President Barack Obama is in Russia for a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Top on the agenda is a renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction treaty, which expires soon. The issue of START holds much peril for President Obama.
The Russians have made it clear that progress on renewing START is linked with a planned anti ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe designed to ward off Iranian missiles. Putting it succinctly, Russia is demanding that the ABM defense system be scrapped or there will be no deal on START.
During the Cold War, American Presidents often got into trouble for giving too much away in order to get an arms control treaty from the old Soviet Union. One of the SALT treaties actually failed to get Senate ratification during the Carter administration so onerous were the concessions. The signing of the SALT II treaty was followed by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election of Ronald Reagan.
The temptation for President Barack Obama to bring home an arms reduction treaty from Russia is likely even greater than that faced by his predecessors during the 1970s. It is conceivable that President Obama could trade missile defense in Europe for a treaty, with a sweetener of vague promises to help pressure Iran on missiles and nuclear weapons.
Giving into this temptation would be a grave mistake for President Obama. It is as in much Russia’s interest as it is that of the United States to renew START. Russia’s shaky economy is even more ill prepared than that of the old Soviet Union to engage in an arms race with the United States.
The lesson President Obama should learn on how to deal with Russian intransigence comes from President Ronald Reagan. During a summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986 with then Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev President Reagan was faced with a choice far starker than that President Obama now faces in Russia. Gorbachev offered a treaty that would have eliminated nuclear weapons if President Reagan agreed to give up the Strategic Defense Initiative, then a massive program designed to build space based defenses against nuclear attack.
President Reagan refused the proposal and the Reykjavik summit ended in apparent failure. But Gorbachev came back from Iceland with two insights. One was that Reagan, unlike some of his predecessors, was not a man to be pushed around. The other was that Reagan was serious about SDI as a defense against a first Soviet strike and that he had no intention to launch a first strike against the Soviet Union.
Subsequent negotiations arrived at the first START treaty signed in 1991. About a year later the Soviet Empire fell.
The lesson that President Obama should take from Reagan’s experience is obvious. Do not be so anxious to get a treaty, and treaty, that you make a bad deal. A bad deal will diminish Obama’s political standing in the United States and will mark him as someone easy to be rolled around the world.
If Obama stands fast, as Reagan did, then he will strengthen his hand and will send a signal that he will not be pushed around, an important quality in a world in which countries such as Iran and North Korea are more than willing to start pushing.
Source: Obama’s diplomacy being tested in Russia, Ben Feller, AP, July 6th, 2009