Why a "reset button" isn't enough to transform U.S. foreign relations.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
March 23 2009 8:03 PM

Ctrl-Alt-Diplomacy

A "reset button" won't suffice to transform U.S. foreign relations.

The hands of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrovthe rest on a red button marked 'reset' in English and 'overload' in Russian (Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images). Click image to expand.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a button marked "reset" English and "overload" in Russian

Press the reset button. Is there any phrase more enticing in the modern lexicon? We all know what it means: Press the reset button, watch your computer reboot, and presto! A nice, clean screen appears, and you start again from scratch.

Yes, it's a wonderful feeling, pressing that reset button. Unfortunately, it is also a deeply misleading, even vapid, metaphor for diplomatic relations. Recently invoked by the vice president—Joe Biden told a security conference in February it was time to "press the reset button" on U.S. relations with Russia—the expression was reiterated by the president, who spoke of the need to "reset or reboot" the relationship. Earlier this month, Hillary Clinton even presented her Russian counterpart, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, with a red "reset button." Despite an unfortunate mistranslation (the Russian word printed on the gift actually meant "overload," not "reset"), they smiled and pressed the button together for the cameras.

It would be nice, of course, if U.S.-Russia relations really had been frozen because of irrelevant technical complications and could now begin again afresh. Unfortunately, while America may have a new president, Russia does not. And while America may want to make the past vanish—as a nation, we've never been all that keen on foreign history—alas, the past cannot be changed. The profound differences in psychology, philosophy, and policy that have been the main source of friction between the American and Russian governments for the past decade remain in place. Sooner or later, the Obama administration will have to grapple with them.

Anyone who doubts the truth of this forecast needs only to have a look at remarks Lavrov made last weekend in Brussels, where he presented a vision of the world utterly unchanged by the events of Jan. 20. Speaking to past and present policymakers—several of whom helped to dismember the Warsaw Pact and expand NATO in the 1990s—he offered his own version of those events as well as of some more current ones. Among other things, he said, or implied, that the West lied to Russia; that NATO remains a threat to Russia; that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should replace NATO as the primary Western security organization; and that, by the way, Russia has plenty of potential clients for its gas in the Far East should its Western clients ever become problematic. As for Russia helping to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons—an Obama administration suggestion—his lead comment was that "there is no proof that Iran even has decided to make a nuclear bomb."

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The transcript of his remarks, and those of other Russians attending the same conference, does not capture their snide tone or the scorn with which they dismissed suggestions that Russia's neighbors might have wanted to join NATO because they were afraid of Russia. To return to the metaphor: If that is how the Russia government sounds after pressing the reset button, I'm not sure that the technical complications that caused the screen to freeze have gone away.

Nor is this true of Russia alone. Any president can legitimately call for a fresh start in his relations with the world, and none more so than the current American president, who replaces an unpopular predecessor. Sooner or later, however, Obama will also have to make difficult decisions about regimes that oppose U.S. policy for reasons deeper than dislike of George W. Bush. If Russia persists in its occupation of Georgia, do we accept that situation? If Russia uses its energy policy to blackmail Europe, do we go along with that, too?

The rest of the world is no different. It's a fine thing to open diplomatic relations with Iran or Syria—I've always thought it extremely stupid that we have no embassy, and thus no resident intelligence officer, in Tehran—as long as we remember that talking is not a solution: Sometimes more "dialogue" reveals deeper differences. It's also a fine thing for the president to issue greetings on the occasion of the Persian new year, but that might not dampen the popularity of Iran's nuclear program among both adherents and opponents of its current government. What then?

I do realize that these are early days. The traditional, deadly struggle for influence between the State Department and the National Security Council is only just getting under way, and the president has other things on his mind. But the gift of a "reset button," however translated, was not a good beginning. If this administration thinks it can transform America's relationships with Russia or anyone else with the flick of a switch and a change of rhetoric, then it is living in a virtual reality, not a real one.

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