Après le mini-sommet entre Barack Obama et Dmitry Medvedev le 1 avril à Londres, je ne reclame plus un remboursement de mes contributions à la campagne éléctoral du candidat de la partie Démocrate. Pour comprendre la raison, lire la suite.
Par Gilbert Doctorow
Obama Changes US-Russian Relations: the money-back guarantee
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
In the weeks immediately following the inauguration, I was thinking of writing to the White House to ask for my money back.
This was the first presidential electoral campaign in which I reached into my wallet to contribute. Out here in the great abroad, there were not so many Obama supporters with their checkbook at the ready as one might have thought. According to the Craigslist, 4,000 foreign addresses appear on the donation rolls of the Obama camp. They come from among the estimated 5 million Americans who permanently live outside of the country. For my efforts, I got a listing in the Huffington Post web pages of Fundrace 2008, and the day before the inauguration I received in the mail an unsolicited gold embossed invitation to the inaugural events in Washington, D.C. which friends tell me could have provided admittance to the festive balls – provided I got myself onto a plane heading across the Atlantic posthaste.
However, on matters of substance, and particularly on foreign policy issues which are my first interest as an expatriate, being willy-nilly on the front line of America’s war on terror, I had little to celebrate in the impending change of occupancy at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
In previous blog entries (cf. “Superman on the Way”) I called out my concern over whom the President-elect had surrounded himself with. Indeed, he had been in the clutches of the Democratic Party’s stalwarts ever since July, when it became apparent he was going to take the party’s nomination. His choice of middle-of-the-road Joe Biden for Vice President put at his side a person with decades of foreign policy experience. But this was just a response to the foreign policy advantages claimed till then by the Republican candidate, John McCain. Biden’s policy positions were well within the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill of America First, second, and third in world affairs. There was not a hint of substantive change to be expected in that quarter.
Obama’s eventual selection of Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, the invitation to Robert Gates to stay on at the Pentagon, and all the other foreign affairs and intelligence appointments that came in January were calculated not to rock the boat, not to lose time in contentious hearings during Congressional vetting of nominations in what was described by the media as a wartime handover of executive powers. The net result was that the Presidential entourage was made up of people who had a great deal of authority and experience in these domains, much more than he himself, and who all brought with them the baggage of stale concepts and practices. It was hard to see how ‘change we can believe in’ would break through this ring of iron.
Yet on the first Presidential trip abroad last week this breakthrough appears to be exactly what happened. In no policy dossier was this truer than in bilateral relations with Russia, where Joe Biden’s catchword the previous month of ‘pushing the reset button’ was given concrete meaning at a meeting in London with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the day before the G20 gathering. Indeed, I am no longer asking for my money back from the Obama campaign treasurer. The Chief Executive is visibly succeeding in living up to his electoral promises.
What happened in London at the U.S.-Russian mini-summit speaks volumes about managing change at the presidential level in general and therefore justifies the attention I will direct to it in the essay which follows.
Let us begin with the 4-pages of joint statements which were released to journalists following the meeting of the Presidents at Winfield House, the American Ambassador’s residence. The highlights from that communiqué have been widely reported, both the priority attention it gives to negotiating an arms reduction treaty to replace START which expires this December and the areas of continuing disagreement, particularly the US missile defense shield in Eastern Europe. Here I propose to consider the document from the standpoint of textual analysis: what does its language tell us about its authors? What does this in turn say about the changing balance of policy-making within the US foreign policy establishment and between the US and Russian authorities?
Journalists often look at symbolism, try to read tea leaves, so to speak, to justify their presence and give added value to their intermediation. Thus, the reporter for Russian news channel Vesti called attention to the fact that the meeting of leaders took one hour and 25 minutes, nearly one and a half times longer than the 50 minutes that had been scheduled. The implication is that substantive negotiations were going on, resulting in the lengthy statement of results at the end.
