by Elena Ilina
- USA -
My friends and colleagues cannot wait for election day - for many of them, a new administration gives hope that the newly elected leader will address many of the critical issues facing us in domestic policy, especially the economy, and of course, cutting nuclear weapons stockpiles. Indeed, the new U.S. President will have a long laundry list of problems and issues to tackle once in office, but I strongly believe that a deep and comprehensive re-evaluation of the U.S.’ foreign policy should be the top item on the Presidential agenda.
Being a political analyst by education and profession, I have the opportunity to not only learn, but constantly analyze the implications of U.S. foreign policy for the international community, particularly Russia.
These words reflect a one-sided approach and embody the way the Russia-South Ossetia-Georgia conflict was presented in the media. Few journalists even mentioned that Georgia invaded South Ossetia and that about a thousand Russian civilians were killed overnight. This conflict and its coverage, as well as the U.S. President’s reaction to it, reveal that the approach used by U.S. decision-makers was largely “black and white.” This kind of thinking has been a major flaw in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the way the U.S. is handling Iran and Darfur. For those outside the U.S., policy is framed within a historical context and understanding; there are rarely any absolutes. U.S. foreign policy in the past decade has been short-sighted and lacking in expertise. Not only was the Russia-Georgia conflict mismanaged, but there have been no successful U.S. foreign military campaigns since the end of the Cold War.
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed and Yeltsin declared that every republic could assume as much sovereignty as it could bear. That year conflict between South Ossetia and Georgia broke out and as a result of violent events, South Ossetia became a de-facto independent state; until recently, Georgia retained control over most of its territory. My father was a peacekeeper at the time, a Soviet and then Russian professional military officer who spent most of his assignments in that region from 1991 to 1993 trying to stop the violent ethnic conflict between various groups in the Caucasus, including Georgians and Ossetians and Abkhaz.
In 1992, I got my first Tolkien book, The Hobbit, from my father. It was brought home in a box with other books because South Ossetians were starving and did not have the means to survive. The printing factory in South Ossetia paid its salaries with books and the employees then exchanged newly published books for several rubles and canned food with the peacekeepers. The people of South Ossetia were not only starving, they were humiliated by the Georgians and helpless in the face of rising ethnic conflict, the loss of the Soviet identity and the fight for their own independence.
When a new wave of violence broke out in August of this year, and Russian peacekeeping forces were attacked by the Georgian air force, Russia deployed its forces into South Ossetia and consequently targeted Georgian military forces. The U.S. Administration evaluated Russia’s reaction to the conflict as a violent provocation against democratic Georgia and an attempt to prevent NATO’s influence in former Soviet Union territory. And yet it seemingly was not moved by South Ossetia’s long struggle for independence and constant human and civil rights violations.
During my internship at the United Nations several months ago, I had the great opportunity to hear the world’s leading diplomats share their opinions on the field of disarmament. Some non-U.S. diplomats noted that the U.S. approach towards negotiation and concluding agreements tended to be tactical, and not strategic. A tactical approach is based on “black and white”, “win or loose” values. Strategy is always based on a comprehensive, long-term vision of the problem. Small countries with bad economies, corrupt leaders and newly established democracies will always look to powerful countries like the United States. The U.S. now needs to think about how to bridge the gap and abandon the antiquated “Cold War” approach that it has favored.
The early nineties were perceived as a time of change, the end of the Cold War and hope for greater democratic rule in the world. United States leadership at the time perceived Russia less as an enemy with an authoritarian leader, and more as a global peer. During the Clinton era, Russia was treated as a new partner in the reemerging international political system, but the “Cold War” approach was never really abandoned by U.S. political leaders, and in the end, U.S. foreign policy never changed: Russia is perceived as an enemy again today.
During the U.S. presidential debate on October 7th, Senator McCain made a comment about Vladimir Putin “…I looked into his eyes and saw three letters, a K, a G and a B. He has surrounded himself with former KGB apparatchiks. He has gradually repressed most of the liberties that we would expect for nations to observe, and he has exhibited most aggressive behavior, obviously, in Georgia.” Senator Obama, on the other hand, stated “the resurgence of Russia is one of the central issues that we're going to have to deal with in the next presidency.” He further noted “You know, back in April, I put out a statement saying that the situation in Georgia was unsustainable because you had Russian peacekeepers in these territories that were under dispute.” To my surprise, South Ossetia and its people were not mentioned even once.
Fifteen years after I received the South-Ossetia published Tolkien book, I find myself living and working in the United States. My education and lifestyle in the country, I must confess, influences my perceptions of my Motherland Russia and its politics. However, I often have to turn off the radio and skip articles about Russia in even the most authoritative media, because I know the facts presented lack objectivity and understanding of the problem.
Both presidential candidates occupy influential positions, and that is why their expressed opinions about Russia are especially serious. In his writings, the British Tolkien teaches that often times “truth” and “good” are not so absolute - that the world is not divided into “black” and “white”; it is indeed more complex. One cannot live in a world divided into “us versus them” - such a limited reality should have faded when the Berlin Wall came down.
The world is very synergistic - if one country makes a mistake, it will affect the others. It is time to seek approaches that value cooperation. A strategic approach requires consideration before a decision can be made and helps avoid short-sighted mistakes and unsupported judgments. I really hope and urge the new U.S. leader to learn how to use strategy in foreign policy. It is essential that the United States reevaluate and improve its image abroad and learn to listen to other nations.
About the Author
Elena Ilina holds a Masters degree in International Policy Studies and a Certificate in Nonproliferation from the Monterey Institute for International Studies. She was born and raised in Russia by her father, a military officer, and her mother, a teacher. Elena currently works as Executive Program Manager at Saga Foundation.
Previous publications include a volume of articles, Islamophobia in Moscow (2003) and an op-ed piece in National Interest online. Elena believes that entrepreneurial approaches and "outside the box" thinking can help find practical solutions to further disarmament and make the world a safer place.