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Obama’s victory lap in Prague

Thanks to his personal intervention in ironing out final sticking points, Barack Obama is heading to Prague in a few days to sign a new arms control treaty with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. To date, nothing symbolizes success for Obama’s "reset" policy with Russia more than this treaty, yet reaching agreement took longer than the ...

By , a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to his personal intervention in ironing out final sticking points, Barack Obama is heading to Prague in a few days to sign a new arms control treaty with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. To date, nothing symbolizes success for Obama's "reset" policy with Russia more than this treaty, yet reaching agreement took longer than the administration expected. Often during the negotiations, the U.S. side appeared more eager to get a deal done than did the Russians, since this agreement is critical to Obama's ultimate aim of Global Zero -- i.e., a world without nuclear weapons. The Russians took this eagerness to mean that they could hold out and exact more compromises from the U.S. negotiators, though at the end Obama seems to have held firm in rejecting limitations on missile defense (though the Russian side might wind up having a different interpretation on this issue).    

A year ago during a Washington think-tank conference on U.S.-European relations a few days after Obama met with Medvedev for the first time in London, one senior administration official described the proposed arms treaty as the "low-hanging fruit" in the relationship. The tree bearing that fruit must have grown higher and higher as issues such as verification, telemetry, and missile defense kept delaying agreement. But if this was the "easy" issue in the relationship, other serious challenges remain, including Afghan transit (which has picked up but is still nowhere near the thousands of flights per year envisioned when the agreement was signed last July), Iran sanctions, Russian bullying of its neighbors, and the deteriorating situation inside Russia itself.  

Even the bounce Obama got from finalizing the arms control treaty on the heels of his victory on health care got overshadowed quickly in Russia by the terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro. And despite those attacks, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin decided to stick to his scheduled trip to Venezuela last Friday to meet with Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's President Evo Morales in a clear middle-finger signal to Washington.  

Thanks to his personal intervention in ironing out final sticking points, Barack Obama is heading to Prague in a few days to sign a new arms control treaty with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. To date, nothing symbolizes success for Obama’s "reset" policy with Russia more than this treaty, yet reaching agreement took longer than the administration expected. Often during the negotiations, the U.S. side appeared more eager to get a deal done than did the Russians, since this agreement is critical to Obama’s ultimate aim of Global Zero — i.e., a world without nuclear weapons. The Russians took this eagerness to mean that they could hold out and exact more compromises from the U.S. negotiators, though at the end Obama seems to have held firm in rejecting limitations on missile defense (though the Russian side might wind up having a different interpretation on this issue).    

A year ago during a Washington think-tank conference on U.S.-European relations a few days after Obama met with Medvedev for the first time in London, one senior administration official described the proposed arms treaty as the "low-hanging fruit" in the relationship. The tree bearing that fruit must have grown higher and higher as issues such as verification, telemetry, and missile defense kept delaying agreement. But if this was the "easy" issue in the relationship, other serious challenges remain, including Afghan transit (which has picked up but is still nowhere near the thousands of flights per year envisioned when the agreement was signed last July), Iran sanctions, Russian bullying of its neighbors, and the deteriorating situation inside Russia itself.  

Even the bounce Obama got from finalizing the arms control treaty on the heels of his victory on health care got overshadowed quickly in Russia by the terrorist attacks on the Moscow metro. And despite those attacks, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin decided to stick to his scheduled trip to Venezuela last Friday to meet with Hugo Chavez and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales in a clear middle-finger signal to Washington.  

Still, Obama will travel to Prague to sign the treaty with Medvedev, and then Medvedev will be coming to Washington three days later (along with some 40-plus other foreign leaders) for a Nuclear Security Summit hosted by Obama. Come to think of it, couldn’t the two leaders have signed the agreement while Medvedev is in Washington, say on the morning of April 11, instead of having Obama schlep all the way to Prague? Of course, that would deprive the administration of its interest in marking the one-year anniversary of Obama’s speech in Prague in which he put forward his fanciful, some would say naïve if not even dangerous, notion of a world without nuclear weapons.   

While in Prague, Obama plans to have dinner with leaders from 10 East and Central European countries. These leaders, especially after the administration’s callous and incompetent handling of last September’s missile defense decision, feel neglected by this President, and their dinner with Obama is the administration’s way to try to sooth their ruffled feathers. But their meeting with Obama will take a backseat to the signing ceremony he will have with Medvedev. After all, Obama is going to Prague to sign the treaty with Medvedev; if that agreement weren’t ready, he wouldn’t be going at all and these regional leaders would not be dining with him. The administration needs a real strategy of engagement with these countries which are among America’s staunchest allies, not simply a feel-good, after-thought dinner.

When the glow wears off from Prague and then the Nuclear Security Summit, the hard work of winning ratification will get started in the U.S. Senate, where tough questioning can be expected from many Republicans (and remember, for ratification, Obama needs 67 votes from a Senate with 41 Republicans) over issues like the linkage with missile defense and verification.  Republicans will also want to weigh the impact of the treaty on the administration’s forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review and are likely to balk at administration interest in launching serious negotiations with the Russians on even tougher issues like further cuts and tactical nukes before this treaty is even considered and ratified.

Obama deserves to enjoy his victory in finalizing this agreement, though it sure would be easier — and a lot cheaper — if he and Medvedev were signing it in Washington, not Prague.

David J. Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, is a senior fellow at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.

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