However, common sense and attention to the news items on US-Russian meetings at official and private levels in the two months preceding the presidential talks indicate that the summit was meticulously orchestrated in advance, with the full text or nearly all of it having been agreed between the sides before the presidents ever shook hands. Just a read-through of the Joint Statement takes a good 10 or 15 minutes, and apart from the issues explored at length, the text includes a wide-reaching shopping list of subjects also said to have been discussed. Such a tour d’horizon would be humanly impossible in the time allowed.
What emerges from an examination of style of exposition is three separate constituent elements: Russian text, American State Department text and American non-governmental language. There is only one passage which has a Russian ‘feel’ to it: the mention of ‘exploring a comprehensive dialogue on strengthening Euro-Atlantic security, including existing commitments and President Medvedev’s June 2008 proposals on these issues.” Otherwise, the Joint Statement is clearly an American authored document which is explaining to an American and allied European audience what is essentially a U-turn in American foreign policy with respect to Russia, raising the profile of issues to be discussed with Moscow and implicitly acknowledging the existence of a legitimate Russian point of view on matters.This American text subdivides into 2 parts: text clearly coming from the U.S. State Department and text which has a less bureaucratic, more private feel. The former is the most detailed and substantive; the latter is the most directional and procedural in nature.
The passages most easily attributable to specialists in the State Department are those dealing with nuclear arms control and reduction. This is foremost the call for Russian-American leadership in moving to a nuclear free world. Specifically there is the backing for negotiation of a new legally binding treaty to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty dating from 1994. Next there is a litany of positions with respect to application worldwide of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and related activities of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as well as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism.
The issue of the START treaty was so central to the meeting in London that it merited a subsidiary additional Joint Statement which was issued back to back with the main global statement. This commits the sides to completing negotiations of a new treaty before the existing one expires in December while seeking new limits of strategic offensive arms below those established in 2002 and agreeing on effective verification measures. In keeping with this bold agenda, the parties’ negotiators are instructed to report back on the progress they have achieved by July 2009. In the press conference which followed, it was made known to journalists that this milestone will be the occasion for the next meeting of the two Presidents, in Moscow, that month.
Going back to the main Joint Statement, we find that from the generic issue of nuclear arms reduction, the State Department authored text moves on to regional conflicts. There is brief mention of al-Qaeda and the insurgency in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the US looks for a coordinated international response, with the UN playing ‘a key role’ – meaning that Russian cooperation in the Security Council is being sought. But twice as much space is devoted to two other priority regional issues, North Korea and Iran, which are essentially special cases of the central nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation issue.
The remainder of the main Joint Statement deals with very different issues and uses quite different language. Firstly, we see here mention of the economic dimension of relations between the countries: facilitating Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. There is attention to the way the two countries interact in general: see the “mutual desire to organize contacts between our two governments in a more structured and regular way.” And there is a call for greater cooperation not just between governments but between societies: more cultural exchanges, student exchanges, scientific cooperation, cooperation between NGOs. Most curiously there is the following: “In our relations with each other, we also seek to be guided by the rule of law, respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights, and tolerance for different views.” Tolerance? That notion has been out of fashion in Washington for at least 8 years.
The general Joint Statement ends with the bold and optimistic assertion that “We, the leaders of Russia and the United States, are ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities and chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries.”
In a moment, we shall explore where all these non-governmental, directional and procedural passages came from. But first a word is in order with respect to the text attributable to the State Department. It bears mention here that one can draw a straight line from this document back to the little-noticed remark Hillary Clinton made during her nomination hearings in the Senate in January. In speaking about policy towards Russia, Mrs Clinton called out the need to reopen arms reduction talks and reach an agreement before the START treaty expired. In that one line of testimony she signaled that the profile of Russia in U.S. foreign policy would be raised dramatically in future.
Following her Senate confirmation, Hillary Clinton lost no time in turning her words on a replacement treaty for START into action. The Associated Press carried this story already on February 2. At her meeting in Geneva with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 6, the commitment to reach agreement by December was at the heart of their talks and set the tone for drawing up a fairly broad list of other areas of common interest for further talks, including, stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan and dealing with Iran.
