Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in an attempt to make good on Vice President Joe Biden’s pledge to “push the reset button” in the bilateral relationship.  The task will, to say the least, not be an easy one.


“Clinton seeks new U.S. relationship with Russia” is the headline Reuters gives to Sue Pleming’s reporting.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets Russia’s foreign minister on Friday, seeking to ease tensions and win help over Afghanistan for the new Obama administration. No major decisions are expected when she meets Sergei Lavrov for dinner in Geneva but Obama’s team hopes to improve relations after a post-Cold War low during George W. Bush’s presidency.

When Russia sent tanks and troops into Georgia last year, the Bush administration sought to isolate Moscow, especially in international institutions such as NATO, which suspended ties. Clinton said on Friday she wanted a fresh start, but said divisions remained on NATO expansion and Russia’s relations with its neighbors. “There are areas where we just flat out disagree and we are not going to paper those over,” Clinton told the BBC. “We will not recognize the breakaway areas of Georgia, we do not recognize any sphere of influence on the part of Russia and their having some kind of veto power over who can join the EU or who can join NATO.”

Criticizing the Bush’s administration’s “confrontational approach” toward Russia, she said: “How much that contributed to Russian behavior I think is a legitimate question to ask.”

Clinton’s words are much more accurate than the headline. It may well be that a less “confrontational” approach will be more effective in getting Russia to act as a responsible citizen of the international community; indeed, it’s difficult to imagine it being any less effective. Still, Clinton is absolutely right to point out that the “areas where we just flat out disagree” are numerous and fundamental.

Sonja Pace’s report for VOA is has the unassuming title “Clinton Meets with Russian Counterpart After NATO Talks.” It, too, emphasizes the differences but also notes the possible areas for mutually beneficial cooperation: “Afghanistan, working together to combat terrorism, narcotics trafficking and piracy.” That strikes me as the place to start.

One substantive area under discussion, according to Xinhua (“U.S. invites Russia to join its missile defense plan in Eastern Europe”) is an area where we’ve found common ground since the days of the Cold War.

“We believe that Russia and the United States have the opportunity to cooperate on missile defense — to do joint research and joint development. And even eventually assumingly we can reach such an agreement (on) joint deployment,” Clinton told reporters in Brussels.

Clinton defended the idea of the Bush administration to deploy a strategic missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland. “Missile defense is an element of our (U.S. and EU) joint defense posture,” she said after a meeting with the European Union(EU) troika — the presidency, the decision-making council and the European Commission. “It obviously has to be proved to work and to be cost-effective for it to be deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland. But it is intended to be part of a deterrent and a defense response vis-a-vis Iran and other actors that might attain and determine to use missiles against Europe,” she said.

There has been widespread speculation that the Obama administration would reverse course on the Bush policy in exchange from certain concessions from Russia. We shall see if that has any legs.

Bloomberg‘s Viola Gienger reports (“Clinton Assures Europe of Ties Before Russia Talks”) that “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to reassure Europeans that U.S. overtures to Russia won’t weaken trans-Atlantic links, as she spoke in Brussels before heading to a meeting with her Russian counterpart.” That such assurances would be needed is odd, indeed. Gienger reports:

Clinton’s hour-long forum with European Union interns and young staff was the highest-level U.S. visit to the European Parliament since former President Ronald Reagan visited in 1985, said Hans-Gert Poettering, president of the EU assembly. She spoke in a round chamber in a building built in 1998 and named for Altiero Spinelli, an Italian who was one of the EU’s founding fathers.

Her responses to questions covering Israeli settlements in the West Bank, climate change, gay rights and bureaucratic complexity won her a standing ovation and raves from Poettering. “What you said mostly could have been said by a European,” he said in closing. “With you, Madam Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton, with your President, we know now again we share the same values.”

It’s truly remarkable that no American president — not even Bill Clinton — has visited the European Parliament in nearly a quarter century. Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic skills are incredible, indeed, if she managed to persuade Europeans that the United States shares similar views on Israel, global warming, and gay rights. The fact of the matter, as illustrated by my interview with Senator Jim Inhofe, is that we have profound differences on those and other issues.

Not nearly as profound, however, as our differences with Russia. That Europeans had any concern that our talking to Russia — which Europe has been clamoring for — would somehow diminish the transatlantic relationship is stunning.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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