Obama's Style Trumps Substance, Again
The president was statesmanlike on his first trip to Russia, says Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt, showing a greater sensitivity and clearer approach than his predecessors. But on headline issues like arms control, he failed to make much progress.
President Obama’s conduct of the Moscow summit this week made relations with Russia look easy. Too easy, in fact.
The tone of U.S.-Russian diplomacy was much improved, and Obama is returning to Washington with several concrete agreements, but the summit did not yield a significant breakthrough on any major issue. In fact, like much of Obama’s foreign policy to date, the Moscow summit was as much a triumph of style and attitude as an achievement in terms of substance. Russian-American relations may now be headed in the right direction, but both sides have a long way to go.
Like much of Obama’s foreign policy to date, the Moscow summit was as much a triumph of style and attitude as an achievement in terms of substance.
Obama arrived in Moscow after some 15 years of mutual disappointment. Initial hopes for warm and close relations had evaporated after Russia’s economy collapsed in the 1990s and Washington could not resist taking advantage of Moscow’s all-too-apparent weakness. Russian leaders were alarmed when the Clinton administration expanded NATO eastward despite repeated objections, and their anger increased when NATO attacked Moscow’s Serbian ally during the 1999 Kosovo war.
Moscow was equally incensed when the Bush administration abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001, invaded Iraq in 2003, pressed forward with plans for missile defenses in Eastern Europe, cultivated close ties with several post-Soviet republics in Central Asia, and pushed NATO to accelerate membership for Georgia and Ukraine in 2008.
For their part, U.S. officials were disappointed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly authoritarian rule, his use of Russia’s oil and gas exports as an instrument of leverage, his none-too-transparent effort to re-establish a sphere of influence around Russia’s borders, and Moscow’s reluctance to help stop the Iranian nuclear programs.
Relations reached a post-Cold War nadir a year ago, when Georgia’s foolhardy assault on South Ossetia triggered a major Russian invasion and cast Russian and American differences in sharp relief.
Given this discouraging situation, Obama took office hoping, as Vice President Joe Biden put it, to “push the reset button.”
That phrase suggested an awareness that the two states were not divided by deep ideological differences or insurmountable conflicts of interest, and that Russian-American animosity was preventing both sides from cooperating on those issues where their interests converged.
Accordingly, Obama’s early statements indicated a greater sensitivity toward Russia’s legitimate interests than the Bush administration had shown, as well as a recognition that the United States needed to establish clearer priorities in its dealings with Moscow. In particular, Obama and his foreign-policy team understood that the United States could not continue to challenge Russia’s sensitivities on missile defense, NATO membership for Ukraine, etc., and still expect to get Russian help vis-à-vis Iran, North Korea, or Afghanistan.
The just-completed summit showed that this shift in philosophy could yield tangible if limited benefits. Obama avoided the overly personal approach President Clinton adopted toward the late Boris Yeltsin and that Bush had shown toward Putin. Obama did not claim to see into anybody’s soul, and he didn’t suggest that Russian-American cooperation rested on some sort of personal bond between the top leaders. Instead, the atmosphere at the summit was, as President Dmitry Medvedev put it, a “very useful and very open business-like conversation.”
Second, Obama did not shy away from some of the fundamental issues that still divide the two states. While in Moscow, he made several pointed remarks about the importance of genuine democracy and the rule of law, emphasizing that “the arc of history shows us that governments which serve their own people survive and thrive; governments which serve only their own power do not.”
He also told the post-summit press conference that he believed Russia should respect Georgia’s territorial integrity. By speaking forthrightly on these delicate issues, Obama made it clear that he would pursue U.S. interests without abandoning American values.
Third, Obama is leaving Moscow with a transit agreement that will facilitate U.S. efforts to supply its forces in Afghanistan. Given that Russia was recently trying to undermine U.S. access to a key airbase in Kyrgyzstan, this agreement was perhaps the most tangible benefit of Obama’s effort to “reset” the relationship. The two states also reached boilerplate agreements on military-to-military exchanges, the creation of a bilateral “presidential commission” to work on various bilateral concerns, and several other secondary issues.
But on the headline issue of arms control—arguably the centerpiece of the summit in terms of substance—the two countries did not make much progress. Obama and Medvedev signed several agreements: 1) a joint statement on “missile defense issues”; 2) a joint statement on measures to prevent nuclear proliferation and terrorism; and 3) a “joint understanding” for a START follow-on treaty. Although both presidents described these accords as “important steps,” there was in fact much less here than meets the eye.
The joint statement on missile defenses is essentially an agreement to disagree. Russia remains dead set against the deployment of U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe, and the Obama administration is still conducting its own review of current deployment plans. Given Russia’s long-established position and the state of U.S. internal deliberations, no deal was to be expected at this time. But it is hard to see where a compromise can be found, given Russia’s concerns about its nuclear deterrent and the evangelical ardor of missile-defense advocates in the United States.
Similarly, the joint statement on proliferation and nuclear terrorism reaffirmed several prior agreements (most notably the nuclear-security initiatives reached in 2005), but added no new commitments for either party. Given that some Russian experts have previously called for curtailing cooperation on certain cooperative security measures, a presidential statement reinforcing these efforts was welcome. But it broke no new ground, and by itself does nothing to reduce the danger of proliferation or unauthorized nuclear use.
Finally, the “joint understanding” for a START follow-on treaty is less a sign of progress than an indicator of how much work remains to be done before the current treaty expires in December. The new agreement calls for a ceiling between 1,500 and 1,675 total warheads and 500-1,100 launch vehicles. The current treaty levels are 2,200 warheads and 1,600 launch vehicles, so this sounds like a significant step forward. The problem is that the Russian position is 1,500 warheads and 500 launchers, and 1,675 warheads and 1,100 launchers was Washington’s opening bid. And that means somebody in Washington still thinks that 175 extra warheads is strategically significant (and thus worth haggling over), and the two sides are very far apart on the number of launch vehicles and didn’t close the gap at all either before or during the summit.
Reaching agreement will also require new verification procedures and “counting rules” for multiple warhead missiles, and the two sides are reportedly far apart on these issues, as well. Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association has it exactly right: The agreement was an “overdue if very modest step.” The bottom line: Reaching a final accord before the current treaty expires will be a herculean task.
Since becoming president, Barack Obama has launched a dizzying array of foreign-policy initiatives—on Afghanistan/Pakistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, toward Iran, and now with Russia. His conduct has been measured and statesmanlike and his rhetoric inspiring. And given the circumstances he inherited from his hapless predecessor, there was really nowhere to go but up. But now he needs to show that he can do more than deliver a great speech. His next task is to show he can deliver results.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renee Belfer professor of international affairs at Harvard University. He blogs at http://walt.foreignpolicy.com.