Getting Reset Right

The collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and the American president’s decision to side with the Arab street, sacrificing one of Washington’s longest and most important strategic allies, compelled many observers to ask two questions: Are we witnessing the end of Obama’s realism; and how will the lessons of Cairo affect Obama’s policy of reset with Russia.

In the past two years, Barack Obama’s critics never considered that as a result of reset there are fewer nuclear warheads in Europe. But Europe is not more secure. Russia has become less confrontational but not more friendly to the West. Moscow has become more moderate in its behavior on the international scene but not more democratic or reform-minded in its internal politics. At the same time, both the United States and the European Union experienced a loss of influence in the post-Soviet space. Ukraine has become less democratic and its foreign policy shifted toward Russia. Aleksandr Lukashenko is as authoritarian as ever, and regardless of the fact that both the Kremlin and Washington – for different reasons – cannot stomach the Belarusian tsar, there are no real prospects for Russia and the West to cooperate and put an end to his repressive rule. So, how successful is the reset? Has it made Europe more secure and Russia more cooperative? Is it Putin’s Russia or the United States that benefits most from the policy of engagement pursued by the Obama Administration?

Paradoxically, it is the crisis in the Middle East that proves the strategic relevance of Obama’s reset policy. The Cairo confrontation demonstrated that autocracies are profoundly unstable, but the breakdown of dictatorships is not and cannot be much influenced by external actors. What the democratic awakening in the Middle East demonstrated is that international actors are marginal players when an Internet connected youth decides to confront corrupt elites. The events in Egypt also showed that the collapse of non-democratic regimes does not necessarily mean the emergence of democracy, not to mention liberal democracy. And while it is in the West’s strategic interest to side with the people during political turmoil, it is naïve to assume that the West can engineer such change. So the reset policy got democratization right: It is not the Western policy of democracy promotion – or its absence – that determines the fate of authoritarian regimes. The latest developments in the Middle East also established that the world is in turmoil and in search of balance; and that the United States in the future would be forced to engage with Europe – but not necessarily to engage in Europe.

President Obama is right to believe that Russia is more of a declining power than an insurgent power and that its recent revisionism – manifested in August 2008 during its war with Georgia – is better understood as evidence of the Kremlin’s insecurity rather than its imperial designs. The Kremlin, shaken by the global economic crisis, is terrified by Russia’s weakness and irrelevance in the post-Cold War era. Russian officials are desperate to preserve the country’s great power status in a time of major geopolitical shifts. So Obama had good reason to believe that a policy based on pragmatism and respect could win over Moscow. For the Kremlin, it is more feasible to preserve its great power status in cooperation with the United States rather than in confrontation. The United States and Russia probably do not have common aims and dreams, but they have common worries: Both Washington and Moscow are concerned about the rise of China and threatened by the ascent of radical Islam. (Russia is the European country with the largest Muslim minority and is therefore most vulnerable to Islamic radicalism.) And despite its numerous weaknesses, Russia also possesses strategic potential that could be critical to Washington’s effort to stabilize world order. So reset policy also got Russia right: It succeeded in turning Russia from hot-headed revisionist into reluctant realist when it comes to rebalancing global order.

The real question is does Obama get the EU right? Does the reset make Europe more secure? In its essence, reset is the policy of “Europeanization” of the Russia policy of the EU member states. Many Europeans had doubts about leaving Europe’s security to Europeans. In this sense reset is not necessarily good policy. It is simply a better policy than the one presented by Obama’s critics. Reset is an expression of America’s new strategic priorities in the world. So Europeans rightly blame Obama for losing interest in Europe, but the shift of America’s priorities away from the old continent was inevitable.

What matters is that the policy of reset created a strategic and psychological context that made possible a process of reconciliation between Poland and Russia and contributed to the repositioning of European member states toward Moscow. This convergence has two significant dimensions. On one hand, Moscow benefited from the fact that the EU’s new position toward Russia is more in line with the sensibilities of the Germans and French than those of Central Europeans. On the other hand, the convergence enhanced the ability of the EU member states to speak with one voice and impeded Russia’s potential to split the member states. At the moment, the prospect of joint German-Polish leadership when it comes to the EU’s policy toward Russia is more viable than ever.

The biggest loser – and the biggest winner – of Obama’s reset policy is Central Europe. It lost its symbolic importance in America’s political imagination, but gained real influence in shaping EU’s Russia policy.   But does the success of Obama’s reset policy make it sustainable? Not necessarily.

Russia’s importance in American politics has declined and polarization has increased. The reset may fall victim to this shifting political climate. Russia can also contribute to the collapse of the reset. Russian political elites at the moment tend to believe that reset is in their interest. But if thousands of protesters gather in the streets of Moscow, they may have second thoughts. What was in Putin’s head when he was watching Arab youth protesting on the streets of Cairo is a question we dare not ask. We know only that as history is being made in the Middle East, Central Europe and Russia are undergoing their own transformations, which in their way are as seismic as the one underway in Cairo.


Ivan Krastev is Director of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and
Permanent Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna. He is
also a Member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Tr@nsit online, 2011
This piece first appeared in in the Central
European Digest Blog of the Center for European Policy Analysis.
Copyright © 2011
CEPA/Tr@nsit online. This work may be used for private purposes only. No
copies of this work may be reprinted or distributed electronically, in whole
or in part, without written permission from Tr@nsit online.

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    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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