There has been much misinterpretation in the West since President Vladimir Putin's recent speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy. From the reaction of some Western journalists and politicians, one would think that the Russian president wished to ignite a blast of anti-American rhetoric to spark another Cold War. Defense Secretary Robert Gates got it right when he responded by asserting that "one Cold War was quite enough." Indeed it was, so let's not declare - or look for a pretext to declare - a new one. At a time when Russia is ready and eager to play a positive role in world affairs and integrate into the global economy, it does far more harm than good to treat Russia as a hostile nation whenever Moscow and Washington disagree.
What Putin actually said in Munich was not new. He said nothing that we have not discussed directly with the Bush administration and that is not whispered in political circles in Europe and elsewhere. He made these statements at a conference because he wanted to get the world's attention to begin a dialogue about what kind of world we want for our children and ourselves. Putin believes, as do many others, that the world cannot be dictated to by a single country. History shows that this has been attempted repeatedly but has never worked. Recent unilateral actions have not resolved problems but actually exacerbated them and created new hotbeds of tension.
If you read the president's entire speech, you will see that Putin was neither attacking the United States nor proposing Russia as a counterbalance to US unilateralism. Instead, he called for a world with many centers of influence where different interests work together, multilaterally, to shape a common denominator on global issues. The recent six-nation agreement on North Korea's nuclear program proves that this pragmatic approach can work.
IN FACT, Putin offered more instances of mutual agreement between the United States and Russia than examples of discord. As he noted, we are strong partners on counterterrorism and nuclear nonproliferation. We have a common stake in ensuring global energy security as agreed to at the Group of Eight summit last July in St. Petersburg.
Our American colleagues tell us that the United States needs Russia and other key countries to help resolve numerous regional conflicts. Against this background, America's unilateral actions look puzzling. It's also ironic that Putin's speech was deemed threatening. Russian citizens ask themselves: Who threatens whom? With the Warsaw Pact dissolved for more than 15 years, why does NATO still spread toward Russian borders? What should Russia believe when the United States seeks to place anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe? And instead of joining efforts to counter global threats, should our two countries really be engaged in searching for deficiencies in each other's domestic life?
As Russians struggled with the chaos and weakness that dogged us in the first post-Soviet years, some might have gained the impression that our voice would never be heard on the world stage. A stronger, more vibrant Russia has emerged from the rubble of the 1990s. Our economy continues to expand and diversify; our people look forward to the progress and prosperity that our new society can deliver through technological innovation and social programs. And a growing middle class benefits from the robust business climate that attracts more and more foreign investments: In 2006, for example, net inflow of capital to Russia surpassed $40 billion.
It only makes sense that we would hold our own views and expect them to be taken seriously, whether they concern vital security matters or terms of economic interaction. We are strongly committed to democracy, and we will not compromise the right of the Russian people to decide things for themselves and be heard on international issues.
In any relationship, disagreements arise. But observers make a grave error when they mistake the honest and open airing of concerns as some sort of casus belli. President Bush rightly emphasized the other day that, while differences exist between our two countries, "there's also a relationship in which we can find common ground to solve problems." Russia is ready to work with the United States on an equal and mutually respectful basis.
Another Cold War? Certainly not. A democratic world in which a strong Russia coexists with a strong United States, as well as a strong Europe, China, India, Brazil and others - that is Vladimir Putin's vision - and it is well worth considering.
The writer is foreign minister of the Russian Federation - The Washington Post