In 1974 Henry Kissinger marketed detente with the Soviet Union as a tool for spurring American trade and boosting an economy that had been hit by the post-Yom Kippur war oil price hikes.
He encountered resistance in a Democrat-controlled Congress led by Senator Henry Jackson of Washington who sought to tie liberalization of trade with the Soviet Union to greater Soviet respect for human rights and in particular, a willingness to let Soviet Jews emigrate freely.
Now the roles have been reversed. Republican House Speaker John Boehner is threatening to block legislation normalizing Russian trade relations with the United States as part of Russia's projected admission to the World Trade Organization.
The speaker has conditioned congressional agreements on Russian respect for the "territorial integrity" of Georgia. Russia has supported and recognized the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and Ossetia and has stationed troops there. Talks between Russia and Georgia to break the impasse have gone nowhere and Georgia is using its veto power over Russia's admission to the WTO as a lever.
Speaking before the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, speaker Boehner, at a conference pointedly entitled "The Risk of Reset: Why Washington Must Watch Its Step with Moscow", attacked the Obama administration for downplaying the issue. “The administration should resolve this stalemate in a manner that respects the territorial integrity of Georgia.”
In Kissinger's day, Republicans and business circles complained that public pressure on Russia was counterproductive, would be rejected and the only losers would be the American companies who would now be outflanked by their European competitors.
Now it is the Democrats who are making the same charge and Democratic Representative Howard Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee lamented the damage to American companies who would not gain access to Russian markets. Both Berman and the White House have denied that they are leaning on Georgia to drop its demands on Russia in order to allow Russia to join the WTO.
Boehner has now effectively joined Mitt Romney in challenging the administration's "reset" policy towards Russia, where the US expresses its dissatisfaction with human right violations in Russia quietly without letting human rights interfere with more pressing areas of cooperation.
The speaker also believes that the US has to be more assertive in compelling the Kremlin to curtail its relations with Iran. He believes that Russia is sliding back into Soviet ways and will soon be led by Vladimir Putin, a man nostalgic for the Soviet Union. “In Russia’s use of old tools and old thinking, we see nothing short of an attempt to restore Soviet-style power and influence.”
The European Union has been pressuring Tbilisi to give into the Russians. According to Georgian sources, it has threatened that if Georgia does not agree to Russia joining the WTO, it would table a motion calling for an exemption to the normal rules, allowing Russia admission to be ratified by a simple majority vote bypassing Georgia.
The Russians are behaving as if they don't really need WTO membership, doing quite fine without it and anyway, if the United States and the European Union really want Russia inside, they could lean on Georgia more effectively.