The Court Makes the King

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Senator Barack Obama's impressive victory will clearly lead to important changes in U.S. domestic policy, where he differs significantly from both President George W. Bush and Senator John McCain. Whether the president-elect will make major adjustments in U.S. foreign policy, particularly policy toward Russia, is a different question.

Setting aside their positions on the issue of U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, Obama and McCain had broadly similar approaches to many international issues. On Russia, after initially appealing to both Moscow and Tbilisi for restraint when Georgian troops attacked Tskhinvali, Obama quickly adopted McCain's highly critical attitude toward Russia's conduct. Moreover, just like McCain, Obama called for giving both Georgia and Ukraine NATO Membership Action Plans.

Still, there are reasons to believe that Obama is less inclined than McCain to see Russia as a threat to the United States. In fact, according to Obama's advisers, one reason he did not challenge his Republican rival on the conflict over South Ossetia was his reluctance to divert attention from U.S. economic difficulties, his perceived area of strength, and shift it to foreign policy, where many believed McCain had an advantage. Obama's preoccupation with the economy may also make him less inclined than McCain to engage in daring and expensive foreign policy pursuits. On a personal level, Obama appears more judicious than McCain and sounds less inclined to see international relations in terms of personalities. McCain, for his part, either admires leaders, like President Mikheil Saakashvili, or dislikes them, as in the case of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Precisely because Obama does not have long-standing foreign policy views, much may depend upon the composition of his national security team. There are three groups being considered for key appointments. One consists of seasoned and experienced foreign policy realists, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska and former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn. These senior statesmen are known for their moderation, bipartisanship and willingness to work with other major powers. All of them are known to be skeptical of expediting NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine and would like to find a formula for cooperation with Russia on the issue of a missile defense system in Europe.

The second group is made up of liberal internationalists, such as former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice, former Deputy National Security Adviser James Steinberg and one of President Bill Clinton's key lawyers, Gregory Craig. Unlike the first group, these somewhat younger officials who served in second-tier posts in the Clinton administration talk about the need to continue with democracy promotion, albeit in a less confrontational way and to engage in humanitarian interventions in places like Darfur and, earlier, Kosovo. They are not openly hostile to Russia, but their vision of the United States' global role could lead to serious disagreements with Moscow.

The third group is represented by liberal interventionists like former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, one of the architects of the U.S. intervention in the Balkans during the era of Bill Clinton. Holbooke is known for championing both Kosovo independence and bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. During the Russia-Georgia confrontation, Holbrooke became one of Saakashvili's greatest defenders in the United States, going as far as denying that there was a Georgian attack on Tskhinvali. His appointment to a top national security position would be an ominous sign for U.S.-Russian relations.

The conventional wisdom is that Holbrooke, championed by his friend Vice President-elect Joe Biden, has only an outside chance of becoming secretary of state or defense. After all, he supported Senator Hillary Clinton and is not on good personal terms with a number of key Obama advisers who do not share his views and are uncomfortable with his aggressive self-promotion.

Russia's response to Obama will be very important as well. If Moscow sees his election as an opportunity and offers a fresh start in the U.S.-Russia relationship, a new beginning might be possible. Conversely, if Russia chooses to use the global financial crisis to try to undermine U.S. world leadership, Obama would have fewer incentives to offer an olive branch.

So far, Russia has not been too effective in making its case to Americans and Europeans, whether in explaining demands for a fair market price for gas sold to Ukraine or in protecting Russian peacekeepers and civilians in South Ossetia. The problem is less with its Foreign Ministry, which has many skillful diplomats, and more with the apparent lack of strategic planning and interagency coordination, on one hand, and what sometimes sounds and looks like a wealth-driven, in-your-face attitude on the other. Should Moscow this time couple strength and self-confidence with humility and sensitivity to Western concerns, the United States' transition could provide an important opportunity to improve U.S-Russian interactions.

Dimitri K. Simes is president of The Nixon Center and publisher of The National Interest.