The Curious Case of Clinton’s Button

March 13, 2009

Multiple Pages

In U.S.-Russian relations, red buttons don’t evoke pleasant imagery. For the past 50 years, pushing the red button would ensure the bloom of mushroom clouds over Washington, Moscow, and a great many other cities east and west of the iron curtain.  Yet only last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her advisors deemed it clever to present Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a one-of-a-kind red button. The trinket was intended as a symbol of “resetting” U.S.-Russia ties, the culmination of mildly conciliatory rhetoric flowing from the White House in recent days.

Besides the fact that red buttons dial up visions of doomsday rather than ideas about pragmatic partnership, other details made Clinton’s gift to the Russians a memorable and telling blunder. While the souvenir was marked “reset” in English as well as Russian, the Russian translation was significantly marred.  Instead of “reset” (perezagruzka), it carried the inscription “overload” (peregruzka). 

As if to ensure that no one could challenge State’s ignorance, the Russian label was in Latin script instead of Cyrillic, which the Russians have employed for only a millennium or so. There are persistent rumors that Foggy Bottom has competent Russia specialists fluent in the language, but in light of the red-button episode, such speculation is obviously mere fantasy.

It is not difficult to criticize U.S. foreign policy for its simultaneous insularity and universalism. Clinton’s button gaffe shows a marked degree of unawareness about cultures and worldviews outside of America within the government’s very own foreign policy branch. Yet at the same time successive American administrations have taken for granted the supposition that if foreign states only knew their real interests (nicely aligned with a given U.S. agenda), they would accede to U.S. wishes.

Harmony of this sort is typically built on the most solid of foundations, namely photo-ops and vapid rhetoric. Both the Clinton and Bush Junior administrations placed great value in the personal relationships between U.S. and Russian presidents, but pursued a geopolitical program seen by Moscow as creeping encirclement. Bush and Putin got along famously, but the friendship didn’t count for much when the U.S. supported anti-Russian revolutions in the former Soviet space as part of its global “freedom agenda.”

The button shows another serious pathology of U.S. policy elites: the mindset of managerial technocracy.  The enduring conditions of life in this world are repackaged as problems with scientific solutions, the assured means of progress. The financial meltdown and the quest to “stabilize” wholly alien cultures in Iraq and Afghanistan run along the same assumptions: sustainable wealth could be generated by leverage, while the application of the right policy levers would bring civility to lands steeped in centuries of internecine violence.  Preoccupied with the economic crisis and in need of sound logistics into Afghanistan, the administration wants a quick fix for Russia. The technocratic mindset showed its limited scope in the expectation that ties with Moscow could be quickly improved by declaring, “reset.”

Improving relations with the Kremlin won’t be analogous to flipping a switch in a room to change the mood lighting. To do so would require a serious reevaluation of U.S. priorities in Eurasia. Will the U.S. continue to insist on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia? Does the Obama administration still seek to deploy anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic? Is there a timeline for the presence of U.S. bases in Central Asia?  The Obama administration confronts a series of difficult decisions regarding Russia. Moscow is willing to cooperate with the U.S. on Afghanistan and Iranian nuclear issues, but it too has interests to secure, such as its position in the heart of Eurasia. Yet US acknowledgement of Russian primacy in the former Soviet Union is a concession that the architects of NATO expansion, “color revolutions” and Kosovo independence have been unwilling to contemplate.

As the economic crisis sinks into international politics, policymakers in Washington and other Western capitals are at a loss to properly respond. Speeches are pronounced and stimulus packages passed, but the elites are severely disoriented. The End of History has met its end. Challenges seem to rise from the antiquated past—shapers of opinion not only seethe at Russia’s resurgence, but fear “nationalism” at home, economic and otherwise.

Seeking to preserve one’s religion and culture, and the refusal to reduce existence to a market function are seen as not only distasteful but dangerous impediments on the road to global democratic capitalism. Russia’s status as a great power and its claim to a regional sphere of interests is seen as a sinister drive to re-establish, in the words of National Review’s Victor Davis Hanson, a “right-wing Soviet Union.”  One can expect further polemics as Washington’s pretenses to benign global hegemony are wearing thin on multiple trillions in debt and ill-defined wars in Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush.

Even when faced with economic depression and social degradation, U.S. policy elites cannot bear the thought that another major power would stubbornly resist absorption into the Western system of borderless markets and individualist hedonism. Adherents of the secular gospel of the Open Society from San Francisco City Hall to the Oval Office and Wall Street view national tradition and ethnic solidarity in Europe as an offense to modern sensibilities.  Russia’s reassertion of power, despite demographic disaster, the ghosts of Soviet tyranny and numerous socio-economic maladies, must be especially grating in this regard. Pushing a rhetorical button for better atmospherics was an attempt to escape from hard choices.

Mark Hackard is a research associate at a law firm in California. He has a a BA in Russian from Georgetown University and an MA in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies from Stanford University.

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