On the Eve of Obedev’s First Date

A few hours ago, Pres. Obama arrived in London for the G20 summit. On the eve of the first date between Pres. Obama and Medvedev (‘Obedev’), the excitement is palpable. Whereas many have addressed Obama’s likely cold reception from all of the G20 in general, the meeting between the American and Russian presidents is the only one being discussed specifically. While most of the print coverage is thoughtful and positive, I do not have high hopes for the television coverage – expect a lot of overdone jokes about ‘looking into souls’, the KGB, Russia on the brink of collapse, etc. This is unfortunate as it is Obama’s first meeting with a ‘strategic competitor’ and it is unlikely that it will be treated seriously.

Much of the print media coverage of the upcoming meeting treat it as though Obedev will be able to resolve all of the festering issues in US-Russian relations during a brief sit-down, with no negotiating teams or preparation. CBS News calls it Medvedev’s “most important foreign policy event yet.” More important than using the Russian military outside Russia’s borders for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union? I don’t know… Others are not so optimistic, but at least partially due to the fact that their definition of a successful meeting would be total Russian acquiescence to U.S. positions. I think Obama is past the idea that Russia has no legitimate interests abroad (what country doesn’t?), and will instead articulate essential U.S. interests (e.g., non-interference in domestic politics of other countries).

So what are the issues on the agenda? Here is a possible list:

  • Arms Control – START I expires in December and with it the verification mechanism for SORT. If anything specific comes out of the talk, it will be on this issue, most likely regarding proposed cuts and setting a time [and place?] for the negotiation. In fact, there are already reports from the Kremlin that a statement will be issued on this question. Most experts agree this is the best place to start the renewed relationship, as we have experience agreeing on arms control and Obama and Medvedev both agree on the need for reductions. This will also play well in the media – it is a concrete step towards a safer world. Lastly, agreement on this issue might spill over into other issue, so says this commentator.
  • Ballistic Missile Defense – but hold on – remember that secret letter from Obama to Medvedev on missile defense, where he said ‘I’ll trade you BMD for Iran,’ and Medvedev was like, ‘What? No.’ So what is that status with that? Obviously it makes no sense to condition U.S. compliance with a bilateral agreement on the conduct of a third party. Especially a third party over which Russia has arguably marginal influence. Also, this stance ignores Russia’s legitimate concerns about missiles stationed in Poland – that they will not be given inspection rights, and that nuclear warheads will eventually be deployed there. Russia’s concerns are not based on BMD as it is presented, but rather on their worst-case scenario, which is normal for defense-oriented agencies. In order to have ‘Trust us’ be enough to assuage Russian fears, this ‘reset’ thing needs to go a long way. We still do not know whether Obama even wants BMD – my guess is not but he benefits by posturing in a way that suggests otherwise.
  • WTO Assession – with global trade down 9%, and protectionism/nativism up quite a bit, this issue probably does not have the weight it once did. Still, offering to repeal Jackson-Vanik is a ‘something for nothing’ possibility for Obama.
  • Human Rights/Khodorkovsky – as I mentioned in my previous post, it’s possible that Obama will mention Khodorkovsky to Mededev, just as the case makes it way up the ECtHR and the second(!!) trial starts in Moscow. Medvedev’s less likely to bristle at this than Putin, not only due to his own personal traits, but also because Obama’s a more credible messager than Bush. Medvedev will point out his pro-opposition political reforms that are going through the Duma.
  • Iran – *yawn* – does anyone even care about this anymore? And really, even if Obama sat down PM Netanyahu, what would be the result? I guess Obedev could announce some non-binding resolution, but who cares? Anyway, while I’m sure they will discuss the situation, I really doubt it will amount to anything serious.

So what is likely not on the agenda that should be? I have three suggestions:

  • Climate Change – it is already known that the U.S. wants to [finally] spearhead a new global agreement on climate change. Remember that after the U.S. withdrew from Kyoto, it was Russia’s ratification that saved the agreement’s life. Furthermore, with the U.S. as one of the major energy consumers and Russia as a major energy producer, an expression of agreement on basic principles for a new agreement would provide the process with a nice bit of momentum.
  • The Arctic – Russia recently announced the creation of an arctic military force to ‘defend its interests’. This is one problem, even assuming progress on climate change, that will not go away. Obama should suggest that a diplomatic, consultative process be initiated that includes all of the Arctic powers, and which will provide a forum for coordination of Arctic policies and, possible, the resolution of disputes. Because, really, nobody wants to see a war between Russia and Canada, unless it is in the context of hockey.
  • Corruption – like climate change, this is a supply/demand issue. U.S. companies supply bribes through its companies, and Russian officials demand and take many of those bribes. Still, the U.S. has had a lot of success in changing the corporate culture towards bribery through rigorous enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and has also promoted the globalization of this policy with the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention. Now, Medvedev is trying to root out the pernicious corruption that plagues Russia. Obama should offer to help in any way, including providing experts on the implementation of anti-corruption laws and through cooperation between law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.
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