The U.S. decision to expel 50 Russians for “activities incompatible with their status as diplomats” — spying to the layman — is being roundly decried as a sign of the Cold War mentality that dominates the administration of President George W. Bush. But it is far from it. The suspicions of those days may be back, but the wary respect each side used to afford the other is not — and that is the dangerous part of the new policy.

The size of the Russian intelligence contingent in the United States had alarmed security officials in Washington for some time. The arrest of FBI agent Robert Philip Hanssen on charges of spying for Moscow provided the new administration with the excuse it needed to crack down. Mr. Bush ordered the expulsion of 50 Russians, and Russia promptly retaliated by expelling 50 U.S. officials.

The tit-for-tat maneuvers are reminiscent of the Cold War. The last big expulsion of spies from the U.S. was back in 1986, when then President Ronald Reagan showed 55 Soviet officials the door. U.S. officials note that there has been a marked increase in the number of Russian spies in the U.S. since 1997 — doubling in size to Cold War levels. This is thought to reflect the mind-set of President Vladimir Putin, himself a product of the security apparatus. His outlook is matched by that of a new U.S. administration that has no sentimental or personal attachments to Russia or its leaders.

But even if the action and reaction were identical, their impact is not. Russia can afford to trim its bloated intelligence contingent; the U.S. cannot. Important assignments could be put at risk; needed intelligence may not be collected. Just as damaging will be the suspension of cooperative agreements between the two governments and their security agencies. Mr. Sergei Ivanov, secretary of the Russian Security Council and one of Mr. Putin’s closest aides, warned that “for the next few months, one can forget about cooperation between Russian and U.S. special services” in the fight against international terrorism, proliferation of nuclear and missile technologies and drug trafficking.

The Russians decry the return to Cold War thinking. In fact, their real concern is that the U.S. cannot be bothered to give Moscow the respect it deserves. Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov gave the game away when he railed against Russia being treated like “some banana republic.”

Administration officials call it “realism.” Whatever the name, the results are clear: On issues ranging from NATO expansion and Moscow’s relations with former Soviet republics to national missile defense, the Bush administration is showing a general disregard for Russian interests. That rankles. It also encourages Russia to stir up trouble, such as by making deals with Iran, to get Washington to pay attention.

The Russian fear is not ungrounded. Last week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave Mr. Bush a preliminary report on his review of U.S. military forces and strategy. Reportedly, Mr. Rumsfeld outlined a shift in U.S. military strategy that would put less emphasis on Europe and more on Asia. The biggest factor behind the shift is the rise in China’s military and economic power and the increasing significance of Asia as a whole. The outlook sees the Pacific as the likely theater of U.S. military operations.

The shift in the U.S. focus will diminish Russia’s role. Washington must be careful, however. If it marginalizes Moscow, it will force the Russian government to reach an accommodation with Beijing to enable it to play a role in Northeast Asia. A full-blown partnership is unlikely, but the U.S. should not help those two governments find common cause.

The shift will also have profound implications for Japan. For years, Japanese officials have called on the U.S. to make Asia a priority and to end the ad hoc decision-making that seems to dominate policy toward the region. It looks like they will get their wish. They should be aware of the implications.

A new U.S. focus on Asia will mean new demands on its partner and ally. Japan will rightly demand increased consultations with U.S. officials and more input into U.S. decision-making. But that will come with a price: more responsibility on Japan’s part. That in turn will necessitate a genuine public consensus on what this country can do in the name of national defense, its security treaty with the U.S. and to protect regional peace and stability. The ad hoc approach used by successive governments here — constitutional “reinterpretations” and surreptitious defense legislation — will no longer suffice. Japan will need a real defense debate — and soon.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.