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The wall has been torn down, but Russia remains a ‘hot mic’ topic

President Reagan giving a speech at the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Federal Republic of Germany. June 12, 1987.

President Reagan giving a speech at the Berlin Wall, Brandenburg Gate, Federal Republic of Germany. June 12, 1987.  Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

Ronald Wilson Reagan, Address from the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Wall, June 12, 1987.

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Twenty-five years ago today, President Ronald Reagan delivered a speech that in many ways defined the essence of his presidency.  At the Brandenburg Gate of the Berlin Wall on June 12, 1987, President Reagan demanded that Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this wall,” which was a symbol of communist oppression. While the cold war battle of ideas receded alongside physical tearing down of the Berlin Wall, Russian-American relations continue to be marked by geopolitical rivalry on the one hand, but modest cooperation on the other. Foreign policy toward Russia has been a hot (mic) topic in this election and a range of issues present ongoing challenges for the next administration. In this post we outline the candidates’ positions.

President Obama has had some limited success in finding opportunities to work with Russia, but he has also been criticized for not seizing enough on opportunities to re-cast relations. He launched a diplomatic “reset” with Russia in 2009. Under his administration, the United States and Russia entered into a new arms control agreement, despite a fierce battle with Senate Republicans. Though President Obama called it “a cornerstone of our relations with Russia,” the New START Treaty was a modest accomplishment as it limits the number of deployed nuclear warheads to 1,550 each, down from about 2,200 each. The United States and Russia also entered into a so-called “123 Agreement” for civilian nuclear cooperation. On the trade front, Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization has also been cast as a diplomatic success for the Obama administration. The Obama administration also secured Russia’s cooperation in instituting further sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. President Obama is also pushing to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment, 37-year-old provision designed to pressure Communist nations for human-rights abuses and emigration policies, in order to improve trade relations.

However, the picture is not so rosy on the security front. The Obama administration has moved forward with plans for missile defenses, despite the fact that missile defense has consistently drawn the ire of the Russians. Russia also continues to block the Obama administration’s efforts to get the United Nations to take significant action against Syria’s government.

Mitt Romney’s October 2011 foreign policy white paper entitled “An American Century,” said that the primary challenge facing any American leader is checking Russia’s harmful ambitions, while promoting its transformation into a decent and democratic political actor.  It called Russia a destabilizing force on the world stage that needs to be tempered. According to the document, Romney would “reset the reset” by implementing “a strategy to discourage aggressive or expansionist behavior on the part of Russia and encourage democratic political and economic reform.”

In March, Romney said during an interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN that “Russia this is without question our number one geopolitical foe.” Romney has also criticized the president for making too many concessions to Russia by scrapping U.S. missile defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, while getting little in return. Romney said he would “would make clear that while he is willing to cooperate with Russia on missile defense in ways that will enhance the overall effectiveness of the missile-defense system, he will not compromise the capability of the system or yield operational control of it.”

In a March 2012 Foreign Policy op-ed, Romney said President Obama’s “hot mic diplomacy” is endangering the United States. According to Romney, “In his dealings with the Kremlin, as in his dealings with the rest of the world, President Obama has demonstrated breathtaking weakness -- and given the word "flexibility" a new and ominous meaning.” He accused Russia of being obstructionist on a whole range of issues and for being “a thorn in our side on questions vital to America's national security.” Romney’s posturing on Russia may be an attempt to portray himself as following President Reagan on foreign policy and thus boost his conservative credentials. Others within the Republican Party coalition, like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, would certainly like to see a less hawkish stance.

President George H.W. Bush's question to the United Nations just two days before Germany was re-united in October 1990 in many ways remains just as valid today as it was nearly 22 years ago. He asked, "Can we work together in a new partnership of nations?...Because the cold war's battle of ideas is not the last epic battle of this century." The Cold War may have been burried in Berlin, but whomever is selected as the next president will face a number of challenges with regards to building better relations Russia whilst preserving American principles, values and interests.

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