Shadow Government

What did Obama accomplish in Moscow?

By Christian Brose Patrick Barry and my colleague Josh Keating think I’m understating the importance of what President Obama accomplished in Moscow. So let me be clear: The arms reduction agreement and the Russian air corridor into Afghanistan aren’t small peanuts. Indeed, the latter is quite important because it will help to advance a key ...

By Christian Brose

Patrick Barry and my colleague Josh Keating think I’m understating the importance of what President Obama accomplished in Moscow. So let me be clear: The arms reduction agreement and the Russian air corridor into Afghanistan aren’t small peanuts. Indeed, the latter is quite important because it will help to advance a key national interest — success in Afghanistan. Still, we’d better not put too many of our eggs in that basket, because what Moscow giveth, Moscow can easily taketh away. And considering how many conflicts of interest we still have with Russia, even after our reset buttoning, U.S. military planners are probably not taking that air corridor as a given indefinitely.

As for negotiating an update to START, which expires this year — of course we should do it, and it’s not unimportant. But would anyone drawing up a list of U.S. national interests put the negotiation of a bridge agreement for the START treaty at the top, or anywhere near the top? That’s all I’m saying. It’s a worthwhile step, but let’s put it in perspective.

Now, nonproliferation more broadly IS a national interest that I’d put at or very near the top of my list, and U.S.-Russian arms reductions are a piece of that. Furthermore, Josh is right that if your goal is "a nuclear-free world", then you have to start somewhere. Well, yes, as far as that goes. Still, no matter how clearly we meet our obligations under the NPT, and no matter how much legitimacy that adds to our argument that others should follow suit, I just don’t think that will markedly advance those goals in the real world. So by all means, let’s restart START, let’s wrap our policies in whatever added legitimacy that gives us, but let’s not overstate the importance of doing so.

This is generally how I feel about Obama’s speech yesterday: It was important. It had some very nice touches (championing democracy in terms of anti-corruption and national success, flipping Russian concerns for sovereignty into an argument against Russian meddling in Georgia and Ukraine). It helped to clear the air by reaching out to ordinary Russians in a respectful and thoughtful way. And it will help to improve the tone of U.S.-Russia relations around the margins. Beyond that, no one should expect much more.

One more thing: Amid all the talk of Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world, and his college musings on this subject, it’s worth acknowledging that the earlier visionary was Ronald Reagan. (Paul Lettow literally wrote the book on this, and it’s excellent.) Obama should make more of this. The nuclear arms reductions that he has negotiated with Medvedev will require a lot more of the United States than of Russia, and it could be a hard sell back on the home-front. Having the humility to give a conservative icon his due would go a decent way, I think, toward disarming Obama’s critics and building greater domestic consensus behind what are pretty sensible arms reductions.

Tag: Russia

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