Now let us look at where the ‘non-governmental’ passages of the Joint Statement came from. In the three weeks leading up to the meeting of Presidents Medvedev and Obama on April 1, the media carried accounts of visits to Moscow by several high level political personalities in what may be described as feelers to the Kremlin authorized by the White House. Much of this reportage in the Western wire services or New York Times was taken from accounts published in the Russian press, in particular, Kommersant. And that reporting was not very coherent: the isolated facts were not linked up and put in relief from the background static of unrelated events, such as the coincidental appearance of former Secretary of State James Baker in Russia in the same time period. In what follows I will take some risks. Admittedly I will engage in some speculation, because the whole picture is not presently in the public domain.
Let us begin: On Tuesday, March 10th there was what the media called ‘a delegation of former U.S. Senators’ calling upon President Medvedev. By protocol, Gary Hart and Chuck Hagel would not normally have been given a Kremlin audience, but the rules were waived. The Democrat Hart and the Republican Hagel came on behalf of a bipartisan commission on US-Russian relations to present the draft of their commission’s report to the Russian President. They were received with open arms in Moscow in a continuation of the ‘reset button’ fellowship still very much in the air following the Clinton-Lavrov meeting the week before. The Senators were accompanied by former National Security Advisor to President George Bush (Sr), Brent Snowcroft, another member of the commission. U.S. Ambassador John Beyrle also took part in the meeting.
This visit was followed a week later by a more numerous American delegation consisting of former Secretary of State (under President Richard Nixon) Henry Kissinger and former Secretary of State (under Ronald Reagan) George Schultz, Defense and Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Admnistration William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn. There were meetings with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin. Members of the delegation also spent time with their counterpart ‘wise men,’ the advisors to Dmitry Medvedev as he prepared for the April 1 summit: current Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, former Prime Minister under Boris Yeltsin Yevgeny Primakov, and ex-Chief of the General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky, among others. For reasons I will detail below, this Kissinger-led delegation may be understood to have served the following mission: to harvest the Russian response to the draft report submitted by Hart and Hagel and on the basis of shared conclusions with the Russians to pave the way for the April meeting of leaders.
The 17-page report in question, entitled The Right Direction for U.S. Policy toward Russia, is the work of ‘The Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia’ which was established on August 1, 2008 and is co-chaired by former Senators Chuck Hagel and Gary Hart. The Commission is a joint product of The Nixon Center, a Washington think tank, and the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, a research center within the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Professor Graham Allison, Director of The Belfer Center, and Dimitri K. Simes, President of The Nixon Center, are the co-directors. Members include the former U.S. Ambassadors to Russia or the USSR James Collins, Jack Matlock and Thomas Pickering; former National Security or Defense officials Robert Blackwill, General Charles Boyd, Robert F. Ellsworth, Thomas Graham, Robert C. McFarlane, Mark Medish and Dov S. Zakheim; and top business leaders including former Chairman of AIG Maurice Greenberg, former United States Trade Representative Carla Hills and international lawyer/Russia specialist Sarah Carey. At least three of its members, Professor Allison, former Senator Sam Nunn and Susan Eisenhower have a longstanding focus of interest in the dangers of nuclear catastrophe. Greenberg and Ellsworth are respectively Chairman and Vice Chairman of The Nixon Center. In this connection, and bearing in mind his role as leader of the second delegation to Moscow in March, Henry Kissinger should also be identified here as the Honorary Chairman of The Nixon Center.
To sum up, the Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia is a group of high profile public figures having profound experience with security and other major issues in US-Russian relations over the past several decades, with a particular interest in the question of nuclear weapons and disarmament. Its membership is skewed to Republicans but it can legitimately speak for a new ‘realistic’ or pragmatic-minded bipartisanship.
It is tempting to compare this Commission with the Iraq Study Group, informally known as the Baker Commission, created in 2006 to provide a face-saving way of making a U-turn in American policy on Iraq through a bipartisan recommendations crafted by ten wise men. However, that Commission was Congressionally appointed rather than a bottom-up formation from society. And the cover for change, said to have been arranged at the behest of George Bush, Sr. was not appreciated nor were its recommendations followed by the sitting President.
