100 Days of Obama: The New Cold Warriors

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 28, 2009

The 100 day mark of a new Administration’s first term serves as the cue for the punditocracy to opine at a fever pitch, and with the Obama Administration reaching its first 100 days, they are predictably doing what they do best. Of course, this is an artificial and arbitrary milestone, so the pronouncements of the punditocracy have to be taken with a grain of salt. Even so, there are trends that are worth noticing and highlighting.

One such trend is the Obama Administration’s retrograde attitude towards Russian-American relations. Ever since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, American Presidents have sought to bring Russian-American relations out of the shadows of the Cold War. Even before the old Soviet Union came to an end, President Bush the Elder, seeing the “New World Order” that was emerging with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact, sought to integrate the Soviet Union with the pursuit of American security interests–making it a partner, for example, in the effort to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. President Clinton worked to transform Russia from an economic basket case with a bad totalitarian hangover into a modern country with a working and workable economy. And alluding to his own desire to make a partner out of Russia, President George W. Bush told the world early on in his first term that he had looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and gotten a sense of his soul. This statement would come back to haunt President Bush, who was roundly criticized as naïve for having made it. But it testified to his desire to transcend the old Cold War template and firmly establish a new, positive, and lasting relationship with the successor country to the Soviet Union.

Make no mistake; on a whole host of issues, the Obama Administration has echoed the foreign policy approach the Bush Administration employed. Indeed, so pronounced has the Obama Administration’s adoption of much of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy platform been, that supporters of President Obama may be forgiven for wondering whether beyond the country’s shores, they have seen any kind of real change they can believe in. To be sure, there has definitely been a change in tone, as Peter Baker writes. But there has been exceedingly little change in substance. As Glenn Reynolds might put it, “they told me that if I voted for John McCain, I might get a third term of Bush Administration foreign policy practices. I did . . . and they were right!”

But when it comes to Russian-American relations, the Obama Administration has departed from the approach employed by the preceding Administration. It has done so by accepting Russian demands on the issue of arms control, demands that are explicitly geared to play to Russia’s desire to be viewed as a great power once more. The Russians have consistently sought to make bilateral arms control agreements the centerpiece of the Russian-American relationship, just as they were back in the days of the Cold War when the Soviet Union shared the stage with the United States as one of the two world superpowers. The Bush Administration resisted the Russians’ efforts to take the relationship back to Cold War levels by fighting against the Russian tendency to make bilateral arms control discussions the centerpiece of the Russian-American relationship. By contrast, the Obama Administration has acceded to Russian demands that there be more attention paid to bilateral arms control issues, while at the same time allowing the Russians to divert international attention from North Korea’s and Iran’s efforts to create nuclear weapons programs of their own.

Setting phasers on “sycophantic,” Michael Freedman informs us that this is a good and wonderful development, because in agreeing to Russian terms, President Obama demonstrated his “realist” street cred. However, Freedman gets it wrong. He tells us that “Obama has engaged Russia, using a mutual interest in containing nuclear proliferation as a stepping stone to discuss other matters,” but the reality is that the President has sacrificed a concentration on nuclear proliferation to tend to bilateral arms control agreements and Moscow’s need to feel important again. Russian terms were agreed to without reciprocal commitments to focus on stopping or curbing Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapons program of its own. One imagines that the Russians will be similarly unenthusiastic in working to slow down and sideline the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

If this approach on the part of the Obama Administration is “realist,” then I am Marie of Roumania. American national security interests lay more in stopping the Iranian and North Korean drive for nuclear weapons than they do in conducting a reprise of the SALT and START talks with Russia. Yet, thanks to the Obama Administration’s ready agreement with the Kremlin, those interests suffered a blow. It is certainly possible to get the American arms control focus back on North Korea and Iran, but it will take a lot more work to do so thanks to the Administration’s initial and unhesitating accession to Russian demands.

Curiously, it has been Republican Administrations that have been accused of looking at the world through a Cold War lens despite the fact that the Cold War is over. But now, we see that the Obama Administration is wearing some Cold War blinders of its own. There is no reason whatsoever to view the Russian-American relationship in the same Cold War, arms control context that Presidents from Truman to Reagan saw it. The Russian/Soviet nuclear arsenal may once have posed the greatest existential threat to the United States, but those days are past and we have more pressing threats to worry about. Unfortunately, the new Cold Warriors in the Obama Administration have resolved to fight the last war and parley their way through antiquated and unnecessary diplomatic battles. Seeing as how Barack Obama’s predecessor wisely avoided doing such a thing, perhaps the problem with the current Administration’s approach to Russian-American relations is that it is not enough like the approach that George W. Bush employed.

Read and comment at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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