A controversy broke out this week when President Obama tried to reassure President Medvedev of Russia, “On all these issues, particularly on missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him [incoming President Vladimir Putin] to give me space. This is my last election… after my election I have more flexibility.” These words were meant to be private but were captured by an open mic. Republicans quickly pounced on the issue.
Obama was referring to a proposed U.S. missile defense system based in Eastern Europe. The stated goal of the missile defense system is protecting NATO countries from the threat of Iranian warheads. Russia has, however, long argued that regardless of the program’s stated goals, the system would in effect neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent and thus undermine global stability. Russia and the U.S. have been in a virtual deadlock on the issue since 2007, leading in part to an increasingly tense relationship between the two countries. Despite the obvious need for a solution to this problem, the open mic controversy is a sign that the issue has been politicized in such a manner that finding a solution is difficult, if not impossible.
The importance of America’s alliance with Russia is highlighted by the very context of Obama and Medvedev’s conversation. Obama and Medvedev were speaking in private at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, South Korea. Russia is an important U.S. ally in fight against nuclear proliferation. Of the nearly 20,000 nuclear weapons that are in existence, Russia has 10,000 and the United States 8,500. Most will agree that this number is simply far too high. An alliance with Russia is essential to reducing the cold-war stockpile of nuclear weapons that continue to threaten humanity.
Flexibility is critical to any alliance. Despite the strategic importance of a relationship with Russia, Republicans have signaled that any compromise on the issue of the missile defense system will be a non-starter if they gain control of the White House and Capitol Hill.
The initial criticisms of Obama’s comments went something like this: “What plans are he formulating, that make his “last election” relevant? What is he planning to do that, if the American people were aware of it, would make him unelectable?” While the initial responses to Obama’s comments were purely motivated by November’s elections, Mitt Romney’s remarks went much further.
Romney called Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” While you could argue that this is another etch-a-sketch moment, Romney’s comments show a complete disregard for any U.S.-Russian alliance. Romney’s comments are particularly important because he is the most likely to succeed Obama in the fall. His comments have signaled to the world that Republicans don’t necessarily believe that any alliance exists in the first place. This gives Russia free reign to take more hardline positions on nuclear proliferation issues. While Romney’s comments were clearly motivated by election year politics, they also indicate that the party has not escaped Cold War thinking, an approach that says any compromise with Russia is tantamount to weakening America’s strategic position. Until that mindset is broken, global security will continue to be undermined by an increasingly hostile Kremlin.