A Crucial Russian-American Summit (06 June 2009)

As the America of Barack Obama is tentatively reducing its distance to Russia, the question re-emerges as to what is, from a European point of view, the optimal diplomatic distance between the two former Cold War rivals.
President Obama will visit Moscow in early July to meet his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev. This meeting is clearly of vital importance to Europe. If the talks fail it will mean a serious upset of relations on the continent. If the meeting becomes a success the chances for a considerable improvement of American Russian relations will increase, an improvement that will also benefit Europe as a whole.
Everything depends on whether or not Americans and Russians will succeed to establish a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) before December 5, when the existing treaty expires. The Bush government throughout its eight years in power refused to cooperate in establishing a follow-up. An expired treaty also means that the verification of the mutual reduction of nuclear arms comes to an end. Unless Obama and Medvedev agree on a new START and a new verification system the world will face nuclear anarchy.
The Russian-American movements do involve a historical European dilemma. More distance means hostility and that makes Europeans nervous. After all they share their continent with the Russians. But American-Russian relations that are a bit too warm create problems as well. How much influence can Europe exercise on those? Already during the Cold War some European countries were suspicious of attempts to promote detente between Washington and Moscow. An anxious question was whether growing unreliability of American guarantees concerning European security might become the price for relaxation of tensions. On the other hand tensions increased when such guarantees were emphasised. In this context The plans for placing cruise missiles in Europe, for instance, which were meant as an extra insurance for Europe’s political safety, caused a paradoxical crisis of confidence among the European populations in general.
There certainly is warmth in the air today. Here is what President Obama said recently after talks in the White House with the Russian Minister of foreign affairs, Sergei Lavrov: “As I’ve said before, I think we have an excellent opportunity to reset the relationship between the United States and Russia on a whole host of issues, from nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, how we approach Iran, how we approach the Middle East, commercial ties between the two countries, and how we address the financial crisis that has put such a strain on the economies of all countries around the world.” Lavrov responded with: “I think we work in a very pragmatic, businesslike way on the basis of the common interest whenever our positions coinside, and on the basis of respect to each other whenever we have disagreements, trying to narrow the disagreements for the benefit of our countries and the international stability.” Directly addressing Obama, he added: “And I can convey to you once again that President Medvedev is really looking forward to meeting you in Moscow in July.”
Not much of this optimistic tone can be found in the mainstream media. The story there revolves primarily around incidents that tease the imagination in a way reminiscent of how it has been fed throughout Cold War decades. In line with the tradition in those days, these relate one day to the deportation of Russian diplomats accredited with the NATO Russia Council in Brussels as persona non grata (the two were accused of spying for Russia). And on another day the news relates to the NATO summer manoeuvres in Georgia, which a year after the troubles in that former Soviet land are viewed by the Kremlin, surprise!, surprise!, as a provocation.
An unwary observer might well consider the dividing line between diplomatic liaison and espionage to be inevitably vague in the Brussels case. And also that large-scale NATO presence at the southern border of Russia can only be seen as completely at odds with the many good intentions that Obama and Lavrov displayed in Washington for examination by the outside world. When the American president uses words like “reset” and “drift” he tries to add substance to his appeal for “change”. America’s Russia relations showed “drift” in the period just behind us, rendering them ready for a “reset”.
But are the noses in Washington and inside the Atlantic alliance pointed in the direction indicated by Obama? Do the civil and military bureaucrats seek to accomplish a “reset” with the same dedication as the president says he will put into it? Or are those transatlantic bureaucrats still led by nostalgia for a time in which they called the tune?
Obama has increased tensions surrounding the July meeting merely by announcing which problems he wants to bring to Medvedev’s table. Nothing less than all the larger international issues of the moment will be on their agenda: Nuclear arms, their proliferation, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East. Obama’s summing up appears to contain an acknowledgement that improvement in relations with Moscow is a condition for achieving progress in all these areas.
