Obama's Foreign Policy Gambles With Russia

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, February 22, 2009

An American hand reaching out to an unclenching authoritarian fist: This is the dominant foreign policy metaphor of President Obama's first month in office. It is a simile of hope, as the president intends -- but also one of vulnerability, as Obama may discover sooner than he expects.

The most repeated image of Obama's inaugural address has helped his administration get out of the gate fast, with special envoys trotting the globe and secret correspondence flying between the White House and the Kremlin about an introductory mini-summit in April. The president's metaphor-makers have earned their keep.

But Obama is launching his ambitious effort to lead the world with sweet reason as the foundations of the American economy seem to crumble. This increases the danger that the president's offer to cooperate with former adversaries will be seen or portrayed as a sign of weakness. (If mere Republican members of Congress slap Obama's extended hand, imagine what Kim Jong Il or Vladimir Putin might do.) Obama must carefully manage the paradox of power and penury he has inherited.

The fact that the twin economic and financial crises are global in nature could work in his favor. Almost every other major power is in worse shape than the United States. That is certainly the case for Russia, Iran and Egypt -- the countries at the top of the president's clenched-fist list.

It could even help with still-growing China, which so far does not seek to exploit U.S. market woes. Instead, China holds its breath and continues to underwrite economic cooperation with purchases of U.S. Treasury bills and private investments.

Obama in his first month has made clear his style in foreign policy: He plays the hand he wishes he had rather than the one he was dealt. He relies on skill -- and a determined optimism that he believes will help shape the outcome -- to make up for low cards.

Russia provides the clearest example. Obama has chosen to put high priority and a positive cast on U.S.-Russian relations in intensifying private contacts with President Dmitry Medvedev, who telephoned Obama less than a week after the inauguration to say that two "young, new presidents" should be able to work together. Medvedev followed up with an effusive eight-page letter and a second substantive telephone call, according to several senior officials here and abroad.

Obama responded with a less chatty missive that listed opportunities -- i.e., hot spots and conflict zones -- for U.S.-Russian cooperation, including the Middle East, Iran and nuclear weapons reductions. These previously undisclosed communications were the foundation for Vice President Biden's Feb. 7 offer in Munich to "press the reset button" with Russia.

The White House and the Kremlin are working to arrange a bilateral presidential meeting on the sidelines at the Group of 20 economic summit on April 2 in London. Another possibility is to get the two leaders together later that week in the context of the NATO summit in Strasbourg, France.

Obama's chances for detente with Moscow may well have been improved by the 20 percent plunge in Russian industrial output in January and the 30 percent fall in the value of the ruble over the past six months. This is not -- as Voltaire said on his deathbed when a priest urged him to renounce Satan -- the time to be making enemies.

But Medvedev still takes orders from Putin, who fiercely nurtures grudges and may carry on trying to convince the world that "Russia is back," economic and demographic facts to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is a vaguely schizophrenic quality to Russian diplomacy now. Moscow cynically bribes Kyrgyzstan to push the United States out of Manas Air Base while eagerly offering overland transit through Russia for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. This suggests that even if Medvedev goes for detente, he may not be able to deliver it.

Putin is better at obstruction than cooperation. Even if the Russians develop a strategy to reciprocate Obama's extended-hand diplomacy, they may not be able to implement it. The same is true in spades for Iran's competing power centers and North Korea's hermit leadership.

Obama is right to reach out in a new spirit of openness. But he must prepare to cope with the dangers of success, as well as of failure. He will spark misgivings and apprehensions among European and Arab allies if he gets too close to nations that still threaten them. And he will, of course, reap their scorn if the fist remains clenched.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company