US Russian Relationship: Sacrificing for spin?

by Amitai Etzioni Amitai Etzioni is a professor of international affairs at The George Washington University and the author of Security First (Yale, 2007). He can be contacted at 11.07.2009

I yield to no one in my delight that President Obama is bringing a whole new attitude to international relations, and I salute his consistent efforts to restore the good name of the United States across the world. The new goodwill was supposed to make it easier for the US and other nations to work together. What is happening instead, at least in dealing with Russia, is that the Obama administration is making major concessions-in order to make it seem that the new spin is working.

The Russians are very excited about the Bush-designed plan to position a missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. The Obama administration is moving toward an agreement to place the missile defense some other place, one the Russians approve of, and to make it into a joint defense project. Thus, the US satisfies in full a major Russian demand-getting what in exchange? A temporary pause to Russia cussing us out?

The Russians are very keen to reduce the number of strategic nuclear arms they keep deployed because their economy is in shambles, their military is very poorly equipped and they have a very hard time to find the funds needed to keep it going. The United States agreed to a reduction, in exchange for what?

At the same time the Russians have not granted the US what it most needs from them: Using their leverage with Iran to convince it to stop its program that will lead it in short order to command nuclear weapons. This is despite the fact that objective observers agree that an Iran as a nuclear power, and the resulting arms race in the Middle East, poses at least as much threat to Russia as it does to the US and its allies, the Saudis and the Israelis.

You may ask, how can anyone dare to call the main part of the Obama-Medvedev agreement "spin," when it entails cutting nuclear arms? However, the agreement-yet to be worked out-is anticipated to call for reducing the number warheads from the existing treaty's range of 1700 - 2200 by 2012, to a range of 1500 - 1675 by 2019…and reference is merely to deployed warheads. Those offloaded may be kept in storage, from which they can be readily redeployed. If this is not spin, what is?

I am not saying that the US should bully Russia or demand unilateral concessions or stop striking the new, more congenial, tone. However, one very good way to achieve a new tone for both sides is for them to truly help each other rather than one making major concessions and the other-taking them to the bank.

originally posted on TPM Café, please see here

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