Mind the Perception Gap: US-Russian Relations are at Stake by Eirene Busa

Mitt Romney recently criticized President Obama for appearing weak on missile defense in an “off-the-record” conversation with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Romney’s remarks, however, have proven more revealing about the perception gap between generations on US-Russia relations than about Obama’s foreign policy. Last week, in a supposedly “off-mic” conversation, President Obama was caught candidly confiding to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he needed more "space" on the missile defense issue.  Obama said, "This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility."  Shortly thereafter, presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney spoke on CNN criticizing President Obama for not being upfront with the American people and for pursuing a lenient policy with Russia. Romney called the President's actions "troubling" and "alarming."  He then declared that Russia is, "without hesitation, our biggest geopolitical foe."

Russia is America's biggest geopolitical foe?  Perhaps Romney was playing the game of domestic politics, but his remarks are false, counterproductive for US strategic goals and potentially damaging for US-Russian relations.  In the words of President Medvedev, this "'number one foe' type of phrase smacks of Hollywood." Romney needs "to check his watch…It's 2012, not the middle of the 1970s."  American officials reiterated this sentiment. Secretary of State Clinton called Romney’s words “dated.”  Vice President Biden called them “backward-looking.”  Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times called Romney "reckless" and "irresponsible."

When it comes to US-Russian relations, Romney’s words reflect the profound perception gap between generations.  Jeffrey Mankoff of “Generational Change and the Future of US-Russian Relations” argues that in both Washington and Moscow the older foreign policy elite still view US-Russian relations through the prism of the Cold War because it was that East-West struggle upon which they built their experience and reputations.  Yet the younger generations in both countries have only a faint recollection, if any, of that conflict.  Instead, Russian and American millennials have been shaped by other factors.  In Russia the catastrophic economic disorder of the “wild 1990s” fostered an aversion to decentralized power and a suspicion that the United States and the West were obstacles to Russia’s potential greatness. In contrast, the youth in the United States view Russia with disinterest.  As Mankoff describes it, “Russia for them is just another country, one that offers less in the way of opportunity for travel, study, or doing business than China or India…Russia no longer fascinates.”

So does Romney really think Russia is the United States’ greatest geopolitical foe?  We may not know for certain, but we do know that the perception gap between generations is stark.  It was stark in the 2008 presidential campaign when the older McCain drove a hard line on Russia regarding missile defense, while the younger Obama did not.  It is just as stark in today’s presidential campaigns when Mitt Romney and Vladimir Putin espouse a decidedly adversarial assessment of the US-Russian relationship, while Obama and Medvedev embrace a more cooperative tack.  Not long after Romney’s remarks, the head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Alexei Pushkov, said, “It is as if we are hearing Senator McCain again: Romney makes a statement and one gets the feeling it is McCain speaking.”

Where Romney’s remarks matter most, however, is not in US politics, but in Russian politics.  Putin will ascend to the presidency (again) next year, and unlike Medvedev, whose values of openness and liberalism mirror the Gorbachev era of glastnost and perestroika, Putin’s values more closely resemble Leonid Brezhnev’s policies of repression and consolidation of power.  Putin will also be leading a country in which the younger generation, shaped by the unstable decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, demands stability and a return of Russian greatness on the world stage.  Romney’s remarks matter because they do nothing to assuage Russian fears that the West is opposed to Russia’s success.

Much of the older generations may still have the Cold War mentality, but in practice, foreign policy coming from both Washington and Moscow favors cooperation.  This is especially true when it comes to Afghanistan, where both countries have an interest in an international withdrawal that occurs as safely as possible.

So let the older foreign policy elite maintain their Cold War thinking, just as long as they don’t translate it into policy.  In this way, the biggest “off-mic” gaffe this week was not Obama’s, but Romney’s.  Whether or not he realized it, the microphone revealed Romney’s Cold War mentality, and now the old and young generations of Russia and the United States know.

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Eirene Busa is a masters student in the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) and editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal’s online content.