Friday, July 10, 2009

Obama's Missed Opportunity

The speech not given in Moscow that perhaps the president should have delivered.

It's true that standard American overtures to Russians are not convincing but overcoming the barrier is far more difficult. Simply explaining the motives of expanding Nato is not enough, Russians, are well aware of them, at least the crowd at NES certainly.

The problem is not the Nato's expansion and trying to present it as the crucial and only source of troubles with Russians is highly misleading. The real problem is what Nato is and what it defends. If it is to defend the Balt's entitlement to having a large class of Russian helots in their countries and the right of Kiev elite to decide who is true Ukrainian and who is not, Russians won't probably be interested in the motives to expand it.

At the same time, it is obvious that a U.S. president cannot openly discuss things like these neither in Moscow nor anywhere else. The real problem is that, apparently, they cannot be openly discussed by Americans at all. Probably, talks behind doors is a more realistic option. But as long as true problems cannot be publicly discussed, the time to discuss the composition of Mr. Obama's speaches to Russians hasn't come.
Nicholas Gvosdev,

I much doubt that the argument that Saakashvili would have been less likely to take reckless action had Georgia been incorporated in NATO would cut much ice with a Russian audience.

A central reason why the U.S. failed to control Saakashvili was that leading American policymakers simply refuse to see the realities of politics in the post-Soviet space for what they are.

Reporting on the European Union investigation into last August's war, Uwe Klussman of Der Spiegel noted that one of the questions which had to be answered was whether Georgia is 'a serious candidate for membership in NATO', or a country 'in the hands of a reckless gambler?' As his report made clear, the evidence gathered by the commission demonstrates that Saakashvili is indeed a 'reckless gambler'.


But is there any readiness in Washington to confront the facts about Saakashvili? It hardly seems so. In two reports on the European Tribune website, my Italian collaborator and I have presented unambiguous evidence that Saakashvili was a co-conspirator in an attempt to steal estate of his political rival, the oligarch Arkadi 'Badri' Patarkatsishvili.


The former British Attorney General, Lord Peter Goldsmith, has brought a case in The International Court of Arbitration on behalf of Patarkatsishvili's widow, alleging the expropriation of her husband's assets, including the Imedi television station. In the second of our reports we include an email from the assistant to Matthew Bryza, the State Department official most closely involved with U.S. support for Georgia before and during the war, which implicitly admits the justice of Gudavadze's case.

Time and again U.S. -- and also it has to be said European -- policymakers and journalists put Saakashvili forward as a model of 'good governance'. Now there is compelling evidence that he is a common crook, a great deal of effort is going into keeping this under wraps.

It was the recipient of the email from Bryza's assistant, Karon von Gerhke, who gave us the story. She did so because she has repeatedly tried and repeatedly failed to interest the mainstream media in the U.S. in it.

As long as both the U.S. media, and the U.S. political elite, prefer to cling to illusions about the realities of political conflict in the post-Soviet space, they are liable unwittingly to encourage their clients into reckless and potentially very dangerous actions, as they did in Georgia.
Nikolas - "Instead, the president, in his speech, made it seem that the only thing that guides the U.S. desire to see Georgia and Ukraine in NATO is respecting the abstract principle of sovereignty and how this will make the world a better place."

It will be interesting to see if criticisms in Russia are pro forma. If Obama had gone into the kind of substance you suggest, though, I wonder if it would have alarmed as much as informed his audience, as your points all refer to American interests, not Russian ones.

The missed opportunity I think was not to focus on shared domestic challenges, particularly the efforts of the Russian leadership to pull their country into the Internet age and bring with it the participation and transparency that this age makes possible. The trouble with U.S. policy toward Russia is that it focuses on the most intractable things.

I was, however, troubled by President Obama's words here: "For any country to become a member of an organization like NATO, for example, a majority of its people must choose to [join]"

There is a difference between a majority of a people who have a common identity and a majority that shares one identity and a minority that shares another. The Russian minorities in the border republics do not have extraterritorial rights but the United States can't urge alliance memberships that could oblige these minorities to go to war with Russia and not expect Russia and these minorities to object.