I would instead compare the Commission to a late 1970s phenomenon, the American Committee on East-West Accord, which in that period of deteriorating US-Soviet relations was formed from among business and former government figures to argue the case of common sense and avoidance of nuclear Armageddon to a skeptical American political establishment. That particular organization was swept away in the paroxysm of anti-Soviet feeling which took hold of the American public and leadership following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. The present Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia appears to have been much more successful in establishing a rapport with the incoming, now incumbent President. Its presence in the inner circles of power today is a stunning demonstration of how occasionally “advisors” or “consultants” can change the thinking of their principals and not merely be a tool by which principals impose their will on others.
Soft on the Russians?
Looking through the Report, it has to be said up front that the U-turn in American policy on Russia which results from its recommendations is not coming from some radically new view of the existing world order and America’s place in it. Both the final objectives of US policy and the institutions through which it strives to achieve those objectives are taken as givens.
The Report assumes continuing US world leadership, which may be less charitably described as US world hegemony. It re-states and supports the long-standing American determination not to allow any (other) state in Europe or Asia to rise to a position of local predominance, insisting this would be prejudicial to American interests. And, most importantly, it stands by the policy of never-ending expansion of NATO, including the right of Ukraine and Georgia, along with every other state, to freely decide on whether to accept invitations to join this security body.
In a forthcoming essay on the 60th anniversary of NATO, I will examine these till now unshakeable tenets underpinning US foreign policy, since they also are the sanctuaries of belief from which the Neoconservative ideologists sallied forth to dominate US foreign policy debate ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, just as Russia-bashing and talk of a ‘values gap’ with a resurgent and autocratic bear to the East has provided a pretext for continuing US rule over Western Europe.
NATO’s change of mission from defender of free and democratic states in the European theater to world-wide policeman implicitly undermines the role of the United Nations and saps any will in the United States and elsewhere to reform the UN as well as the other genuinely international and consensual institutions of military and economic security to adapt them to the realities of the present century. However, those are issues to be explored elsewhere. For the moment, let us return to the conservative and unremarkable background assumptions of the Report.
With respect to Georgia and the Ukraine, the shift in policy recommended in the report may be called tactical rather than strategic. Seeing the vehemence of Russian reaction to their joining now, which would undermine other policy priorities that I will get to in a moment, and seeing the unpreparedness of the two states in question for accession at present, the Report calls for the issue to be postponed and for other means to be found to comfort the pro-NATO political forces in these countries and ensure their continued sympathies in a transition period of indeterminate duration.
The other most contentious issue that has driven US-Russian relations into crisis over the past couple of years, American plans to build a missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, is also dealt with in a manner showing continuity rather than overturning basic American principles. What is new is flexibility or pragmatism in applying the principles.
The report states unequivocally that missile defense remains on the table as one means to protect against threats from Iran and other potential rogue states. It repeats President Obama’s remark that implementation should depend on the availability of technologies and its being cost justified. But it puts emphasis on making greater efforts to get the Russians involved and to having a prior understanding with Russia before proceeding. Specifically, it notes that “[b]uilding a joint system that could include Russian facilities and equipment is most desirable.” This is precisely where the talks under Bush went off the rails when the Pentagon and State Department dismissed out of hand the notion that old-technology Russian systems could contribute to the mission.
The Report also deals with the ongoing Western, i.e., US inspired and led economic warfare against Russia. My use of the term ‘economic warfare’ will no doubt put some noses out of joint, but tant pis, let’s call things by their proper name. Usually these measures are spoken of as being defensive, to counter Russian bullying, rather than offensive in nature. At issue are the measures which deprive Russia of Most Favored Nation status and other measures which, if successful, would damage the principal driver of its economy, energy exports. An objective onlooker might conclude these measures really are aimed at cutting Russia down to size, reducing its weight in the international community, and impoverishing its people, possibly in the hope of promoting regime change.
