Obama’s Consensus Diplomacy Put to the Test
Editor's Column
Want to know more about global politics?
Subscribe to our distribution list
Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
Scopus AuthorID: 24481505000


E-mail: [email protected]
Tel.: (+7) 495 980 7353
Address: Office 112, 29 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 115184, Russia

Following U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Russia, most
political commentators focused on two themes: the fact that nuclear
arms reductions have returned to the agenda and the problem of
democracy in Russia. In both areas, Obama performed a political
balancing act that was nothing short of miraculous.

Disarmament experts are having a heyday because their skills are
once again in demand, and the summit negotiations recall the time
when disarmament issues were the focal point of U.S.-Russian
relations. But this era has passed, never to return.

The huge nuclear arsenals held by both countries still remain a
symbol of their superpower status. It is therefore not surprising
that conservatives on both sides of the ocean claimed that even the
modest reductions proposed were a threat to national security. But
the nuclear parity between the United States and Russia serves more
of a political than a military function. Reductions in the number
of weapons have more impact on national prestige than they do on
national security. And because even the most diehard hawks in both
countries do not consider nuclear war to be a serious possibility,
negotiations over nuclear weapons have become an auxiliary tool for
resolving more pressing issues.

An agreement on nuclear arms reductions could kick-start stalled
U.S.-Russian cooperation on a number of other nonrelated issues. At
least, that is what Moscow hopes. Obama is hoping that reductions
in nuclear arsenals will give a big boost to his larger goal of
global nuclear disarmament.

But chances are slim that either side’s hopes will be realized.
An agreement would, of course, improve the overall climate, but
that success probably would not extend to other areas. As for those
countries that have already obtained nuclear weapons “illegally” or
are striving to do so, they do not see any link between their own
situations and the actions of the United States and Russia. As a
rule, Iran, North Korea, Israel, India and Pakistan all want “the
bomb” to control regional conflicts. Only a resolution of those
conflicts would convince them to give up their nuclear ambitions,
not the example set by Moscow and Washington.

U.S. advocates of an ideology-based foreign policy — from
neoconservatives to liberal interventionists — accuse Obama of
betraying certain ideals. They believe that he should dictate terms
to Moscow, laying out how it must change if it wants to be a
partner with Washington. The demands of the “moralists” reflect a
long and extensive tradition in U.S. political thought, but they
are at odds with the prevailing reality. In the 21st century,
ideology will not be the driving force behind world politics.
Ideology had its hour of triumph in the last century, but that time
has passed.

Of course, a classic rivalry between the world’s largest powers
dominated the 20th century. But from the moment World War I ended
until the collapse of the Soviet Union, ideology determined not
only the form, but also the substance of that rivalry to a large
degree. In addition to the 20th-century’s two totalitarian
ideologies of communism and Nazism, liberal ideology also played a
key role. Former U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s model of
internationalism was the first to promote that liberal ideology in
the world arena, and after various advances and setbacks, it
reemerged toward the end of the 20th century under the watchword of
a “new world order.” Former U.S. President George W. Bush’s
attempts at “promoting democracy” proved to be both the culmination
and the undoing of the liberal ideology. The conviction that the
imbalance in the global system could be restored by forcefully
imposing social and political structures on “problem countries” led
U.S. foreign policy into a dead end.

The much talked-about multipolar composition of today’s world is
not an abstract model proposed by Washington’s rivals and
detractors in Moscow and Paris. A significant number of players of
varying caliber and quality have appeared on the global stage, each
influencing the course of events in different ways. Compared to the
Cold War era, when the standoff between the two superpowers gave
them complete dominance in international affairs, the influence of
the remaining players is now much greater than before. What’s more,
the United States does not have the power to make them toe the
official Washington line.

Obama’s new approach — the willingness to take others’ views
into account, reliance on international institutions and “consensus
diplomacy” — does not yet constitute a new foreign policy, but is
merely a wish list. Nobody knows whether those methods will work,
just as it remains unclear whether the economic measures taken by
his administration will produce the desired effect.

The main geopolitical tools of the 20th century — nuclear
weapons and ideology — are losing their former value. The new
priority is to maintain a complex balance between multiple states.
But it is first necessary to understand the interests that drive
numerous regional conflicts. Solving those conflicts would
represent a greater success than formulating approaches to
resolving global issues. That is why the main result of Obama’s
Moscow visit was the agreement on the transportation of U.S.
military freight to Afghanistan through Russian airspace.

Obama’s visit was probably more of a trial run than anything
else. It is no accident that both sides purposely avoided the
thorniest and most divisive bilateral issues, preferring to focus
on secondary questions on which they could reach agreement

Speaking about the end of the Cold War in his speech to the New
Economic School, Obama said, “Now, make no mistake: This change did
not come from any one nation. The Cold War reached a conclusion
because of the actions of many nations over many years, and because
the people of Russia and Eastern Europe stood up and decided that
its end would be peaceful.” That statement elicited fury from U.S.
neoconservatives, who accused him of distorting history. Until now,
nobody in the United States doubted that their country was the
unequivocal winner in the Cold War. The claim that other countries
or forces played a role is revolutionary, and, as we see, offensive
to many in the United States.

I can recommend to the aggrieved parties that they adopt the
Russian solution: Just like the Russian government — thanks to the
determined efforts of President Dmitry Medvedev — is now legally
and politically equipped to investigate attempts to falsify the
results of World War II (in American case — the Cold War), the
U.S. government can create its own commission and focus on alleged
falsifications of the Cold War. For the most ideological-driven
segment of the U.S. establishment, it will turn out no worse than
it has for their Russian counterparts.

Moscow Times