by: Chris Eyre
President Obama arrived on the scene with amazing expectations. He looked and sounded like a return to the heady days when we had US presidents who we looked up to, and an America which we were happy to think of as leading the Western World, especially Western Europe. All the resonances were with John F. Kennedy, days when the States were our friend and protector against the Soviet Union and a shining light of social-democratic leaning responsible government.
Of course, the expectations were far too high; he had an economic situation not seen since the 30s to deal with at home, and the geopolitical problems had changed dramatically. Any hopes we had that he’d wave a magic wand and fix the world economy were fantasy to start with, but some of the gloss has gone with the realisation that that’s the case. We hoped he’d move rapidly to end involvement in Iraq, and that seems to be happening; we hoped he’d have solutions to involvement in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t. We hoped he’d stop the sabre rattling about Iran, threatening to precipitate yet another Middle-Eastern war, and there’s too much doubt still about where his intentions are in that respect. He’s still fairly glossy.
His opposite number in the talks is Vladimir Putin. No-one here seriously thinks the change of president in Russia produced any change in real leadership. Russia faded fast in the European consciousness as a threat in the 90s and still doesn’t look like an imminent military threat, but has managed to position itself as a commercial bandit of epic proportions. European money flooded in to the opportunity of reconstructing Russia, and we got cheap gas and decent returns for a while – and then found the pipelines being turned off to exert political pressure and control of joint ventures being appropriated by the Russian partners, apparently with state backing. Actual commerce in Russia was bedevilled by corruption controlled by criminal gangs, and on the whole it appeared that the government, i.e. Putin, was entirely happy for this to happen and to give it a gentle helping hand.
At least they’re not talking about forward missile defences in the eastward expansion of Western Europe via the raft of former Warsaw Pact nations which are now part of Europe. What we’d actually do if Russian tanks started appearing over the Polish and Baltics borders again is very unclear (absent US assistance, we don’t have the level of military force to resist this, nor the coordination of forces, nor the will to build those up), but we don’t seem to have major concerns over that; it’s agreeable not to have the States disturbing the situation and making us think about the possibility.
Reduction in nuclear arsenals is always a good thing. The trouble is, it’s not a matter of central concern any more. Everyone knows it will never reach the point of either side being unable to do totally unacceptable damage if sufficiently provoked, and the genie is out of the bottle as far as the possibility of limiting ownership of nuclear weapons to a relatively few supposedly reliable nations is concerned.
And so to Iran. Yet another unstable and untrustworthy regime with nuclear capability isn’t an attractive prospect, but what can actually be done to stop it, and is it actually worth the cost? Do we really think the Iranian regime is going to be mad and bad enough to nuke Israel and provoke potentially awful retribution? No, in truth. But then, if that were to happen, would we actually want to commit to an awful retribution either? Probably not. Europe does not have a significant geopolitical stake in the survival of Israel, and it does have a significant geopolitical stake in Iranian oil. It’s difficult to see what US-Russian cooperation on that issue is going to achieve; probably not military threat (which would be a bad thing) as we still don’t see Obama as being hawkish; possibly diplomatic and commercial cooperation, which would be a good thing if it resulted in more stability for trade as well as less danger of being a flashpoint.
The issue of most concern is trade. We’ve had major difficulties with Russia, and along comes Obama with a much bigger stick in his hand to encourage good behaviour and talks of very large amounts of US investment. This could be the last straw for European investment in Russia; we’ve already suffered from what amounts to stealth nationalisation of some of what we’ve invested, and could readily be replaced by American capital with better protection. One possible saving grace is that the leopard doesn’t change his spots, and the new investment may be as precarious as ours has proved to be. The other and better one is that Russia may end up forced to adopt fair commercial practice towards everyone, and then we have a possible head start. We’re going to be watching what happens in those areas with huge interest.
Is Putin going to stop being cold warrior redux, as Obama would like, and foster a new and close relationship between the States and Russia? We might actually not be very happy about that prospect; both are militarily much stronger than Europe is, and both have huge commercial power. The thought of getting stuck between two cooperating giants is not an attractive one – much better to be between to competing ones. That said, on the international stage, having that amount of power behind attempts to resolve problems elsewhere in the world would be attractive.
It probably isn’t going to happen easily. Russia is suffering from “loss of empire” withdrawal, and would very much like to return to being one of two, but the States is never again likely to see Russia in that mould, perhaps even less so than Europe is. There are huge political differences, huge differences in the economies and a massive history of distrust. We can probably sleep easy.
It would have been nice to think that the leader of the Free World was there to represent us as well, just a bit. But that isn’t the case; he overflew us on the way there and again on the way back. We aren’t really involved.