Despite a decade or more of negotiations and side agreements with the United States and the European Union, Russia remains excluded from the World Trade Organization and each time its accession is said to be nigh, some new political spat over one or another unrelated issue takes accession hostage. This exclusion of one of the world’s leading economies makes a mockery of the WTO itself. It is a variant on the old joke: fog in the Channel, Continent cut off!
The Report speaks directly of liquidating this anomaly. In the same breath it calls for the still longer delayed repeal of the Jackson Vanick Amendment which was put in place in the darkest hours of the Cold War to punish the Soviet Union for restrictions on emigration. The Amendment continues to hamper bilateral trade to this day, when the state that was the Soviet Union has long since disappeared and its successor, the Russian Federation, is a very different political entity with free borders for its citizens, millions of whom travel abroad each year for business and pleasure, or, if they wish, to emigrate. Jackson Vanick and the WTO are intimately linked issues, since WTO accession would make the U.S. law a violation of trade terms towards another member state.
Yet the Report hardly budges from American orthodoxy regarding a possible threat of Russian political leverage over Europe coming out of its role as leading energy supplier. There is change at the margins, not at the core. Specifically, the Report reconfirms the need for greater energy independence of Europe through diversification of sources of natural gas and supply routes away from Russia. Though not mentioned by name, this means promotion of the Trans-Caspian and Nabucco gas pipeline projects which would carry Azerbaijani and Central Asian gas to Western Europe via a route that skirts the Russian frontier.
However, prudence is urged: “Working to undermine Russian pipeline proposals” is identified as being counterproductive. It is freely acknowledged that Russia is and will remain a major energy supplier to Europe, whatever the U.S. says or does. What is at issue is boosting supplemental energy sources in a non-confrontational manner.
U.S. policy towards the energy giants in Russia’s backyard must take into account Russian concerns and not degenerate into either/or, you’re with us or against us propositions to the local republics. As we know, what Moscow calls its Near-Abroad happens also to be its most sensitive national security zone, the Muslim states to the southeast of Russia in Central Asia. The Report reminds us that a ‘zero-sum competition for influence’ in the former Soviet space can only work against the United States given that Russia is located there and the United States is not: “As a result, attempts to pull countries away from Russia or to block legal Russian activities are unlikely to succeed.”
Finally, the Report takes up the question of human rights and democracy in Russia. Given the way that promotion of democracy became a mantra of the American political establishment during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, it would be surprising if this issue were left unaddressed. Indeed, one of the weak spots in the Realpolitik practiced by President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was precisely what was perceived as the amoral dimension of their policies. Starting with President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. government has never let go of moralism in the practice of foreign policy.
The Report assumes that human rights and democracy are universal principles which are as relevant to Russia as to the rest of the world. At dispute is not whether Russia should and can be democratic but when and under which circumstances. The framers of the Report argue that the Russians should be allowed to take their own good time and their own path to this final point. Growing prosperity from greater participation in world trade will in due course create a more diversified economy, hence a more pluralistic society. This is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach which is wholly in line with the positivist thinking of Francis Fukuyama in his first and seminal work, The End of History.
Accordingly, we now can put back into its box all talk of a ‘values gap’ between the West and Russia, all the talk about the alleged authoritarianism or “autocracy” of the Kremlin leadership and suspend our support for the so-called pro-democracy Russian opposition groups. The Report indicates that such foreign support may work directly against the popularity in Russia of the values we say we are promoting. Thus the Report’s authors are jettisoning an essential part of the ideology which drove the foreign policy of George W. Bush in his second term, when Russia was marginalized and demonized by Washington
As I have illustrated, nearly all the cards in the policy deck on relations with Russia inherited from the recent past are left in place by the Report. What it does is re-stack the deck and assign values to the face cards in accordance with their relevance to a clearly stated understanding of national security rather than helter skelter, as had been the case in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations.
