Mission to Moscow, Bipartisan or Bust


Washington -- It's tough to manage the Russian-American relationship in the postwar era -- charting a majestic rearrangement of world politics -- if you cannot deliver what you negotiated.

There is the State Duma denying confidence in the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as a means of undermining his boss, President Boris Yeltsin.

And there is the Republican- controlled Congress dreaming up micro-managements of foreign policy as part of the spending authorization process, to curtail President Clinton's ability to conduct it.

Vice President Al Gore took a long perspective on this, speaking with a handful of editorial writers in a conference room at the Executive Office Building Wednesday.

Ostensibly, he was briefing them on his trip next week to Moscow for the fifth meeting of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation (or Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission).

Cabinet secretaries and officials will negotiate with counterparts about economic cooperation, defense conversion, health, science, space and the environment. While they are at it, the U.S. space shuttle will be docking at the Mir space station.

Mr. Gore and Mr. Chernomyrdin will personally try to resolve the dispute over Russia's proposed nuclear-reactor sale to Iran. The two presidents have delegated more and more of the bilateral relationship to them.

Without wishing to overdraw an analogy between the reconstruction of Russia after communism and the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II, Mr. Gore points out that, "The United States then forged steady, bipartisan consensus covering decades and administrations, that enabled Germany and Japan to emerge as market democracies with civil liberties."

He is frank in seeing a national interest now in "the same kind of bipartisan, stable consensus over several decades," to help Russia through "the difficult transition to democracy and market economics."

He fears amendments pending to the foreign-affairs reorganization bill before the Senate that "would completely destroy the ability of the United States to interact with Russia in a constructive way."

One would cut off aid if the president cannot certify Russia to be in 100 percent compliance with all agreements. In the real world, there are always differences in interpretation, issues to be resolved.

Another would halt U.S. payments for nuclear fuel from dismantled weapons unless Russia dismantles all biological-warfare materials.

What the U.S. gets from the current deal, begun in the Bush administration, is the end of the Russian nuclear weapons, the acquisition of the fuel and the ability of Russia to regain some of its investment without selling it to rogue regimes.

Should we sacrifice that, Mr. Gore wonders, to compel desirable acquiescence in another area?

There is no question that Russia will continue to do some things that most Americans would wish it didn't. Mr. Gore expects years to be needed to complete the transition that has been launched.

He is eloquent on the gains so far: half the Russian economy in the private sector, removal of troops from the Baltics, removal of nuclear weapons from former Soviet republics, agreement with Ukraine on the Black Sea fleet, meaningful elections, openings to foreign investment including oil and gas, restraints on sale of military technology and serious thinking about integration into the world economy.

"A mature U.S. outlook," Mr. Gore said, "must focus not just on irritants but also on the progress made."

It's his job to reduce those irritants, head-to-head with Mr. Chernomyrdin, providing the latter survives in office. Mr. Gore professes to a close and trusting relationship with the prime minister.

He also expects to lobby the Duma on such matters as ratification of the strategic-arms reduction (START II) treaty, for mutual dismantling of nuclear warheads.

Mr. Gore does not say it, but the policy direction that Mr. Clinton entrusted to his stewardship began in the Bush administration. To succeed, the complex dialogue and cooperation with Russia needs continuity with future administrations of either party. And it needs not to be shot down next week by the Duma, or Congress, for short-term domestic political concerns in either country.

Bipartisan consensus is needed here, but also (which Mr. Gore was too diplomatic to add) in Moscow.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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