It may seem inconceivable that in such a beacon of democracy as the United States of America, there are “czars.” And not just one or two, but a few dozen. The explanation, however, is quite benign: American political jargon defines “czar” as a special envoy or adviser to the President asked by him to guide a high-priority initiative. Appointed by the president and reporting only to him, “czars” operate largely outside of congressional oversight. Hence the nickname.
According to various calculations, President Obama employs between 34 to 40 czars. In the area of foreign affairs, the most visible are Richard Holbrooke, special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and George Mitchell, the president’s representative in the Middle East.
There is no czar on Russia. However, if one carefully follows whom Obama charges with the most delicate conversations with Moscow, it appears that the czar on Russia does exist, and this role is played by none other than venerable Henry Kissinger, former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State in the Nixon and Ford administrations.
What is attracting the young Democratic president to a Republican veteran almost twice his age? The answer is that 86-year-old Kissinger still commands unparalleled respect in the U.S. foreign policy community. More importantly, in the past few years, Kissinger has on several occasions visited Russia and developed close personal relations with Russia’s former President and currently Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin. It is therefore hardly surprising that lacking any serious foreign policy experience, yet pragmatic and ideologically flexible, Obama asked Kissinger for help.
Last December, when Obama was just forming his foreign policy team, he sent Kissinger to Moscow to meet with Putin and President Medvedev. The topic of the discussion was naturally kept confidential, but some foreign diplomats in Russia “leaked” that Kissinger brought to Moscow Obama’s offer to resume U.S.-Russia nuclear weapons control negotiations abandoned by the Bush administration.
In March of this year, Kissinger came to Moscow again, this time accompanied by a group of high-ranked retirees from previous administrations. The White House was quick to assure that Kissinger and his companions traveled to Russia as private citizens. However, the very timing of the visit – less than two weeks before the first Medvedev-Obama summit in London – makes it certain that Kissinger’s talks with the Russian leadership were strictly business.
The fact that Obama trusted Kissinger with the initial (and therefore the most important and difficult) stages of negotiations with Moscow – along with Obama’s complete lack of any experience of his own in dealing with the Kremlin – allows to speculate that Obama’s first foreign initiatives towards Russia were largely driven by Kissinger.
Indeed, Kissinger’s “fingerprints” can be seen all over the founding building blocks of Obama’s Russia policy.
First, since 2007, Kissinger has been actively promoting the concept of “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” According to this concept, all countries possessing nuclear weapons should adopt the strategic goal of their eventual total elimination. For Kissinger, this means that nuclear weapons control negotiations should form a basis for the U.S.-Russia cooperation.
It is exactly the approach adopted by the Obama administration: to almost exclusively focus on the renewal of the START-I treaty that expires in December.
Such an approach carries significant political risk for Obama, as many in Washington (both Republicans and Democrats) believe that any new nuclear arms treaty, including START, disproportionally benefits Russia and thus represents a “concession” to Moscow. Obama’s critics insist that the Iranian nuclear program must instead become the top topic in any conversation with Moscow. It seems plausible that in addressing this criticism, Obama will seek Kissinger’s “cover”, for Kissinger is firmly convinced that the road to a productive U.S.-Russia cooperation – on any issue — runs through successful arms control negotiations.
Second, Kissinger has always been a principled disciple of Realpolitik that stresses tough pragmatism and the primacy of U.S. national security interests over ideological considerations. Kissinger strongly believes that even when disagreeing with Moscow on some critical issues, Washington should always be looking for cooperation wherever possible. What Washington should not be doing, however, is lecturing Moscow on Russia’s domestic politics, much less on whom the White House prefers to see sitting in the Kremlin.
It is widely believed that Democratic presidents tend to meddle in Russia’s internal affairs more often than their Republican counterparts. For that reason, last fall, some Russian analysts expressed concern that the newly-elected president Obama may launch a new crusade in defense of “democracy and human rights” in Russia.
So far, this has not happened. The Russian political institutions and human rights “violations” have not become the subjects of Obama’s conversations with Medvedev. Nor did members of the Obama administration adopt a habit of commenting on Russia’s internal developments. This seems to stem from Obama himself, and in so doing, Obama is obviously following the advice of his mentor.
It would appear that Obama’s policy toward Russia may also be influenced by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser in the Carter administration. Being, like Kissinger, not a young man (he is 81), Brzezinski enthusiastically supported Obama’s bid for presidency, claiming that he provides “a new definition of America's role in the world.''
Brzezinski is considered the Democratic “response” to Kissinger. So, in a sense, Obama had no other choice than to make Brzezinski his foreign policy adviser too. Otherwise, Obama would have been accused in a lack of “party patriotism.”
The current role of Brzezinski in defining the foreign policy of the Obama administration is not very clear. Brzezinski is rumored to advise Obama on a broad range of issues including Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some new elements of the U.S. Middle East policy, such as urging Israel to halt expansion of the illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, are believed to have been introduced by Brzezinski.
Polish-born Brzezinski never concealed his intense anti-Russian views. At the same time, there has yet been no obvious indication that his sentiments vis-à-vis Russia have in any way influenced Obama’s Russia policy, at least publicly. A long-standing opponent of the Bush administration’s plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Brzezinski hailed Obama’s decision to scrap the deployment. He, however, strongly criticized the president for the manner in which this decision was delivered to the Polish and Czech governments (indicating that he wasn’t consulted on the matter).
It’s conceivable that Brzezinski’s influence on defining policy towards Russia may increase in the future. Analysts in both countries have long argued that a success in the U.S.-Russian arms control negotiations – and the atmosphere of mutual trust this success will help to create – will allow both countries to get down to the issues where differences are still huge. One such issue is the controversy over NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia. Brzezinski’s position on this issue is well-known: the acceptance of Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance will irreversibly remove these two countries from the Russian sphere of influence. Everyone, of course, remembers Brzezinski’s famous line: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire.”
And yet, careful analysis of Brzezinski’s latest publications implies that his approach to U.S-Russia relations has become more nuanced. For example, in a recent article in the “Foreign Affairs” magazine, Brzezinski argued that while NATO membership for Ukraine and NATO must remain the strategic goal for the alliance, this process should not be rushed. Instead, it should be conditioned by establishing more close ties between NATO and Russia (using the format of the NATO-Russia Council).
Furthermore, Brzezinski envisions that the future cooperation between Russia and NATO may be strengthened by establishing formal contacts between NATO and two regional organizations with a strong Russian presence: Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
As it stands, both Kissinger and Brzezinski don’t seem to have any plans to become shadows of the U.S. foreign policy past. Quite to the contrary, they intend to build bridges to its future.