One of the incoming Obama administration’s top foreign policy priorities should be to stop the drift toward confrontation with Russia. The war in Georgia last summer demonstrated the dangers of an American policy that encourages Russia’s neighbors to attack what Russia sees as its vital interests. The United States, by contrast, has no vital interests in this region–certainly not compared with those elsewhere. The Georgian attack on South Ossetia and President Mikheil Saakashvili’s increasing authoritarianism should also make clear that the United States has no moral stake in the Russia-Georgia dispute. In any other context, Washington would have not the slightest difficulty in denouncing the Saakashvili administration as chauvinist, bellicose aggressors against the Abkhaz and Ossetian peoples.

Above all, however, Washington simply cannot afford the geopolitical distraction of confrontation with Russia when the United States faces such immense challenges elsewhere. What is more, Russia can be of great help on what should be two linked priorities of the new administration: achieving détente with Iran and putting together a regional coalition to help stabilize Afghanistan and eventually replace the US and NATO presence there. Russian pressure and Russian contacts in Tehran would be immensely valuable in this regard. These are urgent issues; defending Europe against possible Iranian nuclear weapons at some indefinite time in the future is not necessary today and probably never will be. Plans to deploy missile defenses in Central Europe should therefore immediately be put on hold, as part of a wider strategy outlined below.

In its approach to Russia the new administration has one great advantage, denied to it in other spheres: in order to achieve a significant improvement in relations, Washington does not actually have to do anything. It only has to stop doing certain things. This is because, contrary to the impression assiduously cultivated in the US media and think-tank worlds, Russian policy vis-à-vis the West is not more aggressive or assertive than it was in the past. Outside the economic sphere, it is rather overwhelmingly reactive, made up of responses (which may, of course, be exaggerated or unwise) to the actions of the West and especially the United States.

The difference between the image of Russian behavior in the United States and its reality was dramatized by the war over South Ossetia in August. It is not just that a clear and obvious Georgian attack was misreported as an act of Russian aggression by the US media and establishment. It is also that the whole affair was presented in terms of a new Russian expansionism. As a matter of record, however, Moscow’s commitment to defend South Ossetia dates back to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, and that of defending Abkhazia, to Boris Yeltsin in 1993. Rightly or wrongly, Soviet and then Russian help was instrumental in defeating Georgian attempts to crush these regions’ independence moves in the early ’90s.

Thereafter, Moscow repeatedly made clear that it would not accept any Georgian attempt to retake these territories by force. In recent years Moscow’s signals in this regard to the Saakashvili government could not have been clearer. One can criticize this Russian policy from a number of points of view; but one cannot seriously claim that it was either new or hidden.

The new element in the region has been the US arming of Georgia and the US push to bring Georgia into NATO. It can only have been belief in US support that inspired Saakashvili to launch Georgia’s attack. If Washington had not created the impression that such support would be forthcoming in the event of war, there would have been no war, and the United States would have avoided a crisis that the world economy could ill afford, including $4.5 billion in emergency Western aid to Georgia, money that could have been better spent in helping Pakistan, for example–a country that truly is vital to US interests.

Moscow is not aiming at domination of Georgia proper. After all, in recent years Russia has withdrawn its bases, allowed the peaceful displacement of President Eduard Shevardnadze by Saakashvili and acquiesced in Saakashvili’s forcible overthrow of the rival regime of Aslan Abashidze in the Georgian autonomous republic of Ajaria and in the virtual abolition of that region’s autonomy–despite the fact that at the time, Russian troops were still based in Ajaria and could have intervened to prevent it.

Moscow has long since recognized that Georgian nationalism makes a subservient Georgia impossible. On the other hand, the Russian establishment is absolutely determined to defend the protectorates of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and to prevent NATO from helping Georgia to reconquer them. It sees in this an exact parallel with the West’s policy of defending Kosovo against Serbia.

In other words, the US depiction of the situation in the Caucasus is an inversion of the truth. Far from protecting Georgia from Russia, US policy has encouraged Georgia to attack Russia and thereby endanger and destabilize itself. And whether Georgia is inside or outside NATO, there is no chance that the United States will send forces to fight for Georgia, if only because it does not have any available.

American reporting about Ukraine has been just as misleading. The push for NATO membership has been presented as a move to boost Ukrainian democracy and enhance Ukrainian security. But NATO membership would almost certainly have exactly the opposite effect, for the simple reason that according to every opinion poll, it is opposed by a large majority of Ukrainians in general and by an overwhelming majority in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country. Even leaving aside the issue of Russia’s reaction, the NATO issue bitterly divides Ukraine and raises the possibility of internal differences worsening to the point of civil war. Russia would doubtless encourage this process, but it is the United States, not Russia, that would initiate it.

The first step in relations with Russia on the part of the new administration should therefore be quietly to move the offer of NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine onto the back burner. Condoleezza Rice has already opened the way for this by stating that the United States will not press for an early offer of a “membership action plan” at the next NATO summit. As one of its first actions in the area of foreign policy, the Obama administration should give private assurances to Russia that the issue will not be raised again as long as Obama remains in power–unless, of course, Russia takes aggressive and unprovoked actions against Ukraine, Georgia or the Baltic states. Russian officials have repeatedly made clear in private that the abandonment of US offers of membership to Ukraine and Georgia would automatically unlock much greater Russian cooperation on a range of other issues. Given the congruence of wider US and Russian interests–and the Russian government’s need for Western investment and goodwill in the face of its own growing economic crisis–a considerable warming in relations should be possible.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, the Obama administration should aim at a clear, if doubtless private, agreement that would exclude radical action by either the United States or Russia in favor of a joint commitment to share influence. Thus the United States would abandon further moves to pull Ukraine into NATO in return for a Russian disavowal of crude forms of political intervention and economic pressure. Such an agreement should be eased by the fall in the international price of energy, greatly reducing–for a time at least–Moscow’s ability to use its energy supplies as a weapon of geopolitical influence.

