How many ‘endings’ have there been to the Cold War? There was the symbolic fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 and perhaps almost as significantly as those 20-year-old events, 2010’s Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
This new agreement between US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev may be a replacement of an old treaty but it brings with it an unprecedented landmark in international politics: the reduction of US and Russian nuclear warhead stocks by a third.
Some observers are more than a little surprised, given that just three years ago, former Russian President Vladimir Putin criticised the US for monopolising global relations and “an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations.”
Perhaps with this week’s news, Obama has finally sealed the envelope on the cold war. It may also signify a distance between the foreign policy of Barack Obama and that of George W. Bush. Above all, to the naked eye at least, it appears to set a powerful example to the world.
Let’s look at the positive first: Obama and Medvedev have turned the political hypocrisy dial down, just by a notch. Obviously they’ll still have about 1,500+ nukes each which is probably enough to blow up the world a few thousand times. In fact, scratch that – together they could turn an entire galaxy into dust. But it will give both nations some leverage in criticising any nuclear ambitions Iran might have. As the treaty’s acronym ironically states, it’s a start.
Another positive factor is that the US and Russia might stop vetoing each other in the UN Security Council. It might help the UN increase its multilateral weight and perhaps with Iran there won’t be another Iraq. Perhaps Obama will use negotiation and soft power rather than the hard power, shoot first and ask questions later stance, of Bush. Perhaps the most powerful nations might start listening to each other, let alone the UN.
Nuclear weapons are not just a phenomenal military offensive, but they’re the best defence. If Iraq had possessed them, Saddam Hussein wouldn’t have faced invasion because he would have held too much power. Obama and Medvedev know that nuclear warheads are the ultimate bargaining chip.
Think of it like a game of poker, the more you have the stronger you are. Finally Russia and America might look upon each other more equally than before.
But of course, let’s not get swept away by idealism here. There are ulterior motives, as in any political deal. Take Russia first of all. On the face of things they have more to lose – currently possessing 2,600 nuclear warheads next to the 2,126 Obama’s administration holds.
But here’s the truth of the matter: Russia’s nuclear arsenal is set to reduce drastically over the next few years anyway due to ageing. Thus it is significantly in their interest to persuade America to reduce theirs.
It’s no surprise then that Putin was one of the men in the background pushing this deal. It grants Russia a much greater sense of political weight in the international arena.
What does Obama get out of it? A lot. His electoral popularity has been waning considerably due to criticisms of not being pro-active enough. This is his first major foreign policy achievement. Not only is it huge on a symbolic level, it comes across as the opposite of George W. Bush and reflects Obama’s newfound Nobel peace prize-winning credentials.
It will now be considered harsh to blame Obama for doing little (Though people seem to have forgotten his Presidency has been somewhat strangled by the recession and the pressure of cleaning up the mess left behind by his predecessor).
In one week, to have put through a health care bill that extends coverage to 30 million Americans and signed a treaty reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world sends out a very powerful and positive message.
Of course Obama has played the game of self-interest in this but that’s the definition of international politics. Ignore that and you will end up being walked over and potentially unelectable. Bush knew that and was re-elected. Obama knows it too but at least he’s done it with a social conscience and not as Putin put it, with reckless dominance.