Setting an Agenda for Cooperation

Clifford Levy and Peter Baker write for the New York Times that President Barack Obama’s top priority in Moscow is following through on an earlier informal agreement reached at the G-8 summit to enact bilateral reductions in nuclear arsenals though he “also expected to touch on the war in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, terrorism and the jousting for influence in other former Soviet countries.”

These proposed bilateral nuclear reductions are an important part of getting the global non-proliferation regime back on track and moving us toward global nuclear disarmament. But the choice of priorities also highlights something important about Obama’s approach to world affairs. The US-Russia relationship is multifaceted, and there’s plenty of stuff we disagree about. And within the category of “stuff we disagree about” there’s a particular sub-category of stuff that it’s exceedingly unlikely we’re going to agree about. Most notable among these is Russia’s relationship with the post-Soviet countries. The United States would like to see these treated more-or-less as “ordinary” countries and insofar as is realistic absorbed into the Western European order. Russia, by contrast, sees them in much the way that the United States has traditionally viewed Central America and the Caribbean — at times nominally independent but fundamentally part of a Moscow-centered sphere of influence.

There’s a certain amount of sentiment in the United States that not only should the U.S. continue to disagree with Russia’s perspective on this, but that we ought to somehow elevate such disagreement to the very top of the U.S.-Russian bilateral relationship. The president should go over there, denounce the Russians, get denounced back, and then come back to Washington empty handed but full of self-righteousness. This is part and parcel of the phenomenon whereby people don’t grasp the difference between a pundit and a president. It makes a lot more sense to focus a visit on something like the nuclear issue, where U.S. and Russian interests are roughly in alignment and some high-level discussions stand a decent chance of bearing fruit.