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John Hughes: Diplomacy today is complex business

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International relations have become so complex that it's almost enough to make you yearn for the bad old days of the Cold War.

That, of course, is a tongue-in-cheek observation. The Cold War was dangerous and threatening, with huge nuclear arsenals on each side. But it actually did make for a simpler world than the one we live in today. The United States and the then-Soviet Union held each other in check, and the world was pretty much divided into client countries responsive to or controlled by one or the other of the two superpowers.

Without the threat of a nuclear clash between Washington and Moscow, the nations of the world have become more disparate, more restless and sometimes more volatile, with many different agendas. Russia has shed its empire of satellite nations that made up the Soviet Union. It has undergone an internal political revolution that largely revoked communism. It is no longer a nuclear threat to the United States. For a time, it faded to the outer edges of Washington's concerns.

But suddenly awash in oil, it has become an economic force to be reckoned with. Under Vladimir Putin, who bridles under Russia's eclipse, it aspires, with some success, to again become a major player in world politics.

The just-concluded Group of Eight summit meeting illustrates the tensions and contradictions that continue to cloud the new policy of coexistence between Russia and the United States. Both nations understand there is much to be gained from it, but President Bush, who once looked into Putin's eyes and thought he understood him, is now a little more circumspect. The United States needs Russia's help in curbing the nuclear weaponry ambitions of Iran. But Russia has major trade relations with Iran and will cooperate in toothless U.N. statements admonishing Iran but balks at any tough action. Russia and the United States both declare themselves against terrorism, but Russia invites a delegation from the Islamic terrorist organization Hamas to visit Moscow.

Bush, making the quest for democracy, including a free press and freedom of religion, a cornerstone of his foreign policy, privately and publicly tweaks Russia for lagging in this regard. Putin responds with all the testy disagreement that a former KGB officer can muster. But still the two proclaim that their friendship prevails despite differences when their national interests are at variance. It is an alliance of mutual necessity.

A recent Council of Foreign Relations task force declared that Russia is less open and less democratic than it was a few years ago. This trend may not have run its course. Though professing to oppose terrorism, Russia has tried to curtail U.S. access to bases in Central Asia that support military operations in Afghanistan. Russia has used energy exports as a policy weapon, intervening in Ukraine's politics and curtailing supplies to the rest of Europe. Its policies toward the states on its periphery have become a recurrent source of friction with the United States.

The task force, chaired by John Edwards and John Kemp, says there is "growing doubt about whether Russia is building a modern and effective state that can cooperate successfully with other modern nations to deal with common problems." Today Russia might seem stable, "but its stability has a weak institutional base." The future of its political system is less predictable than it should be.

Anders Aslund, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, says that Putin succeeded during his first term in office because he tried to satisfy a broad public opinion and balanced various power centers in order to consolidate his power. The goal of his second term has been to remove all centers of power but his own, to the point where his regime is now "utterly dysfunctional because of overcentralization and secrecy."

According to Aslund, the question is no longer whether Putin will hang on to power after his second term expires in 2008 but "whether he will survive that long."

The world is no longer run by two superpowers. The president must nurture ties with communist China because China can bring leverage on North Korea as it seeks to develop nuclear weapons. The president must cultivate India and Japan, as significant counterbalances in Asia to China's fast-growing economic and military power. The president must maintain an agreeable relationship with Russia because Russia may be able to bring influence to bear on Iran and Syria.

Diplomacy today is much more complex than it was in the Cold War.

John Hughes is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News. He is a former editor of the Christian Science Monitor, which syndicates this column. E-mail: hughes@desnews.com