The Obama administration has hit more than a few reset buttons since taking office. In the case of the Islamic world, resetting has meant respectful outreach exemplified in Obama’s Cairo speech. With China, resetting means minimizing the American hectoring on human rights and conspicuous displays of antagonism toward Beijing such as a meeting for the Dalai Lama with the American president. The effort to reset Israel-Palestine, now itself reset, entailed early pressure on Israel to halt all settlement construction in the West Bank. In Iran, the reset was an offer of carrots–up to normalization of relations in exchange for an end to Iran’s ambition to acquire a nuclear weapon. And, of course, the biggest reset of all has been with Russia, where the administration has sought to de-ideologize relations for the sake of arms-control agreements and future help with Iran.
To be fair, it’s too soon to say what will come of all this resetting. A successor agreement on nukes with Russia seems very achievable; a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process much less so. Perhaps the most generous way to understand the new administration’s initiatives is as a series of medium- to long-term bets. At least potentially, the payoffs are high: A China continuing its “peaceful rise” is in everyone’s interest. A Russia committed to a nonnuclear Iran might go a long way toward slowing that country’s secretive weapons program.
Clearly, the administration as a whole sees merit in trying approaches very different from the ones associated with George W. Bush. But the question is how much of the world’s trouble was Bush’s fault. If our Iran problem has more to do with Iran than with Bush administration policy toward Iran, our Russia difficulties more to do with Russia than with Bush’s Russia policy–and likewise with the Middle East, Asia, the Islamic world writ large, and elsewhere–then there is not much reason to be very optimistic about the prospects of an un-Bush reset. The payoffs may be high, but the odds are long.
And the potential collateral damage is not negligible. Already, the left-leaning side of the human rights community is beginning to express dismay over an administration that seems reluctant to speak out against repression when its words might get in the way of all the resetting. The examples are many, from Iran’s violent crackdown on street demonstrations protesting electoral fraud last summer to China and Burma. The administration’s decisions to close Guantánamo and to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the U.S. criminal justice system won plaudits from the left, but it’s a bit much to act as if the biggest human rights issue in the world today is whether the U.S. government seeks the death penalty for KSM in a criminal court or before a military commission.
Not the least of the collateral damage has been to traditional U.S. allies. The September decision to cancel the missile defense system planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic and staunchly opposed by Russia is a case in point. The one thing the planned system had the least to do with was its stated purpose of stopping long-range missiles fired by Iran at Europe. No one took such a contingency as anything but a remote threat. In fact, recently revised U.S. assessments of Iranian priorities showed greater emphasis on development of short and medium-range missiles, providing the Obama administration the rationale for scuttling the interceptors in Poland and the radar in the Czech Republic.
For the Poles and the Czechs, though, the proposed deployment was something more, a conspicuous indication of U.S. commitment under the auspices of NATO to the territorial defense of Central and Eastern Europe. Suspicions about Russian intentions with regard to both the “near abroad” of former Soviet territory and the territory of the former Warsaw Pact have long been present there. And they have heightened considerably since Russian tanks rolled into Georgia in August 2008–ostensibly to defend ethnic Russians in the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but clearly a display of raw clout staking a claim to a sphere of influence outside Russian borders.
For Russia, the missile defense system was a threat. True, perhaps not to its nuclear arsenal (though the Russians liked to claim the system was a precursor to an ABM capability directed against them)–but certainly to Russia’s desire for deference. Moscow had long opposed NATO enlargement. But its opposition was largely ineffectual until Georgia was denied the Membership Action Plan the Bush administration was pushing for at a summit in April 2008.
It’s fair to say that missile defense has never been as high a priority in Democratic defense policy circles as Republican. It would have taken little to persuade the new administration that the Polish-Czech deployment was unnecessary, while stressing the potential for improved relations with Russia as a result of its cancellation. In making the decision–announced prematurely and clumsily, due to administration concerns about a leak, on the 60th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland–the administration lost sight of or was indifferent to the symbolic aspects of the deployment as a display of U.S. commitment to its allies.
Throughout Europe these days, there are substantial worries about U.S. disengagement. The concern is not confined to Central and Eastern Europe, though it is most acute there. Western European publics are gaga about Obama, whom they regard as the antidote to George W. Bush. Policy-makers see a rather different picture. Obama is happy to accept European adulation and accolades, including a Nobel Prize, but seems less inclined to view Europe as much of a strategic priority or as an especially valuable partner in pursuit of U.S. policy objectives. It’s not quite a European sense of abandonment (though that worry seems to get stronger the farther east you go, as I saw at a recent conference in Latvia). Rather, it’s the sense of being an object of so-far benign neglect.
True, the United States remains keenly interested in allied commitments to Afghanistan. But not quite to the point of seeming to involve anyone else very much in the months-long deliberations over how to go forward there. Meanwhile, it became shockingly clear following the Georgia conflict that there had been no serious NATO contingency planning for the territorial defense of the new, post-Cold War allies. That would seem like the bare minimum due to all members who have pledged in Article V of their treaty to regard an attack on one as an attack on all–the more so given their participation in the Afghanistan mission.
NATO is currently involved in drafting a new “strategic concept” to guide the alliance in the years to come. Nothing wrong with that, but NATO is currently fighting an actual shooting war against a tenacious set of adversaries in Afghanistan and has yet to develop credible plans for defending all its members. Winning the war you are fighting and making sure you can deliver on the alliance’s core promise of collective self-defense are not bad strategic concepts. First things first.
Yet even such basic priorities for the alliance as territorial defense aren’t obvious to everyone these days. A show of hands at the recent Halifax International Security Forum, a major pro-NATO gathering of North Americans and Europeans, revealed a number of participants who regard improving relations with Russia as more important than defense planning. Yes, most members seemed to think that you need both, but the point is that there is a detectable inclination among some to conclude that serious defense planning may antagonize Russia and is therefore undesirable. That’s the point at which the Russian reset poses basic risks.
Central and Eastern Europeans would like some reassurance about the U.S. security commitment to them. That was the message of a somewhat alarmist but nevertheless compelling July open letter to the Obama administration from more than 20 current and former leaders in the region.
They deserve their reassurance sooner rather than later. It seems likely that Europeans–Eastern, Central, and Western–will assume greater salience in the administration’s thinking as reset bets fail to pan out: You can work most constructively with those who are most willing to work constructively with you. That means Europeans and others around the world who share our views on such matters as human rights, free expression, and democratic government.
It may not be the best way to get to the right conclusion, but it seems likely the U.S. government will once again find its voice on democracy and human rights if for no other reason than that Russia, China, Burma, Sudan, and company are unlikely to make it worth our while not to speak up on such matters.