On the second day of a highly anticipated US-Russian summit meeting, after reaching a preliminary agreement to cut each country’s stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons by one third, and laying the groundwork for a successor to the 1991 START treaty which expires in December, Presidents Obama and Medvedev also made it clear they seek deeper cuts in their nuclear arsenals and will lead an international effort for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
The preliminary agreement on a new arms control agreement is good news. The young Presidents’ stated Intentions to make deeper cuts in their obsolete and expensive Cold War arsenals is even better news. But in order for the Obama administration to truly “reset” US-Russia relations — as it has expressly said it wants to do — it will need to jettison Cold War institutions like missile defense and NATO.
In his eloquent speech at Moscow’s New Economic School, Obama grappled with those fundamental security issues, yet elided clear answers as to their future. What was most hopeful was how the “Commander-in-Speech” worked to “reset” the tone of US-Russian relations — reaching out to national sensibilities and assuring his Russian audience: “Let me be clear: America wants a strong, peaceful and prosperous Russia.” He declared that “it is not for me to define Russia’s national interests.” Obama went on to point to “a shared history between our nations that goes beyond competition.” And his invocation of the US-Russian alliance during World War II — he quoted President John Kennedy’s lines that “no nation in the history of battle ever suffered more than the Soviet Union in the Second World War” — was humane and shrewd. World War II remains the only truly unifying experience bequeathed to Russians of all generations. Moreover, many resent that the the US appears to have forgotten their vast contribution to that victory. (Watch a Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks film or TV series: it’s as if the US won the war virtually on its own.)
In this one speech, Obama did as much as any recent US leader to address — and begin to overcome — Russian’s resentment about the US’s misguided triumphalist mindset, which has dominated relations since the end of the Cold War. He signaled, as he did in his interview with Russia’s leading independent opposition newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, published Monday, that he intends to craft a relationship based on cooperation and mutual respect. What remains to be seen is whether sidestepping the disastrous Bush legacy of missile defense — or the foolish bipartisan commitment to NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia — will allow President Obama to engage Russia as a full and active strategic partner in many of his foreign policy goals, on deeper nuclear disarmament, Iran, energy supplies and a host of other issues.
What is seductive about Obama are his words. And his Moscow speech — the third in a troika of major addresses (including Prague and Cairo) — lays the foundation for a world free of nuclear weapons, for an America guided by a more intelligent, less arrogant approach to the world, and one in which the stated principle of democracy promotion is tempered by the view that, as Obama said in Cairo, and repeated in Moscow: “America will not seek to impose any system of government on any other country.” (My one regret is that Russia’s agreement to allow the US military to send 1000s of troops and weapons to Afghanistan through Russian airspace is being depicted as a success. Instead of sending more troops and weapons through Russia, the US and international community would be far wiser and more secure to increase funding for targeted economic development, reconstruction aid, support for alternatives to the opium industry and regional diplomacy.}
Obama’s words have helped shape a new tone, and restarted a nuclear arms reduction process that had stagnated. That is to be welcomed. It will take deeds, however, before the citizens of Russia, the United States and the world benefit from a real “reset.”