Trust, but verify, was Ronald Reagan's approach to the Soviets as they worked on arms control during the cold war. The phrase showed his hopes for the relationship, but also acknowledged the limitations. Four presidents later, his mantra still applies – even as Washington seeks a fresh start with Moscow this week.
When Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov meets with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Geneva on Friday, they will begin talks while at the lowest point in US-Russian relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. No question, it's time to "press the reset button," as Vice President Biden said at a security conference in Munich last month.
Russia, under Vladimir Putin, shares most of the blame for this low point. The Kremlin has cracked down on political and civil freedoms at home and waged war – both economic and military – in its "near abroad." It has demagogued, turning Russians against the West.
But the US and its allies are not without fault. Their mistake was not in their principles, but in their PR – expanding NATO and the European Union in a way and at a speed that alarmed Russia, putting Moscow on the defensive and, more recently, offensive. Russians also didn't take well to lecturing on democracy and capitalism.
"Cold War II" has produced serious fallout. Threats of common concern – a nuclear Iran, a Taliban comeback, energy insecurity, loose nukes and other weapons issues – have suffered from lack of attention, even obstruction.
Several factors can help improve ties, which Moscow says it wants.
One is willingness on both sides for a new round of nuclear arms negotiations, which will be the main subject of Friday's talks. This is a manageable topic that also reaffirms Russia as a superpower. In the past, the step-by-step process of such talks helped build trust that also led to progress in human rights.
Another factor is a change in US tone. In Mr. Biden's Munich rollout of a new foreign policy, his commitment to "listen [and] consult" met a warm response from European allies and Moscow alike. Willingness to rethink an anti-Iranian missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic – an acute irritant to Russia – should also help.
And an economic crisis just might change Moscow's tone, introducing a new humility.
In Washington, some go so far as to suggest deepening US commercial ties with Russia as a way to slowly build a partnership. This may work, yet Germany has gone this route, and Moscow repays Berlin by holding it hostage to natural gas disputes with Ukraine.
Indeed, that response points to the limitations of the reset button. Is it possible to be partners when one side conducts internal and foreign policy through diktat and arm twisting, while the other values democratic persuasion? The Obama team rightly says that issues such as sovereignty and freedom to choose alliances (read: Georgia and Ukraine) are not up for debate.
In the end, it has to be remembered that while Russia is not the Soviet Union, its "managed democracy" is not democracy. The Obama team deserves encouragement for its new openness with Moscow. But it must also be open-eyed about the possibilities.
By the Monitor's Editorial Board March 3, 2009