Take Pakistan. It has always been a source of concern. Still, for many years Washington has considered it a partner rather than an opponent. But in the context of the AfPak war, as the extended war in Afghanistan and Pakistan is now named, Pakistan has pushed even the reviled Iran down from the number one position on America’s list of priorities among world problems deserving its special attention. As far as Obama’s America is concerned all risky developments threaten to come together in the AfPak war. In this strategically positioned area terrorism and nuclear proliferation appear to shake hands with each other. A long drawn-out American nightmare appears to become reality: Pakistan is a nuclear power. There is also no question about the increasing anarchy there. And it is conceivable that such anarchy could place that nuclear wherewithal in the hands of Muslim fundamentalists. Obama’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has characterized that very possibility as a “mortal threat” to the world.
International affairs know no “time out”; a short moment during which the game is suspended and the players get time for reflection and deliberation. Obama and Medvedev could use such a pause in the run-up to their July meeting. No developments demanding immediate reaction for just a bit would allow the contemplation of what Minister Lavrov on his visit to Washington referred to as the common interest, the benefit of our countries and international stability. In his election campaign as well as after entering the White House Obama has emphasised his readiness to listen and to consult, which has prompted appropriate appreciation. But in the meantime new facts emerge, prompting new questions. To what extent, for instance, has Obama reconciled himself with Israeli priorities in his recent meeting with Netanyahu? In this meeting he did plead for a two-state solution (a Palestinian state next to Israel), and for a halt in the building of settlements on the West Bank, but that was in accordance with previous practice. His two predecessors urged the same without any success.
The American president demonstrated anew his great rhetorical talents with his recent speech in Cairo, in which he announced a revised relationship between the United States and the world of Islam. But what that will look like appears already to have been determined by assumptions that are not noticeably new. Reactions from that Islamic world are therefore reserved at best.
With respect to Iran Obama keeps “all options on the table”, just like George W Bush. Which means that he does not exclude an attack on that country. And remember what Hillary Clinton once said: “if need be we totally obliterate Iran”. This was during her election campaign, but she hasn’t taken it back after becoming Washington’s top diplomat, and Obama hasn’t asked her to do so. Obama wishes to discuss “how we approach the Middle East” with his Russian counterpart, but it would seem that on cardinal points he has already laid down the approach to be followed.
The unexpected changeover in the American military leadership in Afghanistan is not a sign that Obama wants to turn his proclaimed intentions into reality. When he was in Europe he talked about a more reserved military stance, and about more room for a political approach to the divisions in that country. While the departing General McKiernan was hardly known as a softy, the appointment of special forces commander Stanley McChrystal may count as a signal that Obama wants to go for the jugular, and that he doesn’t share Hillary Clinton’s admiration, recently expressed in The Hague, for the inkblot approach of the Dutch (winning the hearts and minds of the population through a gradual spreading of law and order).
The missile defence that America wants to station in Poland and the Czech Republic glitters by its absence on Obama’s list of priorities. It is an indigestible chunk in Russian throats. Medvedev is not likely to avoid that subject. Obama may bring it up in the discussion of the approach to Iran, with the contention that if that country stops its uranium enrichment projects the missile defence will no longer be necessary. In the Alice in Wonderland world in which Washington is situated the missiles are supposed to protect Europe against an Iranian attack. But that story will not convince the Russians.
Another item lacking on Obama’s list is North Korea. An issue that has only gained in urgency since the meeting between the president and Lavrov. What is known about an Obama strategy for that part of the world would suggest that it too has been inspired by the policies of his predecessor. A program of enticement with concessions appears to have been dumped for a tactic of camouflaged threats. Washington’s Defence Secretary Gates, for instance, declared when travelling in Asia just now that a nuclear powered North Korea is not acceptable for his government. Gates failed to reveal how America wants to prevent it.
Europe merely observes from the sidelines how also its future is being decided. It does have a High Representative of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union, named Javier Solana. This gentleman could of course take the telephone on behalf of Europe if Obama or Medvedev would dial his number. As far as we know this has not, as yet, happened.