Last week, Mitt Romney described Russia as America's "No. 1 geopolitical foe," prompting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to respond: "I think it's somewhat dated to be looking backwards instead of being realistic about where we agree, where we don't agree."
While Mr. Romney's basic sentiment is correct, Mrs. Clinton is also right in suggesting that Mr. Romney's characterization of Russia is both dated and diplomatically unproductive. Not to mention that it makes for awkward dealings later when you inevitably have to sit down across the table from someone like Vladimir Putin and ask him a favor.
The way the world works now, and the way Russia has inserted itself into absolutely everything, it's impossible to avoid dealing with them on virtually any international issue. Take the latest example: Syria, and the ongoing civil war between Bashar Assad's government forces and the opposition forces he's trying to eradicate -- who may or may not actually be worse than Mr. Assad himself, given that they're comprised of self-proclaimed Communists, Socialists and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In any case, slaughtering political opponents, even if they're worse than you, is bad optics. If President Barack Obama doesn't do something to stop it, he'll be lambasted and deemed unworthy of his Nobel Peace Prize. Yet if he mucks around in a far-flung place which many Americans would probably misidentify as Kazakhstan or Indonesia if asked to point to it on a map, he risks being called a meddling interventionist. So two choices remain: private contractors fighting covertly as they did in Libya, or Russia's help aboveboard. And since Russia has longstanding arms deals with Syria, you know they have Mr. Assad on speed dial. Hence Mr. Obama's request to Dmitry Medvedev in the wings of the recent Seoul nuclear summit to help a comrade out.
While this might not actually accomplish anything, it gives him some good optics to work with until something else can be figured out or Nicolas Sarkozy's French military steps in, as it did in Libya -- if he's still around after the early-May presidential election.
But asking for help from someone you've previously labeled an enemy probably won't get you far. Sure, it's OK for me to do it since I'm probably not going to ever be in a position to have to ask favors from Vladimir Putin -- although I suppose one never knows -- and it's probably cool for Mr. Romney to do it if he doesn't actually plan on being president someday.
Joe Biden, however, took the diplomatic sentiment too far when he asserted: "[Romney] acts like he thinks the Cold War's still on. This is not 1956."
It may not be 1956, but the Cold War never ended just because Joe Biden can now take a guided tour of the Kremlin and doesn't feel, as my parents' generation did, that a Russian nuke might detonate at any moment about 10 inches from his face. The Soviet Union has dismantled, but only to rebuild its sphere of influence through more "acceptable" means, such as those related to economic trade and multinational organizations. In a time of global economic crisis, Russia has an interest in everything and straddles all spheres and worlds. Therein lies its newfound power, and its competitive threat -- particularly at a time when President Obama's America is becoming, in effect, increasingly isolationist even vis-a-vis its own allies, with the obstruction of Canada's Keystone XL pipeline a good example.
Meanwhile, Russia has managed to integrate into both First World power institutions like the United Nations Security Council, and developing world organizations. During last week's BRICS Summit of emerging nations, official representatives from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa discussed various ways to increase their prominence from the current estimated 56 percent of world growth, for which they'll be collectively responsible in 2012, by milking various First World bleeding-heart "green initiatives" that funnel them cash. Other goals include setting up development funds to support each other while cutting out the American dollar altogether.
And in terms of First World influence, it's not like Russia is becoming in any way insular. Quite the contrary. For example, according to the Kommersant Daily, Russia's state-owned nuclear energy company, Rosatom, is considering picking up a $24 million investment in the construction of two new British nuclear plants. Some "foe," right?
With the U.K. having foisted upon itself the harebrained idea of significantly reducing clean-energy nuclear output by 2020 in an effort to cut greenhouse gas along with its own throat, Russia seems poised to take advantage of both the First World initiatives and the assuagement thereof through the inevitable carbon credit transfers to BRIC nations.
The reality in this case is obviously much more complex than a sound bite dumbed down and served up as red meat for the purposes of a political campaign.