Bush, Gore Flunk Foreign Policy

The debate over a national missile defense and the ongoing negotiations with Russia over how such a plan would square with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union has been hailed as a healthy airing and reassessment of our strategic posture. But to some ears, this talk of doing away with "mutually assured destruction" also calls glaring attention to how little we've heard about Russia from the major party candidates.

Neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore has devoted many words to the country that is home to the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal, except in the context of the ABM-missile defense debate. And neither candidate has laid out a coherent, detailed vision of how he would deal with Russia if elected president.

The reasons for this aren't hard to guess: with America enjoying an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity, the electorate has so far shown that its political appetite lies primarily with addressing long-festering domestic problems, such as campaign finance laws, Social Security, and Medicare. Foreign policy has dropped off many voters' radar.

Of course, it wasn't always thus. The Cold War served to focus voter attention and gave presidential aspirants a chance to assert their patriotic bona fides. America's policy toward the Soviet Union may have been essentially bipartisan, but there was always room for a candidate to depict himself as tougher than his opponent when it came to the Red Menace. Witness, for example, candidate Ronald Reagan's portrayal of President Carter's grain embargo and Olympics boycott after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as "too little, too late."

Now, goes the conventional political wisdom, the Russian problem is behind us. We won the Cold War. Russia just democratically elected its second president. Market reforms have been put in place in the former Soviet Union, and it's only a matter of time before this slumbering giant marshals its resources to join the world's economic powers. It's a conventional wisdom that's been reinforced by our highest leaders, our foreign policy establishment, our scholars, and our media, so it's little wonder it's taken hold among rank-and-file citizens.

The problem, according to a soon-to-be-published book by Stephen F. Cohen, is that these assessments are woefully off base. Cohen is professor of Russian studies and history at New York University and a consultant on Russian affairs to CBS News. His book, Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia, details the overly optimistic and often flat-out misleading assumptions of a decade of post-Cold War diplomacy.

This book forcefully brings home the reality that Russia today is as unstable as it's ever been. What has been called capitalism by hopeful U.S. observers amounts to little more than cronyism, and Russian "democracy" boils down to oligarchy.

Boris Yeltsin's economic poliies, urged on Russia by the West, have left the Russian economy a basket case. They have spelled poverty, hunger, and misery for most Russians, who have lost their life savings, job security and social safety net. Not surprisingly, many longtime travelers to Russia report that anti-Western sentiment there is at an all-time high.

And yes, Russia still bristles with nuclear missiles.

There may indeed be very real limits to what America can do about the situation in Russia. This may, in fact, be the enduring lesson of the past nine years, during which America has been deeply involved in Russia's internal political and economic situation and, as Failed Crusade argues, has worsened it. But if we are not asking our presidential candidates to articulate their Russian vision because we are under the impression that everything's just fine over there, it's time we understood the hard truth.

We might ask Al Gore to defend the Clinton administration's Russia policy, in which he played an integral role, and give him the opportunity to tell us what a Gore presidency might do differently. We should ask that George W. Bush, too, offer his views on how American-Russian diplomacy can provide the sort of climate within Russia and without that would make his proposed strategic reassessments possible and sensible.

It's healthy for a democracy such as ours to question our long-standing nuclear strategy. But if we continue to hope that nuclear strategy remains the stuff of theory, we should also demand that our candidates address the context in which these strategic decisions get made.