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A Realistic Reset with Russia

Author: James M. Goldgeier, Dean, School of International Service, American University
August/September 2009
Policy Review


Meeting for the first time in London on April 1, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and U.S. President Barack Obama declared in their joint statement they were "ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between [the] two countries."

It is rather startling that 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the leaders of the two nations believe they need to stress their readiness to overcome Cold War mentalities. But is it really Cold War mentalities that have been the problem? The dashing of expectations that has occurred often in the past two decades should lead us to be somewhat sober about the prospects going forward, despite the Obama administration's worthy goal of pushing the "reset button" and its early achievements. Looking back through the history of the intervening years can help us understand why we have made such little progress in forging a strong U.S.-Russian relationship since the hopeful days after the collapse of communism. Doing so reveals that the problems in the relationship have been caused not by lingering Cold War mentalities, but rather by two very different visions of the post-Cold War world, as well as by the sharp asymmetries in power that emerged when the Soviet Union imploded. While Medvedev and Obama followed their April meeting with a productive summit in Moscow in July, we should be realistic about what we can expect given the underlying differences in both worldview and power that will continue to exist.

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