Creating a New Axis

A good deal of President Bush’s trip to Russia and Europe amounted to the kind of image-polishing and schmoozing most U.S. presidents do at various times. U.S. presidents usually spend about two years trying to work on their purported domestic agenda before figuring out that they look a lot more “presidential” when traveling overseas than when snorting at the trough with Congress or nattering about senior prescription benefits. So they attend receptions and visit schools and hospitals, and it’s much more mediagenic (and less contentious) than amendments to farm bills or details of regulatory restructuring. George W. Bush had foreign affairs thrust upon him by the September 11 attack, and perhaps just in time as he had passed most of his exceedingly modest domestic agenda and didn’t look to have very much to talk about between now and 2004. So he has the advantage of being almost forced to take on the foreign-policy president role most presidents embrace in the third year or second term – and to appear to do so as a result of a vicious attack rather than sagging poll numbers and stalled domestic policy.

It just could be, however, that this trip will serve as a marker for an interesting and potentially significant shift in the world power balance. President Bush and President Putin of Russia seem to have developed a genuine coziness, and it’s beginning to be reflected in alliances and policies. By signing the nuclear warhead reduction treaty and talking about the U.S. getting more of its petroleum from Russia, the two presidents may be signaling a Russo-American entente. The Bush-Putin relationship seems to have more practical policy implications than the apparent Clinton-Yeltsin warmth, and it could alter power relationships around the world.


Whether this new and warmer relationship lasts may depend on whether it is based more on personal warmth between the two presidents or on a perception of shared interests. Bush apparently has great confidence in his own intuitive senses and personal BS detector when sizing people up, and by all accounts he seems genuinely drawn to Putin, even though one is inclined to be a bit skeptical of Dubya’s ability to look into his soul.

Since Bush didn’t demonstrate any great interest in international affairs, let alone a fascination with history, diplomacy or any of the related dark arts prior to becoming president, it might be justifiable to worry just a bit about his apparent willingness to commit the United States to relationships and agreements on the basis of his instincts and feelings, without much historical background or knowledge of contexts that could make relationships notably more complex than can be handled by two simpatico men on the phone.

For example, Putin faces a fairly delicate problem of improving the relationship with the United States while not appearing too eager to embrace the West, especially to some of the more conservative elements of the Russian military. To be sure, Putin is hardly a natural democrat who is disinclined to move forward on a policy or decision until he is sure he has the majority of informed opinion with him (but then, neither is Bush), but he does have to take domestic opinion into account.

The persistence of suspicion of America in certain Russian quarters, the existence of what might becalled a fallen-superpower syndrome that makes Russians even touchier than usual could constrain Putin’s freedom of action or ability to deliver on implied promises to Bush. One wonders how aware Bush might be of such constraints or complications.


Whether all parties are aware of complications or truly able to deliver, however, the U.S. and Russian leaders seem to have made several implicit bargains. The nuclear warhead reduction is essentially superficial; it needs to be formalized only for appearance’s sake. More important is the determination of the two countries to be “strategic partners” in ensuring the stability of world energy markets. Translation: Bush isn’t too sure Saudi Arabia is going to continue to be a reliable supplier, especially if an attack on Iraq complicates matters there. So he’s looking to Russia to be a back-up and perhaps eventually the primary supplier of petroleum to the United States, especially if the effort to get Congress to approve drilling in the Alaskan wilderness continues to fail.

In addition the U.S. gets an implied Russian blessing to continue to operate in Georgia, Tajikistan and other parts of Central Asia. There might be semi-legitimate concerns about terrorists operating there, but these countries are of interest to the United States chiefly because of petroleum or petroleum transportation potential. In addition, of course, they provide a handy back door through which to keep an eye on China, which has disappeared from the media radar but not from the screens of U.S. diplomats and strategists. China is keenly aware of this potential and more than a little concerned about the new U.S.-Russian coziness. Finally, the U.S. gets at least tacit approval from Russia to conduct the continuing war on terrorism, even if it involves attacking Iraq and taking out Saddam Hussein. Russia might not provide material support, but it is unlikely to raise the kind of diplomatic and “world community” obstacles it did during the Kosovo bombing operation and the Bosnian exercise in establishing a garrison in an imperial outpost.