When he was not calling for an all-out ‘war on terror’ in vivid Crusader language, George W. Bush was arguing that American security depended on the spread of democracy by whatever means possible. The framers of this Report argue that America’s vital security, meaning its ability to continue as a prosperous and free nation, is threatened by one thing and one thing only: nuclear proliferation and the dangers of nuclear terrorism. The way to address the problem is first to come to a meeting of the minds with the co-inventor of nuclear weapons and the country with whom we share accountability for 95% of all nuclear weapons on earth, the Russian Federation. As the authors of the Report insist: “Without deep Russian cooperation, no strategy is likely to succeed in preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, nuclear terrorism, and nuclear war.”
The result of this insight is to give Russia a centrality for US foreign policy out of all proportion to its current economic weight in the world, to the level of our bilateral trade or to its ranking in the single measure of super-power status that has become common currency after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. – the country’s ability to project conventional military force abroad.
‘Realism’ is the byword of the The Nixon Center, one of the two co-parents of the Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia and so it is not surprising that it underlies all the thinking in the Report. The word is used here in its most common dictionary meaning – as an objective view of the world as it is. As authors remind us: ‘The two poles of misplaced sentimentality and undue alarm have plagued our debates about Russia…”
Putting aside emotion and prejudice, we will find that there are areas of common interest with Russia, some of them of critical importance to America’s objectives. There are also areas where our interests diverge and these must be freely acknowledged. We must endeavor to understand the position of the other side, and to seek accommodation where possible while reducing gratuitous clashes where we differ.
With this in mind, the Report’s authors take note of Russia’s dissatisfaction with the present day European security system, which was drawn up in the 1990s when the country was at its weakest. The Russian views must be taken into account, because “no security architecture can be sustainable without participation by all affected parties, including Russia.” This logic induces the authors to recommend that the call by Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev for a a dialogue on new security architecture should be taken up by the United States, NATO, and the European Union and used constructively.
The authors are also specifically calling for a show of decency by the Americans in their dealings with Russia which has been missing for a good long time. Over the past several years when growing prosperity in his country from high energy prices in world markets enabled Vladimir Putin to find his voice and give expression to the national frustrations, the Russians have criticized the US and its ‘international community’ repeatedly for applying double standards when condemning it, whether the subject be human rights or Kosovo independence or a host of other smaller issues.
Whenever I come across the notion of fair play, I am inevitably reminded of an interview aired a few years ago on the BBC when a senior Indian politician summed up what the famous British fair play meant to him: the old knee to the groin.
Hence it is very refreshing to come across the following recommendation in the Report:
“Ensure that U.S. behavior meets or exceeds the same standards and that statements about Russian conduct are proportionate to those directed at other governments.”
Finally, I would direct attention to the repeated emphasis in the Report on the need to put in place durable structures for carrying US-Russian relations forward. Structures are explicitly said to be more important than personalities: the notion of reestablishing an equivalent to the Gore-Chernomyrdin mechanism of periodic meetings is dismissed. In its place we find the following: “Establish structures that engage one or more cabinet-level officials in regular interaction with Russia, define accountability, and demonstrate to the bureaucracy that U.S.-Russian relations are a priority. Create permanent bilateral forums in which sub-cabinet-level diplomats, military and security officials, and economic officials could interact regularly and cooperate on concrete projects…”
Given the heavy Republican weighting of the Commission, this approach is most interesting. Typically, conservatives are focused on people and their qualities of character, while liberals are focused on institutions. But here we have conservatives seeing the need for institutions to ensure continuity and productivity to the bilateral relations with Russia. Quite possibly the reason for this is the predominance of ex-diplomats and public servants in the Commission. And it was precisely this kind of ‘sherpa driven,’ working level cooperation that was put into practice in the weeks leading up to the mini-summit on April 1st. Henceforth we will have less concern over the personal chemistry of leaders nor will our President be looking deep into the eyes of his interlocutor to determine if a soul-mate lurks there somewhere as in the days of George W. Bush..
