Can Obama and Medvedev press
the reset button at their July 6th summit?
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
June 23, 2009
LONDON - On both sides of the ex-Iron Curtain most people have forgotten - if they ever knew - that despite the rise and fall of British imperialism, the American Declaration of Independence, the expansion of Russia under the Tsars, the wars of the world, the Cold War and the terrifying Cuban confrontation, the U.S. and Russia have been at peace for more than 200 years. Not once in anger has a shot been fired at the other.
In Riga, Latvia, I had the opportunity the other day to ask one of the top advisors of President Dmitri Medvedev, Igor Yurgens, why so soon after the end of the Cold War and the high hopes that went with it that relations had deteriorated once again. "We lost trust in each other". "OK", I said in reply. "There have been problems, but are they enough to go back to the bad old days?"
"From my point of view", Yurgens replied, "there is not enough evidence to justify hostility. I think that both sides have overreacted and the Russians too on a number of issues. Nevertheless, for all the differences that have come up, we are both on the same side when it comes to Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan".
There has been a lot of re-thinking on the American side, at least among Democrats, despite the frictions over Georgia. Hence Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's offer to press the re-set button. People close to her, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former National Security Advisor, were saying well before the election that the end of the Cold War was not well used. "We could have done more to engage and perhaps entangle the new Russia in a relationship with the West, which would have had the effect of reducing some of the increasingly dominant nostalgia for an imperial status that is being evidenced by the Kremlin."
Brzezinski gave short shrift in the same interview with me to the idea that there was a danger that Russia might become a military adversary once again. (See my interview in Prospect, February 2008, in New York's World Policy Journal in the Fall issue of 2007, and In Moscow's Global Affairs of February, 2008.) "To be a military adversary of the U.S. on a global scale Russia would have to have some sort of mission, a global strategy, maybe an ideological reason. That strikes me as rather unlikely".
The same kind of thoughts were expressed to me a few months later by Georgi Arbatov who was President Mikhail Gorbachev's chief advisor on foreign affairs. (This interview was published in the same issues of the magazines cited above.) He told me that he didn't think the U.S. will consider Russia a military adversary once again. "The whole economic situation forbids it.....We have to stop this stupid talk about how Russia will go its own way. It's nonsense. The leadership must think more about where the present situation is leading the country, how to solve these problems, and where exactly do they want to lead the country."
The high point of the Soviet-U.S relationship was the year 2000. He told me that when the two leaders, Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush met, they discussed nuclear disarmament and made a pledge on developing a common missile defence. Three years later at another summit they both instructed their governments to implement this decision.
It never was. The bureaucracies on both sides were never pressed hard enough to implement the new common policy. The U.S. became preoccupied by Iraq and Iran and at home a complicated domestic agenda.
The first summit between presidents Barack Obama and Medvedev is to be held on July 6th. In Arbatov's view two or three summits are needed for both sides to return to the benign understandings of 2000. "We need negotiations all the time. If you do this you have to prepare all the time. You are interested in the other country you negotiate with. You meet your adversary regularly and you get to know him and then it is easier to negotiate. I know how the old summit meetings were [in Soviet times]. We were busy up to our ears. The whole political and military establishment - we had to work, work, work."
"Now nobody is interested in anything", he added, blaming equally presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.
Pressing the reset button and getting relations back on an even keel means not just being friendlier, but doing the hard work of continuous detailed discussions. It means whipping the bureaucracy all the time. (Look how slowly both sides are proceeding on Obama's promise to get a major missile reduction agreement before the end of the year.) Are the inexperienced Obama and Medvedev strong enough to start to do this? We will see when they meet for their first summit.
Copyright © 2009 Jonathan
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