The change in the relations between the sometime superpower duo of the United States and Russia then as the Soviet Union, is no better illustrated than in a conversation between Presidents Obama and Medvedev during their recent visit to South Korea. The two presidents were meeting prior to their attendance at a Nuclear Security Summit concerned with the perennial subject of reduction of nuclear weapons capabilities by various powers.
President Medvedev, was apparently reiterating his government’s view that the US should refrain from establishing a ballistic missile defence system primarily aimed at Russia, and that if it were established, Russia would require a legally binding commitment that it would not be used against his country An open microphone allowed reporters to hear Obama responding that he could not give any such commitment in a year that is a Presidential election year in which he is the contestant. In that regard, Obama requested him to wait until his second term. “This”, he observed “is my last election…After that I will have more flexibility”.
The statements suggest a mutual comprehension between the two leaders of the significance of the requirements of democratic elections. And Medvedev’s response that he would “transmit this information to Vladimir (Putin)”, indicates the accepted understanding of the new situation of constitutional circulation of political elites in post-Soviet Russia, in spite of recent public protests there about improper elections in both the recent parliamentary and presidential contests.
Of course, Obama’s statement takes into account that the Russians, since the advent of Putin to office, have been very concerned that the United States and its European allies still see their relationship with Russia as a basically competitive one in strategic military terms. But since making very vigorous protests when the issue of the missile shield was first raised, the Russians have insisted that not only is this an outmoded view but that the ex-Soviet system allies of Russia in Eastern Europe should not be engaged in any arrangement that treats Russia as a first-line enemy. This, in their view would constrain Russia to undertake responsive and pre-emptive measures more reminiscent of the Cold War than of today’s more relaxed atmosphere in Europe.
Undoubtedly the Russians, in a period when they are making a major effort to reconstruct their country’s economy within a more restricted geographical scope than the Soviet Union occupied, and with a lesser diversified resource and strategic base than hitherto, are also implying that they would feel bound to respond to a NATO ballistic missile shield initiative, even though that would be a negative for itself in terms of its new range of economic resources. In that context, a new US-Russia competition would hardly be beneficial to Russia in a period of economic reconstruction.
But without doubt, both the Russians and the Americans are also well aware that in this period of competitive manoeuvrability between not simply the US and a USSR, but between themselves and a number of states aspiring to major power status, the task of persuading those states to inhibit their development of nuclear capabilities will hardly be advanced by the display of an intensified competition between themselves. In that respect, the United States, under President George W Bush led the way in coming to an agreement with India that would permit a certain nuclear status for that country while inhibiting a commitment to the development of unlimited expansion of nuclear capabilities by it. For Bush was well aware that India could argue that with historically hostile neighbours – Pakistan and China – it had a legitimate right to become a major nuclear power, joining the US, Russia, France, Britain and China. (Indeed the Indians were clearly on good ground, given the announcement this week that Pakistan is now likely to surpass Britain in terms of the number of deployed nuclear weapons that it possesses).
Russia and the United States too, have a joint interest in ensuring that the capabilities of a China do not become such that it comes to be considered a major threat by its own neighbours. This must surely be the context in which the US has recently reiterated, through the mouth of Secretary of State Clinton, that its main preoccupation in the foreseeable future will be the consolidation of itself as an Asian-Pacific power. But the US statement also implies that in that context, it will be simultaneously requiring the cooperation of China in inhibiting the development of nuclear capabilities in the Asia-Pacific environment. As is obvious today, this is so particularly in relation to North Korea which, while alleged to be poverty-stricken, has found the resources to pursue its nuclear goals And it is should be remembered that the Indonesians, under the rule of Sukarno in the immediate post-colonial period, also felt that it should have some kind of status that allowed it a competitive place in the management of geopolitics in that arena.
The Russian position must be, of course, that the United States’ attempts at inhibiting other states from developing strategic nuclear weapons capabilities, where that involves the cooperation of Russia whose borders still stretch today to those of Japan (the once-Japanese Kurile Islands), can hardly be enhanced by what it considers threats to Russia’s strategic position on its European borders.
A modern President Obama will surely understand these various considerations of competing powers in today’s multipolar world. However, whether what appears in these times to be an increasingly volatile American public opinion, will allow him to make the required concessions to Russia after the next general election is left to be seen. After all it is a conservative President Nixon who broke the logjam with China, a conservative President Reagan who broke the nuclear stalemate with the USSR, and a conservative President George W Bush who found agreement on nuclear weapons with non-aligned India in the post-Cold War environment.