Cause and effect
From our critique of the Report of the Commission on U.S. Policy toward Russia, it is clear that virtually the entire communiqué of the meeting between Presidents Obama and Medvedev came from that source or from its authors irrespective of whether given textual passages betray authorship by State Department functionaries or by people outside of government, as we differentiated at the beginning of this essay.
Indeed, concluding documents to be signed by two Presidents could only come from the hands of State Department officers, who had to be given a role in their drafting out of respect for tradition and to ensure implementation going forward. The question then is how to understand the relations between all these actors: the President, the Secretary of State and the Commission.
It is curious that Hillary Clinton spoke specifically about the need to negotiate a replacement for the START treaty at her confirmation hearings. How is it that a politician whose focus was always in the domestic arena, whose greatest expertise in government was in the area of healthcare and health insurance reform came so quickly after her nomination to espouse a novel set of priorities for foreign policy like this one?
The obvious answer is that she received these marching orders from her new boss. But then how did Barack Obama come to espouse this same set of priorities, given his own shallow experience of foreign policy in the past and very unpromising pronouncements and hints of his predilections during the electoral campaign? I have in mind his known attachment to dealing with humanitarian issues in foreign policy and the emphasis he gave to matters such as prevention of genocide: see in particular his rapport with Samantha Powers in this realm in the couple of years before his victory in the Democratic primaries.
Our working hypothesis is that the key to the puzzle is Chuck Hagel, one of the co-directors of the Commission, who crossed party lines and turned his back on his colleague and fellow Republican Senator John McCain to campaign instead with and for Barack Obama. They traveled on the campaign trail together and it is reasonable to assume that this contact was used to help the Democratic candidate brush up his knowledge of foreign affairs and of the Russian question in particular.
Of course, these are early days to say that the President is a convert to realism in American foreign policy. He is known in general as a man who seeks consensus and tries to bring as many people in under the big tent as possible. During the European trip which began in London, he made a stopover in Prague where he spoke about the missile defense shield in a manner which was distinctly less accommodating towards the Russian position than the joint communiqué with President Medvedev signed just days earlier. There may be more backsliding from the policy of dealing gently with the Russians in the months ahead.
Moreover, the Russians also have a say in whether bilateral relations will turn a page and improve. In this connection, it is advisable to pay close attention to the remarks which Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov made on April 11th at the annual session of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow as reported by the Vesti news portal. He repeated the line that Moscow has held since the start of talk about ‘pushing the reset button’ – namely that his country is cautiously optimistic about an improvement of relations with the U.S. He believes the countries are moving in the right direction. But he is wary of any new ‘false starts’ such as led to bitter disappointment in the past. And he specifically warns the U.S. against attempting trade-offs of unrelated concessions, meaning U.S. abandonment of the plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe against Russian help in stopping the Iranian nuclear program via approval of more severe sanctions in the UN Security Council.
As Lavrov hammers home, strategic defense systems and strategic offensive weapons are the only linked issues. This is the way it was during the Cold War and it was only the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty under George W. Bush that separated these issues in a way which Russia rejects to this day.
Regarding the new architecture for European and trans-Atlantic security, Lavrov also does not mince words. He said that Russia does not share the Western view that the OSCE is the ‘gold standard’ of our times. It needs to be reformed. He sees the basis for the future cooperation in the European arena as residing in the NATO-Russia Council, but warns that this body should not exist in the format of “26 + 1” or, still worse, “26 versus 1.” And the most important thing is that “no one should ensure his security at the expense of the security of others.”
The implications of Lavrov’s words is that it will take a lot more than a charm offensive from a new American President known for his gift of oratory to talk the pants off the Russians. Mr Lavrov is no ‘Mr. Nyet’ as the Neocons in the Bush Administration liked to insinuate. But he is very much ‘Mr. Gravitas,’ a serious man who is a key player in a very serious-minded Russian leadership. Where all this will end is, frankly speaking, unforeseeable. One can only join Mr Lavrov in expressing ‘cautious optimism’ about the future of U.S.-Russian relations.
© Gilbert Doctorow 2009-2010
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.