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A Turning Point? : Today's Russian presidential election is about more than personalities--it's also about personal security : Clinton Could Lose If Communist Wins

June 16, 1996|Walter Russell Mead | Walter Russell Mead, a contributing editor to Opinion, is the president's fellow at the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research

NEW YORK — Nobody is watching the Russian presidential election as nervously as the White House. Whatever a defeat for President Boris N. Yelstin would mean for Russia, it would be perceived in the United States as a defeat for President Bill Clinton.

After the embarrassing defeat of Shimon Peres, the Clinton-backed candidate in the Israeli election for prime minister, another defeat of another Clinton-backed incumbent would begin to look like a pattern. Add that the Bosnia deal looks shakier by the day--and that Defense Secretary William J. Perry now talks of extending the American presence in Bosnia well past the original deadline for withdrawal. Now look at the terrible hash the administration has made of its relations with China, the fiasco of U.S. policy toward Mexico and the worsening trade relations between the United States and the European Union.

The truth is, a Yeltsin defeat in Russia may have more impact in Washington than in Moscow. How? By crystallizing a perception that Clinton has flubbed foreign policy. This would hand a key issue to Bob Dole's floundering campaign and, by undercutting Clinton's Rose Garden strategy of looking presidential, throw the president's campaign off balance as the conventions approach.

The outcome of the Russian election will make surprisingly little difference to the conduct of Russian foreign policy. Under Yeltsin, Russian policy has been to increasingly distance Moscow from the West even as it tries to keep the aid pipelines from the International Monetary Fund and other Western donors open.

Russia has rediscovered its national interests. Whatever their political beliefs, most Russians cannot accept the territorial and political status quo. More than 23 million people of Russian heritage now live outside Russia's boundaries. Many of them face discrimination, even violence, in the newly independent and sometimes unstable countries that rooted after the Soviet Union broke up. The Russian economy depends on friendly relations with areas of the former Soviet Union, and Russian politicians of all parties want to make sure that those links--with Uzbek cotton producers, Georgian farmers, Ukrainian factories--stay strong.

By contrast, the West has, so far, offered Russia no serious incentives for cooperation beyond financial aid--and the financial aid comes with strings attached. Expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will freeze Russia out of Europe's security system. EU expansion will similarly freeze Russia out of the European economic system. Reacting both to the humiliation of the Soviet breakup and to the West's uncompromising stance since, domestic political opinion in Russia has forced the Yeltsin regime steadily toward a harder line in foreign policy.

Russia today is busy forming a salon des refuses, a club for the kids blackballed from other clubs. Iran is eager to join; so are other countries feeling Washington's displeasure, like China. A Gennady A. Zyuganov victory would grow club membership, but it would not change Russia's basic direction. Indeed, the country that needs to change its foreign policy is not Russia, but the United States.

The United States has badly overplayed its hand in the last few years. Assuming that the Soviet collapse left the United States supreme in world affairs, both the Bush and the Clinton administrations began throwing America's weight around in ways that have gradually built up serious hostility toward Washington in key parts of the world.

China, offended by U.S. stands over Taiwan, human rights and Tibet, is, in important respects, actively pursuing an anti-U.S. foreign policy. Trade friction and problems connected to U.S. bases on Okinawa continue to undermine the U.S.-Japan pillar. Incidents such as Clinton's ill-judged personal intervention in the Michael Fay caning case in Singapore have caused other Asian governments to doubt both America's intentions and its intelligence.

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