UPDATE: In their first face-to-face meeting, Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed they were “ready to move beyond Cold War mentalities,” and launch a “fresh start” in what has been an increasingly strained relationship.There was agreement to cooperate on stabilizing Afghanistan and reiningin Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But the most substantive part of themeeting is the decision to develop a new arms control framework toreplace the one dismantled by Bush and his team (who consideredvirtually any treaty a subversive document). Obama and Medvedev agreedto launch negotiations to draft a new arms control treaty that couldslash US-Russian strategic nuclear arsenals by a third. (What’s reallyneeded is for both sides to abide by the Nuclear Non-ProliferationTreaty that mandates building down to a nuclear-free world!)
While the tone, the words and the possibilities of the young Presidents’ firstmeeting gives me cautious optimism about the resetting of this difficultrelationship, I still believe some fundamental differences and difficultissues lie ahead. As I wrote last month, the folly of a destabilizingmissile defense system and NATO expansion, perhaps now, wisely, put on abackburner in light of the metastasizing geoeconomic crisis, are twofundamental issues which must be confronted if we’re going to see a realreset of relations. (By the way, for those who seek a better translationof “reset” than the one provided by our State Department, try”perezagruska.”
Meanwhile, I’m still befuddled by the big red box witha yellow push button, with “reset” stamped on it, which Secretary ofState Clinton presented Russia’s Foreign Minister as a sign of betterrelations. In Moscow, which I visited in mid-March, those who rememberedStanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove thought the box was a prop from thaticonic film. That film, by the way, should be shown in every High Schoolin America and Russia.
For the sake of a safer world, the US needs to rethink its policies toward Russia — beginning with the folly of a destabilizing missile defense system based in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Despite the fact that the majority of Czech citizens oppose hosting the system — which is never reported in the US mainstream media — the Bush Administration rushed to deploy what Ploughshares Fund president Joseph Cirincione calls “a system that doesn’t work to defeat a threat that doesn’t exist,” spending $14 billion a year in the process.
The Obama Administration recently signaled a smart break with the destructive policies of that era when it said it would “not divert resources from other national security priorities until we are positive the technology will protect the American public.” That bodes well for ultimately scrapping missile defense since it hasn’t tested successfully against even the most rudimentary decoys and countermeasuresany enemy would possess.
But as Stephen F. Cohen (disclosure — my husband) makes clear in his Nation cover story “The New American Cold War“, charting an alternative and smart course for US-Russian relations demands much more than abandoning an ineffective, unneeded technology. Of course, we need a new arms control framework — Bush and his team dismantled decades of bipartisan cooperation and work in this area. We must sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and eventually abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that mandates building down to a nuclear-free world. There is growing momentum for total disarmament as seen in the Global Zero movement, and President Obama is an advocate for this stance as well.
But resetting the relationship with Russia — as both President Obama and Vice President Biden have indicated a desire to do — will require more than that. It demands an end to the triumphalist thinking that has defined the US mindset and strut since the end of the Cold War. President Obama and some on his team seem to be on the road to understanding how vital this shift is.
However in both capitals, Moscow and Washington, this new thinking faces opponents who seize on “reset” as capitulation. Witness the recent controversy surrounding a supposedly “secret letter” from President Obama to Russian President Medvedev that reportedly extended an offer for the US to cease deployment of missile defense in Eastern Europe in exchange for Russian help ending Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. Both President Obama and Russian officials deny there was any such quid pro quo offer, and Obama said the letter wasn’t a secret and it addressed a host of issues including nuclear proliferation.
But the New Cold Warriors — who seek, at best, “neo-containment” for the sake of continuing the folly of NATO expansion to Russia’s doorstep — seized the opportunity to reassert their dangerous ideology. According to the Washington Post, Robert Kagan of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that “Moscow will use our desire to bring the temperature down to its advantage, on issues such as Russia’s desire for hegemony over the former Soviet republics on its borders.” GOP leaders sent President Obama a letter saying his reaching out to Russia on these issues was “unwise and premature” and that it “undercuts our allies.” Finally, an editorial revealed the Manichean lens through which the Washington Post editors see the world, “Perhaps the Kremlin leadership believes that ‘reset’ is another way of saying ‘capitulate.’ If so, Ms. Clinton would do well to clarify the administration’s policy when she meets [Russian Foreign Minister] Lavrov” on Friday in Geneva.
Contrast that with the kind of new thinking laid out in Cohen’s Nation article and displayed by Cirincione. “US threats will make it more difficult for Medvedev to do something he wants to do anyway: reset the US-Russian relationship,” he said. “We should be saying, ‘We need to cooperate to reduce our common threats’…. President Obama understands he has a better chance of getting what he wants through openness rather than bravado. If he threatens Russia it makes it harder for them to make concessions.”
A key to this “reset” is that the US and its allies halt NATO expansion. These are times that demand economic recovery not expansion of a military alliance forged to combat the Soviet Union and which threatens cooperation on mutual economic and security interests. It is a moment when Central and Eastern Europe face its worst economic crisis since the collapse of their economies following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ukraine in particular is in desperate financial shape and will need both European and Russian support. Georgia is also in economic straits. We should shelve talk of NATO expansion and work with Europe and Russia to build a more viable economic region through a new global financial architecture. Expect European protesters to articulate similar demands in April when President Obama attends a summit commemorating NATO’s 60th anniversary. But a new tack will face fierce opposition among those invested in NATO expansion and in the belief that Russia poses a threat to our interests.
Finally, Iran looms large. As Cirincione told me, “Any successful Iran strategy has got to have the cooperation of Russia, it’s as simple as that.”
Russia has no desire for a nuclear-armed Iran or an Iran with long-range missiles. It doesn’t want Iran increasing turmoil on its southern border. Russia also has leverage — it could end arms sales to Iran; end or suspend cooperation on the Bushehr nuclear power plant; increase diplomatic pressure through UN sanctions or resolutions. Cirincione points out that Iran doesn’t want to be viewed as a pariah state and when Russia swings against it Iran is isolated.
“But Russia [needs] a US-Russian relationship that involves cooperation and mutual respect — not just the US telling Russia what it’s going to do,” Cirincione said. “And they have to know that the US intentions for Iran don’t involve starting a third war in the region. Then all things are possible.”
Of course, new agreements between the United States and Russia to dramatically reduce nuclear arsenals are vital for success in dealing with Iran as the major powers create the context and pressure for non-proliferation worldwide.
There will not be a fundamental change or reset of US-Russian relations — no real partnership — until there is new American thinking about Russia. Despite the gathering of some old guard thinkers around President Obama there is reason to believe that a new approach is emerging — perhaps driven by the realities and conditions of our times.