Why go on meeting like this?

America still has very sound reasons for keeping Russia sweet, explains Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - For connoisseurs of summitry, they're simply not what they used to be. And indeed, haggling in the Kremlin over the sale of nuclear equipment to Iran and arguments over a brutal little war in the Caucasus is not a patch on the old days - when Roosevelt and Stalin bargained at Yalta over the future map of Europe, or that surreal October weekend in Reykjavik nine years ago, when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan almost improvised a deal that would have eliminated nuclear weapons from the planet. But even now in Washington, a summit with Russia still raises goose pimples as no other.

In a sense it should not be so. In terms of the global economy, far more hinges on America's ties with Japan, "the most important bilateral relationship in the world", as officials in Washington will intone with appropriate gravity. Yet US/Japanese summits are, well, just plain boring. Even the carefully choreographed trade war unfurling this week fails to set the pulse racing. Ditto most of the other meetings of a US president with visiting world leaders, forgotten almost the instant they are over. Not, however, when that leader comes from Russia.

First and foremost, for all its diminished clout, Russia remains the only country in the world with the strategic weapons to wipe America off the face of the earth. As the old diplomatic saw has it, base your policy not upon what you believe a rival will do, but what he can do. Old-fashioned, warhead-counting arms control may no longer make the headlines. But America still has a vital interest in scaling down Russia's arsenal of missiles. Moreover, the example the two countries set will weigh hugely on the prospects of preventing nuclear proliferation.

For that reason alone Russia, if it is no longer a superpower, stands apart from the second tier of "great powers" - Japan, Germany, China, maybe India, to stretch a point even Europe - of these closing years of the 20th century. Regularly, the argument is heard here, especially from Congress, to let Russia stew in its own juice, to punish its misbehaviour by reducing aid. The fact is, however, that much of America's aid goes to dismantling those nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War, now stockpiled on the territory of Russia and Ukraine. Whether Russia evolves into a "normal" democracy, or lurches back to the xenophobic, despotic ways of old matters in Washington, greatly.

But relations with Moscow are not merely about avoiding the worst. For all its technological backwardness, rampant crime and incompetent, anarchic bureaucracy, Russia is seen as a country of vast economic potential. It possesses space, 150 million comparatively well-educated citizens and colossal natural resources. To point out just one natural symmetry, there is the interest of the world's greediest consumer of energy in working closely with the country possessing the world's greatest reserves of oil and gas.

Most economists here believe that given a decade or two of a relatively open system, Russia could easily become a lucrative trading partner for the US.

But if all goes wrong, the management of Russian weakness will be as crucial for the US in the future as was containment of Soviet might during the Cold War. Indeed, foreign policy scholars in Washington already talk about "neo-containment". They use the term less to denote the importance of curbing Russia's influence on the other former states of the Soviet Union - geopolitically inevitable - than to underline the necessity of preventing Russian disintegration. For that very reason, however misguidedly, the US initially took no great offence at the savage suppression of Chechnya.

And on other grounds, too, a functioning and stable Russian state is devoutly to be wished for by any sane resident of the White House. If a rogue state or terrorist organisation is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, then a chaotic Russia is the most obvious source for them. Another global disaster scenario is a governnment in Moscow so weak that it can only repel an encroaching foreign adversary (China?) with nuclear weapons. Such topics were not at the top of Bill Clinton's agenda in Moscow this week. But they help explain why a healthy relationship is at least as important for America as it is for Russia.