The Reset Button

Dans son serment du samedi passé devant la conférence sur la Sécurité à Munich, le Vice Président américain Joe Biden a proposé de ‘pousser le bouton de redémarrage’ dans relations avec la Russie. Évoquons une autre expression typiquement américaine en réponse : « where is the beef? » – où est la substance?


Une Note par Gilbert Doctorow


The Reset Button


by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.



In his closely watched address on Saturday to the Security Conference in Munich, American Vice President Joe Biden delivered to his audience no so much a speech as a ‘press release,’ relieving the media of the opportunity or necessity to draw its own conclusions. The new administration in Washington goes on record setting “a new tone” in foreign policy in which it will “engage…listen…consult” with its NATO allies and with Russia. Unilateralism is out. But what is in?


In his speech, the few hints at content suggest no substantive change from the positions held by the Bush administration, as for example on the missile defense system that has so riled the Russians or the augmentation of NATO countries’ troop contributions to the failing war effort in Afghanistan that has upset the West Europeans. The Iranians are still being lectured to, told to behave like good boys on nuclear proliferation and ‘aid to terrorists,’ or else…


While reaching for ‘the reset button’ with Russia, Biden also pressed other buttons in his reminder of where the two countries would continue to disagree. There is not a hint of reconsideration in his speech over who was to blame for the conflict with Georgia. Nor was there any stepping back from the goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, despite the strongly stated and oft-repeated objections of the Russians. These are issues that have poisoned the bilateral US-Russian atmosphere for the past 4 years.


What Joe Biden said at Munich looks very much like the foreign policy prescription for ‘selective containment’ of Russia that former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large to the CIS countries in the Bill Clinton administration Stephen Sestanovich set out in an article published by Foreign Affairs magazine in its November/December issue. In my December 3rd review of that article in this blog,* I remarked that this does not correspond in any way to ‘change we can believe in’ and gives very little reason to hope for a less stormy period ahead in international relations.


Perhaps the Americans are holding onto their positions for the sake of a general trade-off further down the road. But it is also possible this is no negotiating ploy, just stubborn arrogance. What we see here is America’s refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Russian (and other countries’) national interests when they collide with American ambition of global hegemony and/or 100% guarantees of America’s security.


Why has the charm offensive been rolled out when the content is barely changed? Within the mainstream of the Democratic Party going back to the 2004 presidential election campaign of John Kerry, there was always the propensity to believe that it was not American policies that were wrong so much as the mediocre or incompetent Republican personalities who were implementing them. The criticism of the war in Iraq was couched in terms of efficacy not purpose. While Barack Obama challenged the correctness of the original decision to wage war on Iraq during his campaigning in the Democratic primaries, from the mainstream appointments to Cabinet level security positions that he made upon taking office it now appears that his position on the war was tactical, a means of differentiating himself from the other half-dozen leading contenders for the nomination, and was not strategic, in the sense of pointing the US in new directions, least of all recanting the Pax Americana.



Video coverage from the Munich conference shown on Euronews presents us with a smiling Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who is quoted as saying that Biden’s speech was very positive. What did the Russian media make of the speech and of the conference as a whole? Let us take a look at some of their comments these past couple of days, beginning with the country’s main television news channel.


A review of the Russian media



Vesti gave what might be called balanced coverage. The American Vice President’s remarks were set in a broader context of statements by other major participants. The channel reports on Sergei Ivanov’s private talks with Biden on Sunday where the key issue appears to have been strategic arms negotiations over a treaty to replace START, which expires on December 5. In Vesti’s view, renewal of strategic arms talks fits the description of Biden’s call for pressing the reset button. However, the news channel also expresses the hope that America will reconsider placing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe.


Otherwise, Vesti highlights statements deemed friendly to Russia by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel. It says both leaders appear to support the review of Europe-wide security arrangements called for by President Dmitry Medvedev.


Vesti ends with guarded optimism for the future: the real test of what progress may have been made in Munich, it says, will be seen in two months time at the meeting of the G-20 in London and at the 60th anniversary summit of NATO. These events will present Washington and Brussels with a chance to cancel the negative aspects of relations with Russia.


