Keep your friends close

As it happens, the world still turns even as the financial tsuris sits above the fold. The economy will undoubtedly dominate the presidential race as it reaches its climax, though as the debate Tuesday night showed, foreign policy questions still are on the minds of voters. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are at the fore of votersâÄô concerns, though it has become fashionable to focus on Russia following its August war with Georgia. âÄúHow will you respond to a more assertive Russia,âÄù or something to that effect, is usually the question posed to the candidates. Succinct questions, however convenient for televised debates, are invariably reductive and the answers reveal as inevitably corrupted by partisanship. As Winston Churchill famously observed of Russia, âÄúIt is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.âÄù So too is how the United States should approach future relations with it. The five-day war in the Caucasus has dragged up atavistic sentiment in American politics, notably on the right. Fears of a new Cold War, while overblown, are nevertheless prevalent. After a period of weakness following the fall of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia now seems poised as a revamped superpower. But is that right? Was the war with Georgia really an example of Russian revanchism? If so, then perhaps calls for more muscular policy on AmericaâÄôs part is justified. After all, unchecked Russian aggression could produce another domino effect, leaving other former Soviet states imperiled. Right? Such a view is refutable, by and large, other than in the minds of old cold warriors. Beneath the surface, Russia is not nearly the power that it seems, or even that it once was. Perhaps no better example persists than the recoil Russian stock markets experienced after the August war. Since then there has been vast capital flight from indices, pummeling stocks and forcing authorities to close down trading for days. RussiaâÄôs newfound wealth comes from buoyant commodity prices, not a robust real economy. Now that oil and gas prices have become more bearish, the glimmering âÄúRâÄù of the BRIC economic powerhouse looks tarnished. Tepid economic situations in Russia must temper American policy. As PrincetonâÄôs Ann-Marie Slaughter has argued, the current Russian government has a penchant for distracting away from domestic problems by focusing on foreign aggression, feeding what war correspondent David Axe calls RussiaâÄôs dominant personality trait, âÄúparanoia.âÄù That paranoia is in some sense well-founded, for after all, Russia has been repeatedly invaded over the century, costing many lives. When Russian officials see a military alliance like NATO creeping into its backyard, no matter the justification, it is simply not going to like it. Fait accompli Americans generally have a positive view of NATO and support its enlargement. Following the Cold War, America under Bill Clinton pushed to expand the alliance into Eastern Europe. In part, the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo played a role. At that time, Russia was weakened, dependent on Western aid, and in no position to forcibly object to either NATO expansion or campaigns in the Balkans. As many analysts are now pointing out, that was a perilous course for the West. If there is one force on earth that should not be provoked, heaven knows it is Russian nationalism. In 1998 the currency crisis hit Russia hard, and its economy collapsed. In the run up to the bombing campaign in Kosovo, some worried that the domestic turmoil, coupled with humiliating Russian pan-Slavic concerns in the Balkans would produce an ultra-nationalist backlash that would bring more extreme politicians to power. That Vladimir Putin was elected the following year is striking. Though richer, Russia is hardly in a state of political stability. Indeed, the illiberal leanings of the government, particularly on the domestic stage, are a bad mixture when economic times go bad. Inflation is running in double digits, and Russia faces a negative population growth rate. These pressures may certainly have put Russia on the path that Ms. Slaughter has suggested. They also present a dilemma. Many feel that America should respect the fact that it has forced Russia into a defensive position, and therefore be more willing to compromise rather than confront. RussiaâÄôs military is in a state of disrepair, they also add. True, but Russia now asserts its influence not through military might, but oil, specifically using âÄúpipeline politics.âÄù The question is this: Given that Russia is likely to decline in the years to come unless dramatic reform is undertaken, should more blunt action be taken to curb attempts to assert itself? After all, posturing by a declining power reeks of desperation. The answer of course is no. Russia still holds a powerful seat at the U.N., possesses nuclear technology, and is influential in many parts of the world. Aggressive rhetoric by the United States may aggravate and influence Russian politics in a way that is deleterious long-term. It could also breed avoidable conflict. Indeed, wondering about how to approach Russian behavior now needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of how the situation came to be. That means America must admit its role, too. While there is much to object to in the current Russian government, there is little that can be done to change that. Policy options will be limited. Ideally, the situation would be more amenable. But, that is just not the world we live in. Those at St. JamesâÄô Street welcome comments at [email protected].