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Pivotal Power

July 7, 2009
From Russia — not with love, but with results

Overall, I have given the Bush administration higher marks on emerging power relations than on most other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Relations with China were broadened, the U.S.-Japan alliance deepened, the friendship with India solidified.

But on Russia, we saw a more classic Bush administration national security model, where divisions within the administration resulted in a roller-coaster ride of policy, from the highs of President Bush’s soul-gazing to official rhetoric that recalled the Cold War. (Secretary of Defense Bob Gates’ moments of sobriety on these issues were always welcome).

So it is good to see the Obama administration, in its rational, systematic way, putting the relationship to rights again. (I would expect no less of the excellent National Security Council types who are in charge — Mike McFaul and Gary Samore). Morality has nothing to do with this — a stable, working relationship with Russia will best further U.S. interests, period. What are those interests? My colleague Sam Charap from the Center for American Progress outlines them well in a new report. But in my mind, there is one that trumps the rest, and that is non-proliferation.

Russia is key to this issue in three ways. First, it has the largest stockpile of poorly-guarded fissile material in the world. If we want to prevent it from falling into terrorists’ hands, we need to work with Moscow on locking it down.

Second, Moscow has shown useful leadership on non-proliferation. George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced the “Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism” at the 2006 G-8 Summit in St. Petersburg. Among other things, the countries that have signed up to this pledged to “take a number of actions to fight nuclear terrorism by committing to improve accounting and security of radioactive and nuclear materials, enhance security at civilian nuclear facilities, and to improve detection of nuclear and radioactive materials to prevent illicit trafficking.”

More recently, in a joint statement they released on April 1, 2009, Presidents Obama and Medvedev said that their two countries “will seek to further promote the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, which now unites 75 countries.” The partner countries have now met 5 times, most recently at the Hague in early June.

The Initiative appears to be high on the Obama administration’s agenda. In his speech in Prague in April 2009, President Obama said that he wished to turn non-proliferation initiatives like the Global Initiative to Combat Terrorism “into durable international institutions.”

Finally, Moscow is key to rolling back nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran, first because it has relationships with those countries, and second because Russia and the U.S., as the gorillas of the nuclear world, have to show leadership in order to have leverage in the non-proliferation framework. The bargain in the non-proliferation treaty — which, despite its flaws, has succeeded in limiting the number of nuclear countries in the world — is that nuclear countries will gradually reduce and eventually eliminate their weapons and that, in return, non-nuclear countries will stay that way. But the U.S. will not disarm unilaterally.

It’s not going to be an easy or smooth road with Moscow. We aren’t going to be chummy, let’s face it — and we disagree on some key questions, like the importance of a free press and the status of Georgia. But the agreement Presidents Obama and Medvedev reached yesterday to reduce their arsenals is a commitment we didn’t have the day before.

– Nina Hachigian

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1 comment


Considering Obama dodged all the tough points – SDI in Europe, Russia threatening Europe by shutting off natural gas, invading nearby states and interfering with their internal policies I’d say nothing really was accomplished. Like muscles cars, chrome don’t bring it home and this was a chrome covered trip… all show and no go.

Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the co-author of “The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.” She has worked on the staff of the National Security Council in the White House and been a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation. She specializes in U.S.-China relations and great power relationships, multilateral institutions and U.S. foreign policy.

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