In exchange, Russia gets several things, some concrete and some ephemeral. Perhaps most important to Putin, it gets tacit U.S. consent that the brutal exercise in suppressing rebels in Chechnya is to be viewed as a part of the noble worldwide war on terror rather than an illegitimate effort to keep the old empire together regardless of the wishes of the subjects. Since Putin rode to power to a great extent on his promise to deal harshly with Chechnyan rebels (perhaps helped by staged "atrocities"), deflecting U.S. and Western criticism of the rather nasty way the Russians are going about the Chechnyan operation is important. Russia also gets a virtual promise of U.S. help getting in to the World Trade Organization. WTO membership, in an ideal world, would be viewed as a mixed blessing at best. But in today’s world, it provides a member country with more access to trade and investment, so Putin, who seems to be shaping up as something of an ultimate pragmatist, no doubt values it. The U.S. also implicitly promises a new NATO-Russian relationship, the shape of which is not clear yet but is clearly supposed to be beneficial to Russia. Bush was also specific about wanting to repeal the old Jackson-Vanik restrictions on trade, enacted in the 1970s to encourage the old Soviet Union to ease up on persecution of Soviet Jews or to allow them to emigrate.

Despite some lip-service scolding from Bush and U.S. diplomats, Russia also gets a bit of a pass on its relationship with Iran. It seems likely that Russia is getting hard cash when it sells missile and nuclear technology to Iran, which is valuable to Russia. So the U.S. and Russia will agree to disagree and postpone any potential showdown over the issue, even though President Bush previously included Iran in his fanciful “Axis of Evil."


All this U.S.-Russian coziness is an interesting and in some ways surprising development. Most observers expected Russia to be especially dismayed over the Bush administration’s decision to go ahead with some sort of missile defense system. But after a pro forma protest, Putin apparently shrugged it off and decided it was more important to build a new relationship with the United States than to let old missile-defense wounds stand in the way.

The closer U.S.-Russian relationship, however, seems deeply disturbing to many Western European countries. As the Bush-Putin relationship gets closer, many Europeans are worried that the U.S. doesn’t consider Western Europe to be the center of the geopolitical universe any more. They’re right. The U.S. has achieved the kind of hegemonic power that it thinks it can go it alone, without Europe, on most of adventures it really wants to undertake. As U.S. planners seem to see it, it would be nice to have European support and it is worth expending some effort to deflect or defuse potential European criticism. But when it comes down to it, who needs them.

Thus the European aspect of Bush’s trip amounts to handholding and reassurance. He probably hoped that his speech in Berlin would win unanimous support from the EU countries for an invasion of Iraq. But he’s realistic enough not to be surprised that unconditional support was not forthcoming. Still, he would prefer not have Western European countries sniping at his heels when the U.S. finally does decide to invade Iraq.

So, as in some marriages, even as the U.S. and Western Europe are drifting apart, Bush is making the effort to reassure the nervous Europeans that we are closer than ever, that NATO is more central to U.S. plans and strategies than before, that we would never think of doing anything rash without consulting our oldest friends and allies. Pay no attention to the fact that we have rented apartments not only in Moscow but also in St. Petersburg. They’re strictly for srictly-business trips. No hanky-panky.

In fact, it could be that momentous power shifts are underway, and almost everybody knows it.


The celebrations, at least as shown on television, of Memorial Day this year reinforce what an enormous favor the September 11 terrorists did for the power structure in the United States. The concert from Washington, DC, shown on PBS (which I watched because it contained some of the kind of music I prefer – and because I thought it might be a barometer) featured endless ruminations from family members related to firefighters killed in the terrorist assault.

It couldn’t help but tug at the heartstrings of almost any American, but I couldn’t help noticing how well the powers-that-be used the event to engender support for whatever is next in the long imperial war on terror. It helps enormously to have not only completely innocent victims, but people who knowingly put themselves at risk for the sake of others, having been forced to do so by a dastardly attack.

The American establishment hasn’t had many credible heroes to celebrate since – well, maybe since World War II. There was heroism in the Vietnam War, certainly, but the war was ultimately unpopular and many Americans chose to revile rather than celebrate the military. The splendid little incursions of the Reagan-Bush I-Clinton eras offered little opportunity for personal heroism and were undertaken in the pursuit of foreign policy goals that were not very well articulated or understood.

With the exception of Gulf War I, an understandable military adventure that got American blood stirring and was over before it could create too many casualties and complications, the little incursions have been mostly desultory, winning mile-wide-inch-deep support from Americans who just couldn’t bring themselves to feel invested in “nation-building” in Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, Bosnia or elsewhere.

But now we have innocent victims, brave heroes, righteous indignation, and implicit permission to connect with World War II and other more positively remembered military exploits. Truly the terrorists did U.S. authorities and leaders a great favor, the opportunity to bolster and buttress their power.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).