Joe Biden has caught hell the past couple of weeks for making some fairly obvious observations to a reporter about Russia's internal problems and for implying that the interests of such a weakened country needn't worry the United States all that much. Moscow officialdom has responded in high dudgeon, and Russian commentators are insisting that the vice president has revealed the dark and irresponsible motives behind American policy. Administration spokesmen dismiss it as just another Biden gaffe.
It's no surprise that comments about Russia's demographic decline, its over-dependence on commodity exports, the shakiness of its banks and so on can be interpreted to mean that the United States intends to push the envelope at Moscow's expense -- and expects to get away with it. Yet it appears that what the reporter asked the vice president was not why America is doing so much to provoke Russia but, rather, why the United States thinks it can deter Russian power while doing so little. As a response to this question, Biden's answer sounded more like an attempt to change the subject, an uneasy way of saying that maybe the Russians, with all their problems at home, will end up deterring themselves. No need for the United States to push the envelope after all.
An uproar, in other words, about whether the United States is overreaching and disregarding Russia's interests should perhaps have been about whether America is trying to succeed on the cheap and is failing to uphold its own interests. But no matter which question the vice president was asked, the Obama administration needs a more convincing answer.
In explaining that the United States is not putting itself on a collision course with Russia, Biden could have claimed credit for what has already been accomplished. And to reassure those who think that U.S. policy is long on talk and short on action, he would have to be more candid about what it will take to strengthen the independence of Russia's neighbors.
Showing that the administration is serious about Russian-American relations is the easy part of dealing with the Biden flap. By now Russian policymakers have seen enough of U.S. policy to know that Washington's guiding thought is not how to bring Russia to its knees. The administration is not counting on Russia's backwardness to win its cooperation. It's counting on common interest.
In his visit to Moscow last month, President Obama accorded Russian leaders a degree of deference that even close allies have been denied. He went far toward building a relationship centered on the strategic nuclear balance--the heart of Russia's claim to be a great power. He accepted a connection between arms reductions and missile defense that was probably President Dmitry Medvedev's top priority at the summit. And he went easy on an embarrassing recent example of shortsighted Russian decision-making--Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's still-unexplained scuttling of 16 years of effort to get Russia into the World Trade Organization.
The administration has a good story to tell about the Russian-American relationship it is trying to build. Can it say as much about what it is doing to bolster Russia's neighbors? It's silly to suggest that Russia's weak banking system or declining population or any of its other internal problems might keep it from pummeling Georgia again if the opportunity arose. Yet there are forces at work of a very different kind that favor U.S. interests.
Almost all the states of the former Soviet Union are already working with Western governments, and with each other, to increase their independence from Moscow. When Kyrgyzstan lets the United States keep using its air base to reach Afghanistan despite Russian bribes; when Uzbekistan refuses to join a rapid-reaction military force that Russia wants to create; when Turkmenistan invites American and European companies to help break Gazprom's grip on its energy exports; when the president of Armenia invites the president of Georgia (who is still denounced by Moscow as a genocidal murderer) to receive an award -- all in the space of a few months, it's clear that the geopolitical tide is moving in the right direction.
This trend does not mean that American support for Russia's neighbors is unnecessary, only that it has a realistic chance to succeed. What Dean Acheson called "the added energy and power of America" will often be decisive. These states want military training and equipment so they can stand up to intimidation. They want the access to international markets that frees them from economic subordination. They want the diplomatic attention that allows them to resist interference in their internal affairs.
These are the practical problems on which the Obama administration needs to make progress if it wants to support the independence of Russia's neighbors. Only if it gets these problems right will reporters get a better answer the next time around.
The writer is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University. He was U.S. ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.