National Security Network

This is What Diplomacy Looks Like

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Report 7 July 2009

Russia Russia nonproliferation Obama Administration progressive foreign policy russia


After eight years of the U.S. leaving international summits empty handed with no deliverables to speak of, the U.S.-Russian summit that wrapped up in Moscow today stands in stark contrast. President Obama, determined to reset U.S.-Russian relations and place them on a more productive and business-like track, focused on a number of core issues – arms control, Afghanistan, military cooperation, and proliferation threats. On each he achieved important deliverables. After eight years of inept diplomacy, it is refreshing that an American administration is finally able to use diplomacy as a tool to enhance American security. Yet many extreme conservatives seem to be fighting the Cold War all over again. Some have even attacked Obama for having breakfast with Prime Minister Putin – saying that this bestows legitimacy upon him. Yet the President they served left his first Russian summit emphasizing the goodness of Putin’s soul. Others have attacked Obama for his arms control efforts, seemingly believing that the U.S. still needs a Cold War nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the Soviets – and the planet – many times over. The United States and Russia are neither close allies nor enemies. Treating Russia with unremitting hostility, as some suggest, would greatly harm our ability to make progress on a whole host of global security challenges, from Afghanistan, to climate change, to Iran and North Korea. The many deliverables produced by the summit demonstrate that we can reset the relationship and return to a more pragmatic business-like interaction that seeks to cooperate on areas of mutual interest even as the Administration looks to promote American interests and values where Russia’s diverge.

This is what diplomacy looks like – deliverables on arms-control, Afghanistan, military cooperation – Kissinger says “Obama is like a chess player.”  Henry Kissinger said in an interview with Der Spiegel this weekend, “Obama is like a chess player who is playing simultaneous chess.” Obama is walking away from the summit with a list of deliverables clearly demonstrating that he can play chess. As the Washington Post reports, “President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev reached a preliminary agreement Monday to cut the American and Russian nuclear arsenals by as much as a third while exploring options for cooperation on missile defense. The agreement lays out a clear yet difficult path to replace a landmark arms-control treaty that will expire in December. The pact was the most significant among those signed at a summit designed to show that ‘resetting’ relations between the two nations could bridge longstanding differences.  The two leaders also signed agreements allowing the transit of U.S. military personnel and weapons through Russia to Afghanistan, restoring military-to-military ties and pledging cooperation to limit the spread of nuclear materials... The two presidents appeared to achieve progress in the long-standing dispute over U.S. missile defense plans, agreeing to work together to assess threats posed by countries such as Iran and North Korea. They also agreed to explore cooperation in missile defense and intensify talks on establishing a joint center for early detection of hostile launches.” Included in their discussions on Iran was agreement “to conduct a joint review of any Iranian nuclear threat,” writes the New York Times.  In addition, the two presidents agreed to look forward on a number of important issues. As Medvedev said at a joint press conference, “[w]e decided to create a presidential commission on cooperation which will be coordinating relations among various agencies of the United States and the Russian Federation, respectively, on -- in all priority areas, including economic and military areas.” [Henry Kissinger, 7/6/09. Washington Post, 7/7/09. Dmitri Medvedev, 7/6/09]

To Russian leadership and citizens, Obama emphasizes U.S.-Russian “common ground” in addressing global challenges – Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, deadly weapons, energy and climate change.  In his speech today before the graduates of the New Economic School in Moscow Obama pointed to pragmatic shared interests and cooperation as the ground on which a new partnership can be built.  He said, “Americans and Russians share common interests that form a basis for cooperation.  It is not for me to define Russia's national interests, but I can tell you about America's national interests, and I believe that you will see that we share common ground.”  On hard security matters, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen recently said, "There are areas of common interest that we agree we need to work on - Afghanistan - logistic support to the Afghanistan conflict, the issue of counterterrorism, the issue of Iran."  Recent developments have also clarified the importance of Russian involvement in developing an international response to both Iran and North Korea.  Russia's relationship with Iran means that it will be an indispensable interlocutor for any effort to dissuade the country from further developing its nuclear program. Russia has also played a key role in responding to North Korea's recent belligerence. According to the New York Times, the latest round of UN sanctions would not have been possible without Russia and also China, which are "the closest thing North Korea has to friends." Both "agreed to a mixture of financial and trade restrictions designed to choke off military development."  As the "world's largest exporter of natural gas and the second largest exporter of oil," Russia is also a necessary partner on two of the most important long term challenges the US will face: energy and climate change. The Center for American Progress points out that "If the European Union is disaggregated, Russia is the third-largest emitter of carbon dioxide behind the United States and China and still currently ahead of India. More importantly, Russian per capita emissions are on the rise, and are projected at this point to approach America's top rank as per capita emitter by 2030," suggesting that "[m]aking Russia a partner on these issues could be critical in order to advance a sound global climate change agenda."  As Robert Levgold writes in a recent Foreign Affairs article, the areas for Russian-American cooperation are limitless. “Any effort to mitigate trafficking in humans, small arms, drugs, endangered species, counterfeit goods, and laundered money must focus on Russia, since these often come from or through that country.” [Barack Obama, 7/7/09. Admiral Michael Mullen, 6/29/09. AFP, 6/29/09. NY Times, 6/12/09. CNA, May 2009. CAP, 6/30/09. Foreign Affairs, July/August 2009]

Neoconservatives caught in cold-war mindset:  suggesting that Obama should personally get involved in Russian internal politics, and attributing a level of imminent danger to the relationship that simply does not exist. 
While the Obama administration appears intent on defining the U.S. – Russia relationship through mutual interests, and a businesslike spirit, neoconservatives and some columnists are caught in the antagonistic mindset of the past. 

  • Washington Times columnist Frank Gaffney struck the most alarmist tone, accusing the Russians of having “a record of cheating on such (arms-control) accords,” and warning that the Russians are also “estimated to be on track to upgrading 80 percent of their strategic forces.”  Gaffney went on to suggest that Obama was compromising the U.S.’ nuclear deterrence and intimated that the President’s commitment to reducing nuclear weapon stockpiles ran the risk of a “global cataclysm.”  Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis however called the nuclear warhead cuts agreed to at the summit in sync with past treaties, and “reasonable” given the U.S. has not completed its Nuclear Posture Review.  Continuing, Lewis observes that the Russians “are still experiencing a process of atrophying strategic forces,” directly refuting Gaffney’s bellicose argument. 
  • Victor Davis Hanson thought Obama should use the bully pulpit to criticize Russian behavior that occurred on his predecessor’s watch: “One, there seems little awareness that Putin's increasing authoritarianism from 2002 onward (empowered by the increase in oil prices, and the harassment of pro-democracy advocates at home and abroad), not just George Bush's strut and provocations, were mostly the reasons why a confident Russia now decides to be for whatever the U.S. is against.”
  • Dan Senor proposed that the US should interfere actively in Russia’s internal politics:  “I personally would have scrapped the Putin meeting” in an apparent effort to snub Putin and build up Medvedev.  Karl Rove called Obama’s summit “a squandered opportunity” and accused the current Administration of giving the Russians “what they wanted,” instead of addressing the core set of issues. 

But Obama gained Russia’s cooperation on the Administration’s greatest national security priority – Afghanistan – while making progress on other issues. And in fact, it was George W. Bush who based U.S. – Russia policy on his sense of Vladimir Putin’s ‘soul,’ even as Russia grew increasingly undemocratic.   [Victor Davis Hanson, 7/07/09. Morning Joe, 7/7/09. BBC, 12/13/01. Karl Rove, via Fox News, 7/6/09. Frank Gaffney, 7/07/09]

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