Tuesday, April 7, 2009

So You Say You Want a Reset Button?

NEW YORK, New York -- Well, you know, we all want to change the world.

Or at least President Barack Obama certainly does, to the delight of Americans and non-Americans alike.

Americans are sick of being hated by other countries; other countries want America to change the way it interacts with them (ironically, it was for this same desire to change others' behavior that President W. Bush gained worldwide wrath). And these are generally fair sentiments.

One of the Obama administration's most visible attempts yet to kick off its foreign policy revolution is a move, first expressed by Vice President Joe Biden in February, to "press the reset button" in relations with Russia. Biden's words were later followed by a gift (as in, what you receive on your birthday, or for Christmas) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The gift was a plastic button with the word "reset" inscribed on it in Russian.

Well, almost. The word was peregruzka. And that does not mean "reset," as the New York Times pointed out last month. In other words, the Obama administration went out of its way to inscribe a gift for Lavrov in Russian, only to blow the Russian like a 7th-grader who didn't study for his French test ... only to learn the test was in RUSSIAN!

How did this happen? Part of it is that, to a degree that is hard for most English speakers to fathom, the Russian language relies on a system of word-formation based on adding fixed prefixes and suffixes to a finite number of roots. The prefix pere- means to do something over. A bit like "re-" in English. And the root gruz means a load. So the construction peregruz would logically (and Russian is a very logical language) mean something like a reload.

But as any native speaker of Russian could tell you, while some technical applications -- think of a manual for a microwave in Yakutsk -- may use the word perezagruzka to mean reset, peregruzka is far from there. For better or worse, pere- can also mean to do something excessively, and here peregruzka would actually mean an overloading or overcharge. (In reports in the Russian press about Biden's original statement, the word used for reset in Russian was ... Reset. In English.)

Not surprisingly, Clinton's gaffe did not go unnoticed by Lavrov, her Russian counterpart. The mistake should "contribute to the advancement of Russian in America," Lavrov said.

Well, not quite ...

First impressions matter, and both the incredibly thoughtless mistranslation and Lavrov's reaction to it have great portent for any strategy based on the feeling that the US needs to "reset" the way it treats Russia. From the American side, the bad translation is as inexcusably (there are millions of native Russian speakers in the US! Couldn't they have run it by any one of them?) naive and lacking in forethought as is any talk about unilaterally "resetting" relations with Russia. From the Russian side, Lavrov's instinct to score a cheap point off Hillary is indicative of a Kremlin foreign policy entirely based around scoring cheap points off of "opponents" -- the greatest and most vilified of which is the US.

But why is it naive and thoughtless to "reset" relations with Russia? After all, judging by the ecstatic comments (now skirted off into the Internet ether) that Times readers left in response to the focus on bringing US-Russian relations back to the drawing board, Americans are relieved to hear about the "reset." But the fact is, for all of Bush's many foreign-policy foibles, the US has no need whatsoever to do penance before Russia.

In many ways, there weren't any large problems with US-Russian relations under 43: Bush largely ignored Russia, and that was a good thing. Russian officials since 1917 have been a bunch of pre-modern gangsters who today love to compare the United States to, for instance, Nazi Germany. The best policy in those instances is to do what Bush did -- keep a stiff upper lip, and let the world judge Putin's megalomania for what it is.

Granted, Bush did have mis-steps regarding NATO expansion. But that was less so because he encouraged Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO than because he failed to do it with Europe's support and in so failing was able to be labeled a unilateralist. Kosovo, on the other hand, was recognized with Europe's support -- and Russia, not the US, looks like the loser on that one.

I'd gander that history will show the largest mistakes made by the Bush administration vis-a-vis Russia were 1) when Dubs told the world he had "seen Putin's soul" while letting the man stamp out democracy and 2) the fact that the Bushies continuously failed to unite Europe with itself in policies touching Russia (involving energy, the former Soviet republics and democracy, e.g.).

Looking beyond the absence of any reason to atone for sins (not) done unto Russia, what consequences would any undue penance have? The smart money says it would not change Russia's behavior toward the US is in any positive way, but would merely cause Russia to smell blood in the water. I have no newspapers to cite here beyond personal experience, but when Russians sense weakness -- if you're alone at night, or if you're a racial minority -- they attack. This is especially true of the Kremlin, which takes the most base traits of many Russians and amplifies them. As its relations with its neighbors show, Russia is in many ways a medieval kingdom, like pre-Enlightenment Saxony.

In the case of Hillary's "reset" button gift, the short-term repercussion is that Lavrov, rather than smile and make a polite joke as an American or Belgian or Congolese or Korean diplomat would do, tried to score a cheapshot about teaching those dimwitted Americans foreign languages. The longer-term repercussion is that Russia will smell weakness in the US's bid to "reset" relations and will opportunistically seek to undermine American geopolitical interests while perhaps offering "olive branches" on flighty, noncommittal issues like nuclear non-proliferation. This is already manifesting itself: Chinese calls to unseat the dollar as the world reserve currency (a status that gives America undue influence and flexibility in borrowing money cheaply) originated last month in Moscow, shortly after the "reset" button was given to Lavrov.

The truest, and best, reset: Let them in

The one "reset" Washington should consider in regard to Russia is to dramatically expand access for Russians in getting to the US. No matter how many toy buttons or stuffed animals Hillary gives Lavrov, Russia will continue to rail against the US for domestic consumption (how else can we tell if Putin really is a strong leader than if he's taking on the hegemon with his bare hands?), indoctrinating further generations of US-hating Russians.

The US needs to let Russians come here, study, work, live, immigrate, vacation, buy property, whatever, and let them see that things aren't so bad, planting the seeds for a less anti-American populace and leadership in the future. Instead, we let a very small number of Russians get any sort of visa to the US, and treat them like prostitutes and criminals when they attempt do so. Again, this is based on personal experience rather than any Interweb articles I can cite. But it's another instance of how the Obama administration seems to be losing a few things in translation in its Russia policies.

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