By Joseph R. Biden Jr.
When we came into office two years ago, our relationship with Russia had reached a low point. The war between Russia and Georgia played a role in that decline, but even before that conflict erupted in August 2008, a dangerous drift was under way.
While we no longer considered each other enemies, you couldn't always tell that from the rhetoric flying back and forth. Ironically, this came at a time when American and Russian security interests, as well as economic interests, were more closely aligned than ever.
That's why President Obama made it a priority to reset our relationship with Russia -- and asked me to launch it just three weeks into the new administration at the Munich Security Conference. I said then that "the United States and Russia can disagree and still work together where our interests coincide. And they coincide in many places."
We focused the reset on concrete outcomes that serve both countries' interests -- "win-wins," as President Obama calls them.
Two years later, the benefits to both our countries -- and to international security -- are clear, including: the new Start Treaty that further limits strategic nuclear weapons, cooperation on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, collaboration on Afghanistan that facilitates the flow of soldiers and supplies, and the most stringent sanctions ever on Iran and North Korea for their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The next frontier in our relationship will be building stronger ties of trade and commerce that match the security cooperation we have achieved.
Since the reset, major American companies -- including Chevron, Pepsico, Alcoa, General Electric and Cisco -- have signed major deals in Russia. Last week, in Moscow, I witnessed the signing of a $2 billion sale of eight Boeing 777 aircraft to Aeroflot. Boeing estimates that this contract alone will sustain 11,000 jobs in the United States. This expands on last year's agreement to sell 50 737s to Russian Technologies. All of these contracts allow our companies to tap into unique Russian technical expertise and make even better products that we can sell in Russia and the rest of the world.
Yet our trade and investment relationship is nowhere near where it could or should be. Russia was America's 37th largest export market in 2010, and the value of goods that cross our borders with Canada and Mexico every few days exceeds the annual value of our trade with Russia.
One way to realize the potential of that relationship is to bring Russia more fully into the international trading system. That is why we strongly support Russia's effort to join the World Trade Organization.
Accession will enable Russia to deepen its trade relations with the United States -- and the world. And it will give American companies greater and more predictable access to Russia's growing markets, expanding both U.S. exports and employment. Being a part of the W.T.O. means that Russia will have to play by the rules or face enforcement actions.
Once Russia does what is required to join the W.T.O., we will also work with Congress to terminate the application to Russia of the Jackson-Vanik amendment -- a Cold War era law that tied trade relations with Russia to Jewish emigration, but remains on the books.
These steps are crucial components of our administration's trade agenda.
But even if they do join W.T.O., Russia's business and legal climate and backsliding on democracy will present serious obstacles. Pragmatic businessmen and women will invest where they can expect a reasonable return and some assurance that the legal system will provide due process.
Americans, Europeans, and Russians themselves, are less likely to invest confidently in a country where property rights are frequently violated, where fortunes can be lost because of legal abuses, where companies can be seized on a politician's whim, and where a lawyer like Sergei Magnitsky can be arrested after accusing the police of fraud -- and then die in detention before ever being tried.
No amount of government cheerleading or public relations rebranding will bring wronged or nervous investors back to this type of market. Only bold and genuine change can do that.
At the same time we have increased our cooperation with the Russian government, our administration has spoken out on allegations of misconduct in the trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and of the beating and detention of "Strategy 31" demonstrators -- and we will continue to do so in defense of universal values. But real opposition parties, independent media and impartial courts are also the best tools for fighting corruption -- the biggest barrier to economic growth in Russia. Russians know this.
Polls show that most Russians want to choose their national and local leaders in competitive elections; to assemble freely; and to have a free press. That's a message I heard recently when President Medvedev said that "freedom cannot be postponed."
In the summer of 1979, I led a delegation of senators to Moscow to discuss the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement (SALT II). I sat across from President Leonid Brezhnev and Premier Alexei Kosygin. It was a very different time. I recall Mr. Kosygin saying: "Let's agree that we do not trust you, you do not trust us and we have good reason not to trust each other."
He was absolutely right back then. But he would be wrong today.
Russians and Americans inside and outside of government have worked hard to overcome decades of mistrust, to identify common ground, and to foster a more secure and more prosperous future for both countries.
If two great nations that for 40 years stood on opposite sides of the 20th century's deepest divide can stand side-by-side in facing 21st century challenges, it will benefit not just the United States and Russia -- but the world.