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Baiting the Bear: McCain Wants Russia Out of the Group of Eight

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SOURCE: AP/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service

Much of Sen. John McCain’s foreign policy agenda is Bush administration failed ideas redux. He advocates continuing to deploy high levels of U.S. troops in Iraq for years, decades, or centuries if necessary, and seems to think that bombing Iran would somehow further American interests. Now, the Arizona Republican and the party’s presumptive presidential nominee wants to needlessly antagonize Russia. When it comes to big power politics, McCain’s not even McSame. He is McWorse.

U.S. national security demands a stable and constructive relationship with Russia, whether we like it or not. A new Russian president, Dimitri Medvedev, is on board as of today, and even if he is former Russian president Vladimir Putin’s puppet (and it is too early to tell) the United States has a chance to start fresh with a sensible approach. But McCain instead suggests that the other members of the Group of Eight industrialized economies kick Russia out of the group—a move that would guarantee enduring Russian ire and roil U.S.-Russian relations at an important moment in the post-Cold War era.

Russia is the largest source of poorly-guarded bomb-ready nuclear material in the world. Even unclassified sources reveal multiple incidents of illicit trafficking of this material and confirmed cases of terrorists attempting to steal it. If we want to keep Americans safe from a terrorist attack with a nuclear device—the most urgent security priority articulated by most every Democratic and Republican national security figure alike—we have to work with Russia.

Russia is, in fact, the co-founder and co-leader with us of a group of 50 nations strategizing about how to keep nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. And just yesterday the Bush administration signed a groundbreaking deal with Russia to allow the country to import, store, and reprocess spent nuclear fuel—a step designed to help stop nuclear proliferation by expanding the number of countries that can ship spent nuclear fuel from civilian reactors around the world.

Likewise, we will never be able to get Iran to discontinue its nuclear program unless we have Moscow’s buy in. To do that, we need to negotiate with Moscow. It would also be nice to avoid yet another conflagration in the Balkans, and for that we need Russia’s willingness to show restraint.

The “look into his eyes and see his soul” moment between President Putin of Russia and President Bush was a little over the top (and a little weird), but since the departure of a key member of the president’s Cold Warrior Club, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the administration’s policy toward Russia has been somewhat pragmatic, if not nuanced and effective.

In contrast, McCain’s first major pronouncement of his Russia policy is a step backward even from the mediocre place we are now. McCain’s suggestion that the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Japan, France, Germany, and Italy reconstitute the Group of Seven by kicking Russia out of the club is a terrible idea. Russia’s democracy is in name only, but we must not sacrifice real U.S. national security interests for symbolic power plays.

First of all, expelling Russia from the G-8 is very unlikely to even be possible because the other members won’t agree. Second, it will only alienate Russians further, not somehow make them reconsider their sustained shift away from democracy, as a McCain advisor suggested.

Russia has the psychology of a wounded bear. It was a mighty superpower, then went through a decade of humiliation in which it felt ignored and rejected by the West. Now, with high oil prices, Russians are back and want us to know it. The last thing they are going to do is bow to U.S. hectoring.

Kicking them out of an international economic forum where they get to sit at the grown-up table is the wrong approach to forging a relationship where we can collaborate on consequential strategic issues that both countries face. Instead, the United States must engage Russia in multilateral forums such as the G8, and conduct hard, steady negotiating on the many issues on the bilateral agenda.

If American security were not at stake, then we could perhaps follow McCain down the Cold War path he knows so well. But it is. So we can’t.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.

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