For its part, the Russian wire service RIA Novosti points to Sergei Ivanov’s statement at the Munich conference that Poland will not stand in the way of negotiations between Russia and the USA over creation of a missile defense in Europe. The quote cited is that ‘there is no impression that Poland is interfering.’ That view runs up against remarks by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk before the Conference opened


In a long commentary published today, the newspaper Kommersant opens with confirmation that EU leaders agreed to implement Russian President Medvedev’s idea of creating a new system of European security, though not according to Russia’s scenario. It says German Chancellor Merkel wants NATO to create the new architecture. It presents Joe Biden as being more accommodating in calling for turning the page on relations with Russia.


True to its editorial policy of showing its teeth at the expense of politicians of all stripes, Kommersant makes Georgian President Saakashvili today’s victim of its malicious streak, explaining how Saakashvili chafed over not being invited to speak and spent Saturday morning, before the discussion of relations between Russia and NATO opened, killing time by studying the display windows of jewelry shops in the Hotel Bayerischer Hof.


According to Kommersant, the main purpose of Saakshvili’s visit to Munich was to meet with Joe Biden and so it was remarkable that though the Georgian President was fourth in line of those waiting to shake hands with the Vice President when he arrived at the conference, Biden looked past him to warmly embrace Henry Kissinger, then energetically shook hands with a number of other world leaders whom he knows well before drily and very formally acknowledging Saakashvili for a moment and quickly passing over to greet Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.


In its summary of Joe Biden’s address at Munich, Kommersant notes that Russia was mentioned in last place , in the context of its partnership with NATO, and well after America’s priority concerns of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Palestine. The paper carried the sentence in which Biden said the US will continue with plans to develop its missile defense system to counter threats from Iran “provided that the technology is proven and that it is cost-effective.”


Rossiiskaya Gazeta puts a more positive interpretation on the Biden initiative in its headline: “Reset. Washington ready to cooperate with Moscow to solve contentious issues.” The article opens with coverage of the speech delivered (in English) by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov, who, it reminds readers, is a veteran of these gatherings in Munich, having attended now for the ninth time. Ivanov’s speech focused on the problem of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear arms. In this context the negotiation of a replacement treaty for START by its December expiration date is said to be a serious concern for Moscow. At the same time, Ivanov said Moscow wants to move on, calling for the new agreement to include a prohibition on placing offensive weapons beyond national borders and in outer space.


Turning to the address delivered by Joe Biden, Rossiiskaya Gazeta says there were quite a few surprises. It liked in particular the notion of pressing the reset button. It saw this as meaning it is time to move beyond disputes and to reach agreements. With respect to the secret discussions between Biden and Ivanov on Sunday, the paper says that the positioning of the American missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic was under discussion, with the Americans acknowledging that some modifications are still possible. The Obama administration , it says, wants to clarify costs and then consult with its NATO allies.


According to Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the Americans see in Russia an important partner and are ready to cooperate on a variety of problems where they have mutual interests and points of view, for example in the war on terror. The paper cites approvingly the call by Henry Kissinger to reexamine the Russian proposal of shared use of a rocket launching warning station which the Russians are now refitting.


Rossiiskaya Gazeta closes with a lengthy commentary by Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council’s committee on international affairs, who saw positive notes in the Munich conference pointing to possible improvements in Russia’s relations with the West. He cites remarks by a number of European leaders and the image of pressing the reset button in the speech of Joe Biden.


Finally, while the headline article in the English-language Moscow Times’ article on Munich, “Moscow Welcomes ‘Reset’of U.S. Ties,” stressed the positive, the body of the article detailed the qualifications on America’s outstretched hand and the corresponding reservations on the Russian side. In this respect, it mirrors the overall attempt by the Russian media to hope for the best while not ignoring troubling elements in the speeches of Biden and other Western leaders.





©Gilbert Doctorow 2009



G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University. His latest book  Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12 is scheduled for publication in April 2013 and will be available from Amazon in paperback and e-book editions.