President Obama has cancelled a plan to build US anti-missile defence radar facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic.
This move has been hailed by Russia’s President Medvedev as a "wise decision". Which, of course, prompts the ignoble thought that if the Russians like it so much, something must be wrong.
How to work out what is going on here?
When (as you must) you read John O’Sullivan’s elegant book on the Reagan/Thatcher/Pope John Paul II relationship, you’ll see that perhaps the deepest strategic/political and even moral conviction of President Reagan was the idea that as part of moving towards a world without nuclear weapons the USA should focus on developing a nuclear ‘Star Wars’ shield, not a nuclear sword.
This astounding new idea caused consternation in many quarters, for quite different reasons:
Mrs Thatcher was dismayed: if the USA could defend itself against the USSR through missile defence its commitment to European defence would dwindle, leaving Europe at the mercy of Soviet conventional forces.
US and European armies of professional left-liberals and useful idiots were aghast: if the USA no longer needed to fear Russia, it would be even more imperialistic and horrid than it was already.
Moscow was stunned: maybe the Americans could simply outspend and out-equip the USSR on defence and leave Soviet political power fatally weakened.
The global chattering classes were shocked: it was a wild, ‘dangerous’ lunge by this loony Hollywood cowboy, all the more outlandish because it would never work in practice.
As John’s book describes in remarkable detail, Reagan stood his ground against all these arguments and many more, angrily fending off Gorbachev in the process.
But Reagan saw further than everyone else. The technology one day would work. And the very fact of developing it would defeat Communism: "My idea of the Cold War is that we win and they lose".
All of which came to pass.
Twenty years on the kit works pretty well. the workings of Moore’s Law have given the USA the computer power to perform the trillions of calculations at top speed needed to spot hostile missile launches and then fire US missiles from different locations to crash into them or otherwise mess them up.
To do that, incredibly powerful radar installations are needed in different spots. Two were indentified in Poland and the Czech Republic as being especially handy for helping intercept missiles launched from (for example) Iran.
The idea of siting these installations so close to Russia led the Kremlin to make a strong political counter-attack.
Publicly the Russians insisted that these installations were ‘aimed at Russia’ and therefore represented a new destabilising factor in the post-Cold War nuclear balance.
But (in my view) the main reason for Russia’s official anger (however synthetic it might be) was the fact that such installations yet again served to highlight Russian technical inferiority.
Meanwhile the idea of the new US sites was not especially popular in Poland or Czech Republic, where the provincial blandishments of European integration were coming to seem more relevant to the public than all that unsettling nuclear strategic stuff.
The Poles ended up in a curious policy contortion, noisily proclaiming that the installations were essential to keep Putinist neo-Soviet-style instincts at bay in that part of the world, while at the same time demanding from the USA that the Americans pay Poland generously for allowing the site to be built.
So, all in all, and taking everything into account, what?
Some Q and A.
Has Obama surrendered a key and irreplaceable US military interest?
Probably not. The technology keeps evolving, so maybe there are other even better ways to do the same job based on eg radars placed on ships? We won’t necessarily be told, one way or the other.
Has Obama sold out Eastern Europe?
Again, it depends on what Washington wants to say to Europeans in private about its determination to stand up against Russian ‘pressure’. There may well be other practical ways quietly to reassure Poland and other countries in this sense, once the rows about these installations start to fade.
That said, Bambiland generally wonders whether Obama’s Washington really cares about Europe any more. And those US conservative commentators who for a long time have complained that the USA was giving Europe a free defence ride may even give a wry smile now.
Other nuclear weapons negotiations rumble on. It arguably makes sense for Democrat-run Washington to focus on these:
Discussions on a US-drafted resolution on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation had been underway for weeks when, out of the blue, Russia came up with objections to a text that is supposed to be the centrepiece of an extraordinary nuclear summit at the UN next Thursday to be chaired by Obama.
He is pushing for a bold collective statement that will help set the world on a trajectory to a future without nuclear weapons. Most security council resolutions end up being watered down. But the potential failure of next week’s summit represents a threat to Obama’s global agenda, much of which is focused sharply on the threat of proliferation.
So if Obama really needs this ‘success’ in foreign policy for its own sake – and as part of a political domestic power-play to revive his faltering ratings – why not throw a ‘concession’ to Russia to get them on board?
OK, but what about Russia?
Ah, now you’re talking.
The Really Big Problem for the USA and ‘the West’ since the Cold War ended has been a sense of vexation round the world that indeed the West did win the Cold War but then got too big for its cowboy boots.
This has steadily translated into a growing unwillingness on the part of Russia/China/India/Brazil and other such powers to go along with what the West wanted, just for the sake of being awkward.
In a unipolar world dominated by the USA, those countries which stand up to the USA wherever they can get away with it will get special attention in Washington and enhanced status elsewhere (see also N Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and the other suspects).
Hence Russia and China in particular sit back and enjoy the benefits of Western market forces while doing little if anything to help the West against fanatically anti-West regimes. Classic example here.
Moscow and Beijing know that Iran and N Korea will never dare launch a primitive nuke or mass terrorist outrage against them, since their own retaliation would be massive and ruthless. It suits their ultimate über-policy – of their gaining strength as the Americans get cut down to size – to let the Americans and a few others do all the unpopular heavy lifting against such rogue elements, while they peck away at whatever scraps of diplomatic advantage fall on the floor.
So the problem with the Obama Administration’s Russian Reset button approach lies in the apparent assumption that Russia and the USA can move towards a new substantive partnership which gives the USA significant new gains which Russia will be happy to support. This partnership can not be.
At the root of it, Russian foreign policy ambitions have nothing to do with ideals or principles but only a strange self-absorbed zero-sum nationalist-tsarist idea that whatever territory Russia at some point has conquered is ipso facto ‘Russian’ for ever. Where those lands are no longer in Russia itself, Russia must have some sort of psychological or strategic edge there, and other influences (Europeanisation, Westernisation) necessarily subtract from that and are a threat.
America by contrast does have real universalist ideals and principles, however much they are sneered at in America itself and more widely round the planet. Even if the execution of its policy is (inevitably?) often incoherent, messy and contradictory, Washington looks at the Middle East, Africa and other strategic problems in their own terms – what might work to get a substantively respectable and fair and stable outcomes, preferably in a way which increases freedom for ordinary people.
Which is why when the going gets tough, Russia will never do more than the bare minimum to give the Americans real help against obnoxious states and extremists and terrorists. Much better for Moscow to keep the prospect of such help dangling like a carrot indefinitely, so that Russia can negotiate from greater strength far down the road as and when its power has grown and America’s has diminished.
The optimistic interpretation of this Obama move is that he has given up something that really did not count for much in strategic reality terms so as to get some other modest diplomatic gains (all with a keen eye on Obama’s poll ratings), wrapping it up in vast spin about a ‘huge move’ to make it look bold and statesmanlike. Poles and Czechs are too right-wing for Democrats, so get a sharp clip round the ear followed by a perfunctory kiss to make up. The Russians know that it is all (mainly) rubbish, but piously applaud the ‘wisdom’ of it so as to make themselves look more powerful than they are. No real change.
The pessimistic interpretation is that there really has been a ‘huge shift’ in US foreign policy and President Obama is ready to put at risk all the gains for freedom, pluralism and progress achieved around the world by Ronald Reagan with a little help from his friends, in the hope of creating a new world order based around a diminished unambitious USA in sly cahoots with left-collectivist post-democratic polities (EU, Russia, China) and sundry unhealthy pre-democratic Islamic regimes.
I report. You decide.