Obama’s Consensus Diplomacy Put to the Test

16 july 2009

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, and Research Director of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Resume: 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.

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 easily.

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.

The Moscow Times

Last updated 16 july 2009, 8:49

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