By Wang Yusheng
US President George W. Bush will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin at Kennebunkport's Village Green on Sunday.
It will be the latest in a series of meetings between senior US and Russian government officials, which has been ongoing since May.
Following visits to Moscow by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the two countries' defense and foreign ministers may also meet this autumn - the so-called 2+2 format - with their national security advisers likely to sit in as well.
Moreover, the Russian government has stated repeatedly it has no intention to fight a "new Cold War" with the US and emphasized the need for the two nations to create a new "pattern of equal relationship".
Meanwhile, Gates and Rice reiterated more than once that US-Russia relations do not suggest a "new Cold War", although bilateral ties are at a complicated and difficult juncture. Rice went so far as to say the US is trying its best to "maintain a reciprocal relationship" with Russia.
All this constitutes the positive side of the US-Russia ties. Or it can also be seen as the highlight. If both sides are serious and match their words with moves, it will no doubt help improve bilateral relations and benefit the greater environment of world peace and development.
Noteworthy, however, is that Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried said recently: "We do not want a weak Russia. But a strong Russia must be strong in 21st century, not 19th century terms."
As positive, mild and reasonable as they sound, these words come with a but that is hard to ignore: It should be a Russia of the 21st century instead of the one back in the Russian Empire era or the Soviet era.
The first half of this premise is undoubtedly correct; to a certain extent, President Putin seems to have answered this question already. When commenting on some Russians' nostalgic longings, Putin once mused: "Those who do not lament the disintegration of the Soviet Union must have lost their conscience; those who want to go back to old Soviet Union must have lost their minds."
Profound and thought-provoking words, indeed.
Now there is a question: What exactly is a Russia of the 21st century like?
Obviously, in America's dictionary, the most important definition is that, first of all, the 21st must be a singularly dominant American century, an era of world peace under US rule, where Russia is allowed to be strong but only plays a supporting role and must forget about standing head to head with the US.
Second, America's security is absolute; it can spread its safety net right outside Russia's front door or in its backyard and the latter has no veto power over it.
Third, the US can plant its "potatoes of democracy" anywhere it wants, including Russia's neighbors and even inside Russia and make sure they take root and flourish. Russia's so-called "sovereign democracy" is backing away from democracy.
Russia is a rising major power and a quite confident one at that.
In Russia's dictionary a Russia of the 21st century apparently has multiple definitions, of which the most important is, first of all, it should be a powerful and confident Russia that is getting stronger every day; and it should be one of the key driving forces behind positive changes in the world. It can and needs to cooperate with the US, but will not follow US orders like a lowly subordinate.
Second, Russia will keep going along the road of sovereign democracy and will not recognize nor accept America's potatoes of democracy. It hates to see the US planting those potatoes of democracy everywhere, especially in its neighbors' lands.
Third, Russia must protect its nuclear security interests militarily or geopolitically speaking. And it is extremely difficult for Moscow to allow the US to spread its safety net outside Russia's front door.
It is not hard at all to see in these two different dictionaries that the Russia America wants is not what Russia has in mind, nor is it realistic. And the Russia of the 21st century that Russia wants to be is not what the US is looking forward to and is in fact unacceptable to Washington. This is actually the root cause of recent strategic scratches and verbal fire exchanges between the two countries.
It is a good thing for the two nations to maintain high-level dialogue, which can help improve bilateral ties. However, if they do not try hard enough to find a "dictionary" acceptable to both sides, such strategic scratches or bumper benders are unlikely to rule out and even become more frequent and serious in nature.
The author is a Beijing-based researcher on international relations.
(China Daily June 28, 2007)