Given the extent to which tonight’s third presidential debate was shamelessly hijacked by both candidates for a reiteration of their usual domestic campaign setpieces, it should hardly surprise that Russia received almost no attention. After all, Europe was ignored to an even greater extent beyond Romney’s invocation of Greece as some apocalyptic fate facing America. Nonetheless, it was a disappointment to see this opportunity for there to be actual debate on actual substance relating to actual foreign policy squandered, though. As it was, Mali seemed to received more detailed analysis than Russia, and those comments relating to Russia were either cheap shots or empty words.
Romney sought to make capital from Obama’s on-mike aside to Medvedev and strike a tough pose when he said:
“I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin and I’m certainly not going to say to him, ‘I’ll give you more flexibility after the election.’ After the election, he’ll get more backbone.”
However, an Obama who was assertive to the point of sounding querulous, got in a counter-punch of his own obliquely referring to Romney’s now-infamous comment about Russia being the USA’s “number one geopolitical foe“:
“Gov. Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaeda is a threat because a few months ago when you asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia – not Al Qaeda – you said Russia. The 1980s are now calling and asking for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War has been over for 20 years. But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policy of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”
Nice line, for sure, but does it get us anywhere? Not at all. It should hardly surprise, after all. Obama has little reason to want to talk about US policy towards Russia because it can hardly be said to have been especially successful. Conversely, not only has Romney little maneuver room given his geopolitical gaffe, he has little to say. His foreign policy seems to be “I’d be like Obama, but more so.”
While election debates are probably the last places to look for any useful foreign policy discussion or omens, nonetheless this does suggest that when it comes to US-Russian relations:
1. It scarcely matters who is the next US president. Behind a rhetorical smokescreen, policy towards Russia will be cautious, pragmatic and, to be blunt, open to being dominated by a more assertive Moscow.
2. Moscow plays a very small role in Washington’s worldview, something I cannot help but feel is pretty short-sighted. Even when Romney called it America’s main adversary, it is hard to believe that he really saw this as something around which to anchor any meaningful foreign policy.
3. No one in Washington really knows what to do with Russia.