Foreign Policy in the 2012 Presidential Election Op-Eds #1

posted on September 24, 2012 in Politics and Society

      Russia: “Geopolitical Foe” or Strategic Partner 

By Nolan Pick, Deputy Director of the Washington International Business Council and the Executive Council on Diplomacy

As we near another presidential election in the United States, Americans are again looking to elect someone they see eye-to-eye with on the many issues they find important.  As the panelists at the YPFP Foreign Policy in the 2012 Presidential Election discussion pointed out, there is a distinct difference between how President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney view the world and America’s place in it.  And, no one foreign policy issue more clearly demonstrates this difference, or has such immediate effects on domestic policy, than the U.S.-Russia relationship.

With no action necessary by the U.S. government, Russia joined the World Trade Organization this month.  This could be a boon for U.S. companies, who currently only account for 4.5% of Russia’s imports.  Standing in the way of increased exports, however, is the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, a Cold War relic from 1974 that prevents the U.S. from establishing permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with Russia.  Without PNTR, the U.S. cannot benefit from the trade liberalization that Russia committed to upon joining the WTO.  Russia has been granted a waiver from Jackson-Vanik since 1994, but full repeal has been languishing in Congress, putting U.S. companies at a disadvantage as Russia’s markets open up to all other WTO members.

In addition, Congress has linked the Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act to repeal of Jackson-Vanik.  The “Magnitsky Act” is aimed at addressing rule of law and human rights violations relating to the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009. 

So what does that have to do with the average voter?  With the U.S. unemployment rate stubbornly above 8%, increasing trade with Russia seems like a no-brainer.  Especially since the U.S. doesn’t have to make any trade adjustments: just repeal the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.  Although the “Magnitsky Act” is important, it is delaying the repeal of Jackson-Vanik, and the potential exports and jobs PNTR will bring to the U.S. economy, and could be considered separately at a later date.

The direction of U.S. foreign policy in relation to Russia is at a critical juncture.  We can continue to coordinate with Russia and reap the economic benefits, or view them with hostility.  President Obama and Mitt Romney have very different views on Russia, which demonstrates a very different approach to foreign policy overall.

President Obama has chosen to coordinate with Russia since he came into office in 2009.  He sought to “reset” U.S.-Russia relations by visiting Russia and meeting with then President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  He also negotiated the New START treaty to reduce nuclear arms between the two countries.  Vice President Biden called for a repeal of Jackson-Vanik last year, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton focused on helping Russia join the WTO as part of her “economic statecraft” initiative.  Addressing the Economic Club of New York, Secretary Clinton said, “Even in a U.S.-Russia relationship dominated for decades by politics and security, we are now focused on helping Russia join the World Trade Organization,” showing a clear shift in past Russia policy.

Obama has made it clear that he values Russia as an economic partner and has focused on strengthening the U.S.-Russia relationship.  Despite Russia’s continued opposition to UN Security Council resolutions against Syria, the Obama administration has not changed its tone.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, views Russia with much more skepticism.  In March 2012, Romney called Russia “without question our number one geopolitical foe.”  He has criticized President Obama’s “reset” with Russia.  According to statements on his campaign website, he says Obama “continued the same ‘we give, Russia gets’ policy” with the New START treaty.  His website even goes so far as to say “Russia is a destabilizing force on the world stage.  It needs to be tempered.”

A Romney administration would undertake a complete reversal of policy when it comes to Russia.  Gone would be any mention of cooperation, negotiation, or economic benefit.  In its place is an aggressive tone, which leaves little room for negotiation.

As voters head to the polls in November, there are plenty of issues that deserve attention.  But with foreign policy, the U.S.-Russia relationship is a clear example of how the candidates differ in world view and the potential effects for the U.S. economy. 

President Obama has made Russia a strategic partner, reaching out to Russia to negotiate on important international issues like nuclear arms reductions and the tensions in the Middle East.  His administration is worked to help Russia join the WTO, potentially increasing the market for U.S. goods and services and creating jobs in America. 

For Obama, the United States is a powerful economy that can work together with other nations for economic cooperation and security.  Romney, on the other hand, sees the United States as a force to spread democracy and American values, despite opposition.  He looks to confront Russia and assert American power, at the risk of reigniting tensions with a potentially lucrative trading partner and strategic security ally.