A Self-Righteous Obama in Moscow (10 July 2009)

Which Obama was visiting Moscow this week? The Obama of the outstretched hand or the Obama of incontestable opinion? In his speech to students of the New Economic School (which was created with support from the West after the demise of the Soviet Union) both Obamas were on display. The presence in the audience of the last president of the Soviet Union, Michael Gorbachev, seemed to underline the new start, the “reset”, which this American president says he wants to achieve in relations with Russia.
The outstretched hand: “To begin with, let me be clear: America wants a strong, a peaceful, and prosperous Russia. This belief is rooted in our respect for the Russian people, and a shared history between our nations that goes beyond competition. Despite our past rivalry, our peoples were allies in the greatest struggle of the last century.” And: “So as we honor this past, we also recognize the future benefit that will come from a strong and vibrant Russia. Think of the issues that will define your lives: security from nuclear weapons and extremism; access to markets and opportunity; health and the environment; an international system that protects sovereignity and human rights, while promoting stability and prosperity. These challenges demand global partnership, and that partnership will be stronger if Russia occupies its rightful place as a great power.”
Incontestable opinion: In spite of all the pious words have devoted to the future of his young audience, Obama demonstrated a conspicuous lack of any willingness to take Russian sensitivities into account. A major concern centers on the American plans to establish a missile shield in Eastern Europe. For a short while before his inauguration there had been talk that Obama would scrap those plans as they dated from the Bush era, but in Moscow he brushed aside the Russian objections: “I know Russia opposes the planned configuration for missile defense in Europe. And my administration is reviewing these plans to enhance the security of America, Europe and the world. And I’ve made it clear that this system is directed at preventing a potential attack from Iran. It has nothing to do with Russia.” Obama added that if the threat from Iran were removed “the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated, and that is in our mutual interests.”
As if Iran would ever contemplate attacking the heavily nuclear armed powers of the United States, Russia or Europe with its own atomic bomb. That would mean the instantaneous suicide of the Iranian people. Expressing things that way, Obama has taken a considerable diplomatic risk by linking Russian relations directly with the status of relations with Iran. Aside from that, the governments in Eastern Europe definitely do view the American missile plans as a security guarantee against Russia. Thus Obama appears to awaken the demons of the Cold War that he says he wants to exorcise.
It is not the only area in which Obama refuses to take Russian objections seriously. Moscow understandably views the gradual expansion of NATO in an easterly direction as in conflict with Russian interests. It gets the feeling that it is being beleaguered in the West and, in increasing measure, also in the south. NATO membership of the Ukraine and Georgia in particular would be experienced as an assault on Russian security. And there ought to be no doubt that there exists no difference of opinion between the leaders in the Kremlin and the vast majority of the Russian people concerning this issue.
But for such kind of sensitivities Obama does not display the beginning of even a little understanding: “State sovereignity must be a cornerstone of international order. Just as all states should have the right to choose their leaders, states must have the right to borders that are secure, and to their own foreign policies. That is true for Russia, just as it is true for the United States. Any system that cedes those rights will lead to anarchy. That’s why we must apply this principle to all nations – and these includes nations like Georgia and Ukraine. America will never impose a security arrangement on another country. For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to; they must undertake reforms; they must be able to contribute to the Alliance’s mission. And let me be clear: NATO should be seeking collaboration with Russia, not confrontation.” He could have added: “just simply believe that we are as good as our word”.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Obama’s policy is not so much a change from what we had in the Bush era but a return to the days of Bill Clinton. The warning that striving for spheres of influence dates from the 19th century, and is therefore anachronistic, sounds familiar. Obama: “And there is a 19th century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another. These assumptions are wrong. In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries. The days when empires could treat sovereign states as pieces on a chess board are over.” Historically speaking he swapped cause-and-effect, since the so-called sovereign states emerged from the empires that subsequently ceased to exist.
All this is reminiscent of the arguments with which in the beginning of the 1990s the project known as “partners for peace” for the former members of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe was held out as some kind of vestibule for NATO membership. Bill Clinton argued that as a consequence of the end of the Warsaw Pact and the disintegration of the Soviet Union Central and Eastern Europe were suffering from a power vacuum that in some way had to be met. It sounded like a 19th century approach. But Clinton had no intention that by filling the vacuum he would expand the western sphere of influence to the detriment of the Kremlin. In his perspective the Atlantic alliance should be judged as the keeper of general order for the benefit of all countries concerned. The then Russian President Boris Yeltsin initially agreed with this way of looking at things, until his foreign policy specialists blew the whistle on it. Since then the Kremlin prefers to see the “partnership for peace” and NATO membership of its former satellites in realistic perspective: as an unwanted eastward expansion of the western sphere of influence.
In retrospect we can ascertain that Obama’s choice of Biden as a running mate, and Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state was not just inspired by a desire for unity within the Democratic party. While during his election campaign Obama presented himself as the bringer of entirely new policies, it turns out that he continues with a foreign policy that was always bereft of any chance to bring renewal.
The younger Bush may, during his eight years, have experimented with the extremes of this policy, but the “basics” of American relations with the world had earlier been established. In spite of all the rhetoric about new chances, recognition of the quality of states and people, American policy toward Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and East and Central Asia have not changed since 1992. That assessment has unfortunately been confirmed by Obama’s message to Moscow. America’s self-styled righteousness is its shield and sword with which it confronts the world. The outstretched hand is merely a way to distract our attention from that.