Friday, 18 September 2009

18 September 2009

OK, so maybe you’re wondering what to make of President Obama’s announcement that he’s abandoning (sorry, “putting on ice”) the Bush administration’s plans for anti-missile defence sites in Poland and the Czech Republic.

What you make of it will depend very largely, I suspect, on how you look at the art of diplomacy. Do you see it mainly as the projection of national strength, in order to keep your citizens safe, or rather as the defusing of tensions, and the building of alliances with like-minded states, in order to achieve the same end result?

So: do you worry that by shelving the Bush plans, President Obama will make the US look weak in the face of Russian anger? Or are you encouraged that he seems prepared to hold out an olive branch – both to Moscow and, indirectly perhaps, also to Tehran?

Mind you, the way the decision has been explained has little overtly to do with being nice to Moscow. Not even President Obama wants to portray himself as someone whose main priority is to make new friends.

What he has said is that his military and security advisers have come to the conclusion that there are better ways to protect the US and its allies from a potential Iranian or North Korean long-range missile threat (which, in any case, his experts say, is rather further into the future than the Bush team believed). And he has gone out of his way to try to reassure the Czechs and the Poles that he’s not about to abandon them.

So let’s look at some of the likely repercussions. Moscow says it’s encouraged – but we’ll have to wait to see if there’s a reciprocal Russian gesture. Will President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin now move more rapidly towards a new nuclear arms reduction agreement?

Will they agree to tighter sanctions against Iran? Will they engage more positively in the carbon emission reduction negotiations in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit in December? Was there an implicit, if not an explicit, understanding between Washington and Moscow that a move by one will lead to a move by the other?

And what about the Iranians? Will they see the decision as a sign of weakness, or as an opportunity to engage more fruitfully with Washington, even on the issue of their nuclear enrichment programme?

As for the Poles and the Czechs, they’re feeling a bit sore at the moment. The governments in Warsaw and Prague have expended valuable political capital in backing the original Bush administration plans, often against substantial public opposition. So they’ll need a lot of stroking in the coming months.

And what you would make of it all if you were a Georgian, or a Ukrainian? Would you worry that Washington might look weak, and that Moscow might be tempted to throw its weight around even more than it has been doing? Or would you breathe a sigh of relief that at least one source of tension has been removed?

If the Obama decision was a calculated gamble, it’ll take a few months at least before we can begin to assess whether the gamble has paid off. But it was certainly a significant gesture, if not an entirely unexpected one.

We do live in interesting times., don’t we?

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