David Habakkuk points to very troubling information that I think underlines the wisdom of our not having been part of the crisis last summer. But there is also another (and maybe unanswerable) question: not whether NATO membership would have influenced Saakashvili's conduct for better or for worse, but whether, if Georgian actions were what they were, Georgian membership in NATO at the time would have deterred Russian military action, or forced us to back down and lose much more than we did.

There was a lot of talk in the West last fall that Russia would be emboldened to pressure Ukraine next. So far as I am aware this hasn't happened. Is a crisis over Crimea still on the horizon?
I amy be wrong but my guess is "a majority of its people must choose to" is a diplomatic for "we are not going to haul Ukraine into Nato" as it has never had this majority either among its "Ukranian" or "Russian" parts.
Dr. Gvosdev,
I believe none of the possible explanations that Obama could have tried to offer would "fly" with his audience, no matter how educated and cosmopolitan that audience may have been. Eliminate geopolitical "ambiguities" and "temptations"? How does this jive with the notion that spheres of influence are things of the past? Does not this suggest that the US is seeking to ensure (although not stated explicitly) the FSU belongs to its sphere of influence while crying foul at the notion of Russia's "sphere of privileged interest"? And whose advice would Obama be following? Brzezinski is reputed in Russia as a cold war "veteran" with both feet in the past, not just one. Not sure of the degree to which this assessment is true, but his views of post-soviet politics certainly make referencing him a non-starter with a Russian audience.

While the Taiwan example merits consideration, it can hardly apply to the Georgia debacle. Taiwan has an economy (a high-tech one, unlike Georgia), it is militarily reliant on the US and China is considerably more important to the US and the world in economic terms. Thus any possible fallout with the US is a very risky proposition for a sane Taiwanese leader. A possible war over Taiwan entails big losses by everyone involved.

One of the reasons Russia resists the NATO expansion (perhaps the only one that truly deserves attention) is the fact that NATO could become a vehicle for the "less responsible" countries of the "New Europe" to settle historical scores, real or imaginary. Can the grievances of a certain ethnic community really guide one's foreign policy? Do historical grievances determine Russo-German relations? US-Mexican relations?

Add to all this the widespread Russian cynicism (what is in it for me? where is the catch?) of even the most educated types and Obama's effort to make connection with the audience of young and educated Russians becomes a complete failure.

Granted, it is quite difficult to come up with ways to get the message across in a relationship full of distrust. If Obama is serious about the security of Eastern Europe, perhaps an attempt at a clear definition of NATO's role in the post cold war era as well as firm rejection of NATO's original intent (which is to keep the Russians out and Americans in) could help. Establishment of more stringent acceptance requirements for the newly independent states (rather than bending the already lax ones). More involvement of Russia (it will be Russia's fault if it balks) in European security
affairs along with NATO. But all this is wishful thinking, I suppose. This requires fundamentally different foreign policy thinking primarily in the US, but also in all other countries involved. Feeble attempts by the new-kid-on-the-foreign-policy-block US president will not do much by themselves.
Is NATO willing and capable of going to war with Russia over Ukraine or the Baltic Republics?
Pardon my ignorance, but I fail to see any evidence of Russia's intent to re-conquer Ukraine or the Baltic states. If anything, Putin & Co. can count costs. The costs of occupation of even one of these countries is unbearable for today's Russia. Besides, they realize that nowadays money without tanks involved can achieve a lot more.
If we start making parallels to Russo-Georgian war of last August, it is hard to think of something that would trigger a Russian military response to these countries. For some reason I cannot imagine Estonian army shelling the Russian-populated city of Narva with "Grad" systems (which are modern-day Katyushas), like Georgian army did to Tskhinvali. Estonian Russians aren't trying to cecede to begin with and the city itself is historically Estonian. The situation in Ukraine is a bit more complicated due to the presence of Russia's Black Sea Fleet in Ukranian waters. So, we have no choice but to wait and see what happens in 2017, when the lease agreement expires.
Sorry for being so basic and not addressing the particulars of this situation, but from a human communication perspective such a frank and honest speech could have been delivered without sounding antagonistic. Particularly from a President who has such oratory skill. It is truly a shame that our politicians (especially this one) are afraid to take a stand on anything. Saying what you mean and having meaning to what you say is not a bad thing. When practiced among individuals, it actually avoids conflict. There is no reason to fear that it would be any different among countries.
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