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Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton (AP Photo)

Global conversations

International | President Obama's diplomatic offensive and the reality of geopolitics

The Obama administration is only one and a half months into the job, but between pressing "reset buttons" with the Russians, reaching out to the Europeans, talking about reconciling with the Taliban, extending invitations to the Iranians, and rubbing elbows with the Syrians, this is already one of the most diplomatically active U.S. administrations in quite some time.

During the campaign, now-President Barack Obama made the controversial statement that he was prepared to speak to adversaries, including countries like Iran. This position was part of a general critique by Obama of the Bush administration, which Obama said enclosed itself diplomatically, refusing to engage either adversaries or allies critical of the United States. Now, Obama is sending emissaries across the globe to restart dialogue everywhere from Europe to the Middle East to South Asia to Russia. For Obama, these conversations are the prelude to significant movement in the international arena.

From a geopolitical perspective, that people are talking is far less important than what they are saying, which in turn matters far less than what each side is demanding and willing to concede. Engagement can be a prelude to accommodation, or an alternative to serious bargaining. At the moment, it is far too early to tell which the present U.S. diplomatic flurry will turn out to be. And of course, some of the diplomatic initiatives might succeed while others fail.

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Nevertheless, as the global diplomatic offensive takes place, we must consider whether Obama is prepared to make substantive shifts in U.S. policy or whether he will expect concessions in exchange for a different diplomatic atmosphere alone. Since Obama and his foreign policy team are too sophisticated to expect the latter, we must examine the details of the various conversations. In this case more than others, the devil is very much in the details.

Russia

The Obama administration has made clear to Russia its desire to reset its relations with Russia, with Clinton even presenting a red "reset button" as a gift to her counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on March 6 at a NATO summit in Geneva. But the Russians want to clarify how far the Americans really intend to rewind the tape. The 2004 Orange Revolution and NATO's reach to the Baltics crystallized Moscow's fears that the United States intends to encircle and destabilize Russia in its former Soviet periphery through NATO expansion and support for the color revolutions. Since then, Russia has been resurgent. Moscow has worked aggressively to reclaim and consolidate its influence in the Russian near abroad for its long-term security while the United States remains preoccupied in its war with the jihadists.

The Russians are pushing for a grand deal that guarantees a rollback of NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, scraps plans for U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD), maintains some semblance of Russian nuclear parity in post-Cold War treaties, and ensures Western noninterference in a region that runs from the Baltics down through Eastern Europe and across the Caucasus and Central Asia-what Russia views as its rightful sphere of influence. Only then can Russia feel secure from the West, and confident it will remain a major player in Eurasia in the long run. In return, the Russians theoretically could make life easier for the Americans by cooperating with Washington against Iran and increasing support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan through the expansion of an alternate supply route-two key issues that address the most pressing threats to U.S. national security interests in the near term, but which may not be entirely worth the strategic concessions Moscow is demanding of Washington.

So far, the Obama administration has responded to Russia's demands by restarting talks on the START I nuclear armaments treaty in exchange for Moscow allowing U.S. nonmilitary goods bound for Afghanistan to transit Russia and Central Asia. The Russians responded by permitting some supplies bound for Afghanistan to pass through the former Soviet Union as an opening toward broader talks. The United States then privately offered to roll back its plans for BMD in Central Europe if Russia would pressure Iran into making concessions on Tehran's nuclear program. But the Russians have signaled already that such piecemeal diplomacy will not cut it, and that the United States will need to make broader concessions that more adequately address Moscow's core national security interests before the Russians can be expected to sacrifice a relationship with a strategic Middle East ally.

At the Geneva NATO summit, Clinton upped the offer to the Russians when she signaled that the United States might even be willing to throw in a halt to NATO expansion, thereby putting at risk a number of U.S. allies in the former Soviet Union that rely on the United States to protect them from a resurgent Russia. This gesture will set the stage for Obama's upcoming trip to Russia to meet with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, but the Russians will be watching closely to see if such gestures are being made for the sake of public diplomacy or if the United States really intends to get down to business.

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