It should also be made clear to Moscow that if it ever uses energy blackmail against existing members of NATO and the EU, then all other agreements will automatically be under question. To be fair, despite hysterical Western fears, Moscow has never done this or threatened it as far as its Western customers are concerned–though it has cut supplies to Ukraine and Georgia because of massive unpaid bills. However, fears that Russia will put energy pressure on the West in the future should be used by the Obama administration to accelerate radically increased US cooperation with Europe to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The Obama administration needs to embed its relations with Russia in a wider new strategy toward Eurasia. The frame should include Russia, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and the approach should be based on a recognition that the United States is simply not strong enough anymore–if indeed it ever was–to impose its will on the region, or even to prevent Afghanistan from sinking into deeper civil war.

First, the Obama administration needs to make a determined effort at reconciliation with Iran, starting with private signals to the Iranian establishment that the defeat of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s presidential elections in June 2009 would be a major step in making this possible, coupled with assurances that the United States has no intention of backing regime change. The new approach should include a return to the terms of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty under strict supervision, thereby verifiably freezing the Iranian nuclear program short of weaponization. Russia and China should be enlisted to bring this about, and to agree to impose very tough international sanctions if Iran breaks the treaty. On the other hand, Iran should immediately be promised the restoration of full diplomatic relations and the unlocking of frozen assets in return for a treaty promising strict adherence to the NPT and help to the United States in Afghanistan.

A declared pursuit of détente with Iran would, in turn, enable the Obama administration to suspend another major cause of Russian hostility, namely the move to establish US missile defenses in Central Europe. Washington can announce that as long as there is a good chance of preventing an Iranian nuclear force by diplomatic means, there is obviously no need for those missile defenses. The whole issue can therefore be deferred–let us hope indefinitely.

Improved relations with Iran and Russia should be used to help with what will be a central challenge for the Obama administration: stabilizing Afghanistan without committing US troops to fight there for decades or launching an invasion of Pakistan to destroy Taliban support, thereby creating a much greater disaster for US and world security. The answer to this dilemma–a most imperfect answer, but the best on offer–is to try to stitch together a regional consensus to manage Afghanistan after the United States and NATO withdraw.

Russia and Iran are both critical to such a strategy. Before 9/11 these countries were instrumental in preserving whatever remained of anti-Taliban opposition within Afghanistan. Without them, the United States would have had no local allies on the ground when it attacked the Taliban regime in the fall of 2001. In addition, Iran, as Afghanistan’s most important neighbor, will always be critical to any serious attempt to develop Afghanistan’s economy–something that has been barely mentioned in the Western debate over that war-torn nation.

Russia could also play a valuable role in Afghanistan’s future because it can act as a bridge between two other countries that will be vital in this regard: China and India. China, in turn, is of great importance because of its close links to Pakistan, which is the only external power to possess any significant degree of influence over the Taliban. If the United States can work with Russia and Iran to help bring together Afghanistan’s other neighbors, that will increase the chances that the United States will be able to leave Afghanistan with some measure of dignity intact and without simply allowing Afghanistan to sink back into the horrible anarchy of the pre-Taliban 1990s.

If the Obama administration pursues the set of policies described above, it will have to imagine the United States not as “the country which stands taller than other nations, and therefore sees further,” in Madeleine Albright’s words but as a state among other states: not with a unique mission of national superiority and leadership but with a common responsibility to seek common solutions to common problems. Unfortunately, such a truly multilateral foreign policy is alien to the Clinton/Albright school of diplomacy–from which Obama has drafted many of his top advisers. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s nominee as secretary of state, as well as her and Obama’s key associates in the area of Russia policy, have an especially bad record when it comes to Russian relations. Some, like Stephen Sestanovich, Strobe Talbott and Michael McFaul, have contributed directly to a worsening of relations, for example by their guidance in drafting the misguided 2006 bipartisan Council on Foreign Relations report Russia’s Wrong Direction.

On the other hand, two factors contribute to greater optimism regarding future US-Russian relations. The first is that in many ways, for the United States to adopt a more sensible policy toward Russia and other major powers, it really only has to follow the fairly rational model already pursued by both the Clinton and second Bush administrations in their relations with China. Both administrations did this in the end because they recognized that the United States was not powerful enough to do anything else, at least without bringing the world economies down in ruins. Echoing this, the growing constraints on US power analyzed in the latest report of the National Intelligence Council should lead to greater sobriety across the entire spectrum of foreign policy. Therefore, even if the new administration proves incapable of greater wisdom in its dealings with Russia, it may at least be forced to exercise greater caution.

The assumptions of the Clinton and Bush administrations concerning US power and the ideological certainties on which they founded much of their foreign policy lie in ruins. Faced with the collapse of past Communist certainties, the Chinese and Russian elites eventually responded with radically new strategies. I would be disappointed to find out that US Democratic Party elites are inferior in this regard.