A year ago, there was a rising fear that the US and Russia were on the verge of a new Cold War. Today the relationship seems to have gone 180. The US and Russia are now on the verge of signing a new nuclear disarmament agreement and look increasingly in sync on Iran. Yesterday, Obama met directly with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific summit in Singapore where both leaders said negotiations on a new START agreement were close to completion. Medvedev also expressed his displeasure with Iran, giving another indication that Russia may back Obama should the Iranians reject the nuclear deal on the table. Following the meeting and Medvedev pronouncements, Obama concluded that “the reset button has worked.”
The turnaround in US-Russian relations is a huge foreign policy accomplishment for President. In the final years of the Bush administration US-Russian relations deteriorated to the point where many in the Bush administration were advocating an outwardly confrontational approach. This only escalated further following the Russia-Georgia war in August of 2008, as John McCain actively pushed for escalating the hostility. However, sensible foreign policy experts from both parties rejected this dangerous approach, arguing that the US needed to prevent relations from deteriorating further and should seek to establish a more grounded business-like relationship with the Russian. In September of last year, five former Secretaries of State all emphasized this point. Henry Kissinger, hardly a liberal softy, insisted:
We have a number of common issues that we have to settle, if possible, with Russia. We need Russia for a solution of the Iranian problem. We may need Russia if Pakistan evolves in some of the directions that it might. And it is helpful to cooperate with Russia not just on the [nuclear] question, but on the issues of energy.
James Baker added:
Look at it [Russia] in a strategic context and not tactically…we have some big-picture issues that we need to be conscious of when we think about our future with Russia, and we ought to cooperate with them where we can, where they fit, but we ought to also be willing to confront them where our vital interests are involved.
This past year has seen the Obama administration successfully implement this approach. Unlike President Bush, Obama has kept the relationship in the right context, avoiding naïve pronouncements of a new beautiful friendship (as Bush did in 2001 when he looked in Putin’s soul). Instead, the relationship is now about getting stuff done on issues of key strategic importance like nuclear proliferation, Iran, and Afghanistan. This level-headed policy has resulted in major progress in reducing the dangers of nuclear proliferation, as well as potentially removed one of the biggest obstacles to a cohesive international response on Iran. There is still a long way to go on all these issues, but the turn around in relations is clear.
Yet neoconservatives today seem to see improved relations with Russia and the fact that a new Cold War has not materialized as not a cause for rejoicing, but one for panic. What does it say about a political movement that sees improved relations as a form of bad news?