Uncertain World: WikiLeaks document dump to undermine Obama’s clout in Moscow

Officials in Russia have shrugged off the latest portion of U.S. diplomatic leaks with their unflattering descriptions of many world leaders.

Officials in Russia have shrugged off the latest portion of U.S. diplomatic leaks with their unflattering descriptions of many world leaders.

The U.S. embassy cables, made public earlier this week by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, add little to what we already know about Washington’s foreign policy, but they do give us a slightly more nuanced picture.

Is this leak likely to have any negative effect on U.S.-Russian relations? Very much so.  Not because Russia’s top officials may decide to boycott the White House’s “reset” policy in retaliation for these rather undiplomatic comments. Rather, the Obama фdministration, its position shattered by this embarrassing exposure, will now find it much harder to follow through on the course of rapprochement with Moscow.

For many months Obama has been struggling to persuade Senate Republicans into ratifying the latest U.S.-Russian arms reduction treaty. By showing his opponents how desperate he is to see this new START accord pass Congress, the U.S. president has unwittingly provided them with additional bargaining power. START ratification has become an even more challenging task for Obama following November’s midterm elections, which dramatically enhanced the Republicans’ presence in Congress.

The White House continues to assure the Kremlin that it will get the new START ratified by yearend. It is highly unlikely though that the accord will be passed during the current “lame duck” Congress session. Congress is likely to be less reluctant to approve START when it resumes work after the winter recess, but given the alignment of forces in the renewed lineup, there will be a price for Obama to pay and that may just prove a price he cannot afford.

It is hardly surprising that the current U.S. president should care so much about this new START. The treaty stands to be perhaps Obama’s greatest achievement on the international stage. His “reset” policy vis-à-vis Russia is sort of a package deal, where the various components – such as nuclear disarmament, missile defense, Iran and in part Afghanistan – may or may not be directly linked.

The new START accord is the core of that policy, and without it the whole structure is set to come tumbling down.

The WikiLeaks documents confirm that Russia’s changed stance on Iran is not the result of a review of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions, but rather a response to the U.S. “reset” policy. Yet, if Russia sees Washington start dragging its heels on this rapprochement course, Moscow may just as well reassess the risks it is taking by trying to improve its trans-Atlantic ties at the expense of relations with this influential and quite unpredictable southern neighbor.

Russia and the U.S. do have shared interests in Afghanistan, so their cooperation prospects there appear more solid. But it will become increasingly difficult for the sides to make headway on that front provided the general atmosphere in their relations worsens.

This seems to be something of a vicious circle. The “reset” policy’s failure could deprive the Obama administration of its strongest foreign policy argument. The White House would then have to lean rightward, giving up some of the principles stated in the first year of Obama’s presidency. It is no secret that most of the ideas that form the basis of his election platform (including further nuclear arms reductions, a renunciation of the U.S. mission of global hegemony, the recognition of the world as multi-polar, and a more balanced stance on the Middle East) have few supporters within the U.S. establishment.

The Obama’s possible failure to secure the ratification of this new START would leave officials in Moscow wondering whether there is any point in pursuing complicated negotiations with a White House that clearly has its hands tied. 

It is true that Obama has rather broad foreign policy powers that do not require Congressional approval to be exercised. But all major decisions concerning the country’s relations with Russia (including on this new START, the civil nuclear cooperation agreement, and the notorious Jackson-Vanik Amendment) have to be confirmed by the legislative branch.

The White House also faces the challenge of securing Republican support for its domestic agenda. Bipartisan consensus always comes at a cost and Obama has only so much political capital at his disposal. Aware of this, the Kremlin may suspend its trans-Atlantic bridge-building efforts until 2012 elections once it sees that the current U.S. president, however likable, has exhausted his potential as an influential policymaker.

WikiLeaks’ latest document release is likely to severely undermine both Obama and his Democratic Party.

The neo-Conservatives have long criticized the Democrats for what they see as naïve and weak foreign policies. Now it has turned out that the White House cannot guarantee confidentiality for its diplomatic cables and the Obama administration will unlikely ever be able to free itself from the public perception of its “irresponsible management.”

It is easy to picture the joyful atmosphere that seems set to characterize the current OSCE summit in the Kazakh city of Astana. There, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will have the opportunity to meet with many of the officials mentioned in the exposed State Department cables. The occasion will be an especially happy one for President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, whose remarks on Russia’s Putin-Medvedev tandem made during a private conversation with Undersecretary for Political Affairs William Burns have now been leaked into the public domain. 

In order to avoid further controversy in their conversations with Clinton in Astana, the summit participants would perhaps be well advised to try to stick to small talk, focusing on neutral subjects such as the weather. This seems all the more appropriate given the fact the OSCE forum will be running concurrently with a UN climate change conference in Mexico’s Cancun.   

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Is Russia unpredictable? Perhaps, but one shouldn’t exaggerate – its randomness often follows a consistent pattern. But is the world at large predictable? The past two decades have seen all forecasts refuted more than once and have taught us only one thing – to be ready for any change. This column is on what the nations and governments are facing in the era of global uncertainty.

Fyodor Lukyanov is Editor-in-Chief of the Russia in Global Affairs journal – the most authoritative source of expertise on Russian foreign policy and global developments. He is also a frequent commentator on international affairs and contributes to various media in the U.S., Europe and China, including academic journals Social Research, Europe-Asia Studies, Columbia Journal of International Affairs. Mr. Lukyanov is a senior member of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy and a member of the Presidential Council on Human Rights and Civic Society Institutions. He holds a degree from Moscow State University.

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