When U.S. President Barack Obama was sworn in two years ago, no one thought the Russian question would become the focal point of not only his foreign but also his domestic policy.
The policy of resetting relations with Russia, launched to help resolve other more acute problems, has become Obama’s most successful foreign policy initiative. The ratification of the New START treaty, although it is more of a technical document than any kind of real breakthrough, is proof that the current U.S. administration can drive its point home.
The Senate was actually voting on who the boss is, rather than on anything to do with nuclear weapons cuts. The administration acted decisively and with real political mastery. But in 2011, the situation facing Obama will be much worse: the House of Representatives will be Republican-dominated and Democrats will hold only the slimmest of the majority in the Senate. However, the energetic efforts taken over the last few weeks have enabled the administration to curtail the feeling of creeping, imminent catastrophe created by the loss of the mid-term elections in November.
The ratification of the New START treaty will crown this reset policy. It is a tangible sign that the goals formulated 18 months ago have been attained. The new nuclear arms reduction treaty has been signed, sanctions against Iran introduced, cooperation in Afghanistan expanded, and tensions over the planned ballistic missile shield in Europe eased.
However, the past year and a half has witnessed a transition from deep crisis to a functional U.S.-Russian dialogue, and now both sides need a new forward-looking policy. They have created the atmosphere for it, with relations between their leaders now, for the first time in years, resembling something akin to trust.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev pinpointed the main reason why U.S.-Russian relations have improved under Obama. He said in his final interview this year that Obama is “a leader who fulfills his promises.”
Although Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton were thought to be on friendly terms, as were Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush, agreements reached under their various stewardships were not always honored.
The situation in the United States, however, is changing. Obama will have to work under pressure from Congress, and virtually no one in the current Republican leadership has a neutral, let alone positive, attitude to Russia. In other words, the president’s good will, which thus far we have had no reason to doubt, may not be sufficient for his policy toward Russia to be continued.
Political obstacles are compounded by conceptual problems. Americans have proposed expanding arms control talks to include tactical nuclear weapons and restoring control over conventional forces in Europe. But this unnecessary remix of old discussions would only push the two countries deeper into the past.
The proposed talks are based on the obsolete principle of the balance of forces, whereas the time of confrontation between the two systems Moscow and Washington represent is over and cannot be restarted in its previous form. The START-3 treaty has in fact revived the principle of a “civilized confrontation” formulated by Ronald Reagan as “Doveryai, no proveryai” (Trust, but verify). It was therefore logical that the U.S. administration, when arguing for ratification, claimed the new treaty would aid the resumption of mutual inspections, which ended when START-1 expired. All other arguments – nonproliferation, a nuclear free world, etc. – are mere lip service.
The situation regarding the ballistic missile shield seems absurd. Judging by the debates in the U.S. Senate and the Russian State Duma, it has sowed the seeds of unending discord by fomenting political differences. The shield’s latest trial failed (the second failure that year) even though the Pentagon has been accused of creating hothouse conditions for the tests. A report by the Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of
Congress charged with examining matters relating to the receipt and outlay of public funds, expressed its concern over the increase in spending on a project that has such an uncertain future.
So, should we fight over an illusion?
We cannot be sure about relations between Russia and the United States in the 21st century. At least the Cold War paradigm was clear-cut and understandable. START-3 is the last of the big treaties designed to regulate the two superpowers’ rivalry in conditions when that very rivalry formed the backbone of global politics.
But the global situation has changed, and the international community is no longer tracking the ups and downs of U.S.-Russia talks. Iran and North Korea will attempt to produce their own nuclear bombs irrespective of how many missiles and warheads Russia or the United States may have, and China is steadily increasing its arsenal irrespective of what the nuclear giants do.
The U.S.-Russian relationship will only change when Moscow and Washington admit that much less depends on them in the world than they are accustomed to think, and that keeping the confrontations of yesteryear alive is actually a total waste of time and effort.
It is difficult to imagine Moscow and Washington as allies. But it would be unwise to rule out the possibility of any alliance in a world of such “mutable geometry,” where the lineup of forces is not set in stone but is an ever-changing quality.