Hollande and Putin vs. Obama

The White House should expect challenges from the newly elected presidents of France and Russia.

The election of François Hollande as president of France on Sunday and the inauguration of Vladimir Putin as Russia’s “new-old” president on Monday present the Obama administration with new foreign-policy headaches. While neither calls for sharp or drastic changes in relations with the United States, the replacement of two leaders who were inclined to do favors for Washington with two new chief executives who will be more skeptical of America’s assurances means that the Obama administration will lose some maneuvering room in the months ahead. As Peter Feaver has noted, “[Nicolas] Sarkozy was the indispensable key figure in two of the more prominent policies that Obama officials tout as ‘successes’”—meaning sanctions on Iran and the Libya operation. Dmitri Medvedev’s support was also essential in getting stricter sanctions passed and in Russia’s decision to abstain on the Libya UN resolution.

While it is now popular to assert that Medvedev was nothing more than a puppet in the hands of prime minister Vladimir Putin these past four years—and therefore the more conciliatory policy pursued by Medvedev towards the United States was in fact Putin’s own—I do not entirely agree. While it is true that Medvedev could not have undertaken policy initiatives in open defiance of Putin, this does not mean that the two men (and their advisors) were in lockstep agreement on every policy issue. My read is that Putin was willing to let Medvedev try “his way”—especially in terms of developing a close relationship with Barack Obama—to see if there could be substantive improvement in U.S.-Russia relations. Despite Putin’s own skepticism, Medvedev proffered a number of Russian concessions; he approved, for instance, tighter sanctions on Iran and cancelled the sale of the S-300 air-defense system that, if installed, would make an Israeli or U.S. airstrike on the Iranian nuclear program much more problematic.

Certain elements of the reset have indeed taken off—notably the Northern Distribution Network, which supplies the NATO mission in Afghanistan. But many of the issues that bedeviled U.S.-Russia relations during Putin’s last term in office, and especially the question of missile defense, remain unsolved and on the table. Putin returns to office with his skepticism intact about the degree to which partnership with the United States under current circumstances can be pursued. He will not interrupt those areas where mutually beneficial cooperation has developed, but his attitude toward Washington will be “cash on the barrelhead”—in other words, in those areas where America wants Russian support, it will have to show up front that Moscow can expect benefits. Moreover, Putin, lacking any meaningful personal relationship with the president, is far less likely to give Obama any breaks.

The same might be said of Hollande. Sarkozy, popularly referred to as “Sarko the American,” made improving Franco-American relations a priority. Hollande may step back from Sarkozy’s cultivation of closer ties with Washington. During the campaign, for instance, he was critical of Sarkozy’s decision to return France to the integrated military-command structure within NATO, a decision he said he would reassess. Sarkozy himself tended to chart a more independent and personal course in foreign policy, leading him to align himself more with the United States. Hollande is likely to return to what some analysts refer to as a more “collective” approach to French foreign policy, making it less likely that he would instinctively defy French conventional wisdom to line up with Washington.

Hollande has also pledged to withdraw French troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012—two years before the proposed NATO handover to Afghan security forces—a decision that, if implemented, will put greater strain on the United States. Some are concerned that a President Hollande may be more inclined to compromise on the Iran issue—and so much will depend on whether or not former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, who has expressed support for a strong, hard-line policy against Iran for its nuclear transgressions, ends up as foreign minister in a socialist government.

U.S. officials are going to find greater skepticism in both Paris and Moscow in the months ahead, with less incentives to give Obama the compromises he might need. The harsh Russian reaction to proposed missile-defense plans, with incendiary rhetoric from Moscow about preemptive strikes on proposed missile-defense sites, seems to indicate that Obama’s request to outgoing president Medvedev for “space” on this issue fell on deaf ears.

Obama is scheduled to meet with both Putin and Hollande soon—and he’ll have an opportunity to make the case for why they should continue the foreign policies of their predecessors and retain good working relations with Washington. But given the perceived pro-Sarkozy and pro-Medvedev “tilt” of the administration, it may be a challenge to persuade Hollande and Putin to start with a clean slate.

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