday’s first presidential debate to speak down to the single most important partner of the United States after the members of the European Union: Russia. When you have McCain looking into Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s eyes and seeing “KGB”-which, I’m sure we can all agree, is impossible because I don’t believe McCain can read Cyrillic-and Obama flatly saying we need to absorb Georgia and the Ukraine into NATO as quickly as possible, then there’s going to be problems.
What do the candidates expect will happen when January rolls around and one of them gets into office as our chief executive? At this state in international relations-with the problems of economic uncertainty and after the invasion of Georgia-our nation cannot afford the failures of a steep learning curve in U.S.-Russian relations the same way we suffered through them in, primarily, the first half of the George W. Bush administration. At least in some ways those problems-such as placing upper-level relations on the back burner while we deal with the Middle East-were understandable. After all, his father had only dealt with a post-Soviet Russia for a short time before Democratic President Bill Clinton took over and established a radically different foreign policy approach. However, in the post-2008 presidency, in which both camps have advisers who have been working on Russian policy for almost two decades, early missteps in the relationship are to a point inexcusable. Difficulties will not mean a new Cold War, but they will hurt us on the margins.
For example, Obama also said during the debate that we must utilize the relationship with Russia in order to help solve the problem of Iranian nuclear proliferation. How, if Obama is talking down to Moscow, can we expect cooperation from them on issues sensitive to us? It’s pure na’veté. Of course, this does not mean that we can allow Russia to do whatever they want, and also we must factor in the normal more-extreme-than-not effects of presidential rhetoric, but it is a shame that the candidates must ostracize and criticize every aspect of the relationship with Russia in order to appear strong to voters. It is not a matter of completely re-conceptualizing our foreign perspective, but maybe for once we could stop appealing to the least common denominator in every international issue that we are faced with.