- By Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
I see that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is in Moscow to clinch a new arms control agreement with Russia. I hope she succeeds, although the details of the treaty are probably less significant than people think. Both sides will be left with plenty of nuclear warheads, so the core strategic situation between the two countries won’t be affected very much. An agreement might help both sides save some money and will make each look like it at least trying to fulfill its long-standing obligations in the Non-Proliferation Treaty. (Non-nuclear signatories agreed not to get nukes, but Article VI commits signatories — including the United States and USSR — to make good faith efforts at nuclear disarmament).
What I’ll be watching is whether Hillary can close the deal. In general, you shouldn’t send the secretary of state or the president to a big-time negotiation unless you’re pretty confident that the deal is ready and all that’s left are some minor details that will be easy to work out. You might also send the secretary if you needed someone with real status to make a final push, but you’ve got to be ready to walk away if the other side won’t play ball. Otherwise, your top people look ineffective, or even worse, they look desperate for a deal.
What worries me is the Obama team’s track record on this front. It was a mistake to send Obama off to shill for Chicago’s bid to host the Olympic games, for example, partly because he’s got better things to do, but mostly because the gambit failed and made him look ineffectual. Ditto his attendance at the Copenhagen summit on climate change. Attending the summit was a nice way to signal his commitment to the issue, but it was obvious beforehand that no deal was going to be reached and his time could have been better spent elsewhere.
So I’m hoping that Secretary Clinton’s subordinates have done their homework, and that the trip to Moscow won’t increase her carbon footprint to no good purpose.