Foreign policy issues rarely excite American voters, with the overwhelming majority concerned primarily with the economy. Nevertheless, most aspirants to the highest office want to appear ‘tough and uncompromising’, which explains why the White House prefers not to remind voters of President Barack Obama’s much hailed ‘reset’ in relations with Russia, especially at a time when Mitt Romney has declared Russia as the biggest threat.
It was, therefore, inevitable that the first meeting last week between Presidents Obama and Vladimir Putin in Los Cabos, remained unproductive. With an agenda heavy with contentious issues — both bilateral and regional — their exchanges amounted to mere reiteration of well known positions, with little effort to identify areas of understanding.
Given the current Western focus on Syria and Iran, it was inevitable that Obama should have sought Putin’s cooperation in convincing President Bashar al Assad to quit the scene now, on the promise of an amnesty rather than meet an inglorious end. To this end, the US wants Moscow to end military supplies to the beleaguered regime and to join the West in the United Nations, in order to authorise military operations, when needed. But having been bitten once on Libya, when Moscow failed to foresee the Security Council Resolution’s real objective, it now seems that Putin is in no mood to be taken for a ride again and, in the process, lose its only ally in the region. Even when Moscow comes round to accepting the inevitability of Bashar al Assad’s departure, it will want to ensure that Syria does not spin out of its orbit. In fact, Putin in his May 7 foreign policy decree had declared that Russia “will oppose attempts to use the concept of human rights as an instrument of political pressure and to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries”. Consequently, Putin and Obama could only agree ‘that the Syrians should have the opportunity to independently and democratically choose their own future’.
On Iran, Moscow’s stand is well known — it is opposed to Tehran’s nuclear weapons programme, but no less opposed to a regime change in that country. This explains Russia’s nuanced policy to protect its ties with Tehran, while remaining involved in the nuclear related negotiations. I still recall while in Moscow, the length to which the Soviets would go to ignore Imam Khomeini’s stinging denunciations, so as not to lose their influence in that country.
For Moscow, the priority was to raise its concerns over US plans to place ballistic missile defence in Europe. Putin made it clear that he remains sceptical that the defence shield is a protection against Iran, convinced instead that its deployment on the very borders of Russia will enhance the ability of the US to put her under pressure.
Not surprisingly, Afghanistan and Pakistan also figured in the Summit. With America’s relations with Pakistan in a state of deep crisis, Washington is counting on Moscow to help in expanding and enhancing the Northern Distribution Network to make it more robust and reliable.
Admittedly, Russia is no longer a global power, a fact that the Republicans keep harping upon, but it nevertheless remains an extremely influential player, especially on issues relating to central Asia, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Obama’s initial instincts in seeking a ‘reset’ in relations with Moscow was the right approach because much more can be achieved by giving due deference to Russia’s interests. But with Putin back in the Kremlin, Russia is likely to pursue a more robust, even assertive foreign policy. That is part of who Putin is. Moreover, domestic politics appear to be driving foreign policy agendas in both Moscow and Washington. While Putin wants to appeal to nationalist sentiments to boost his credentials against rising domestic opposition, Obama, too, has to demonstrate that he can be tough, lest he be accused by his critics of giving in to Russian pressures. Consequently, relations between them are likely to remain disturbed till the dust has settled down in both capitals.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 27th, 2012.
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