A Boring Reset

A Boring Reset

Obama and Medvedev put off tough decisions for the next summit. If they really want to reset relations, they’re going to have to work a lot harder at it in the coming months.

The most important results of President Barack Obama's already somewhat boring trip to Moscow may eventually prove to be in one of the summit's most boring products. Reporters doubtless read hastily through the Obama-Medvedev joint statement on arms control and possibly the statement on Afghanistan, so that they could satisfy pressure from their editors to be the first to tell the world just how many warheads the "former-cold war rivals" (note to editors: time for a new descriptive phrase) were prepared to eliminate or what help Moscow was ready to provide to Washington against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And both of these issues do matter. Ultimately, however, it is the dull and bureaucratic-sounding U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission that could make the greatest difference to U.S.-Russian relations.

U.S.-Russian discussions on arms control leading up to the summit were only preliminary. Presidents Obama and Medvedev agreed on broad parameters that set rough numbers of warheads and delivery vehicles to focus future talks, but deferred tough conversations about key differences. In fact, the range for numbers of delivery vehicles was especially wide-from five hundred to one thousand one hundred (America wants more, Russia fewer)-suggesting that the two sides remain far apart. Moreover, notwithstanding a joint statement on missile defense that President Obama sought to highlight, it is apparent that the administration was unable to move forward significantly on that issue either, winning Russian agreement only to a joint threat assessment.

Similarly, the understanding on a transit corridor through Russia to Afghanistan was important but widely expected and does not substantially alter the status quo in a visible way. Of course, Russia's willingness to allow four thousand five hundred flights per year at no charge does matter; however, outside the Pentagon, few Americans likely pay attention to how supplies reach U.S. forces in Afghanistan and the administration has done little to convey the significance of Russia's assistance within the broader array of transit routes.

What the United States and Russia really need to succeed in their relationship-no matter what the issue-is to find a new way to communicate and to organize how they handle U.S.-Russian bilateral relations within their own governments. The Bush administration was never able to do this successfully despite trying various formats, including a "Strategic Dialogue" and the so-called Camp David Checklist, which obliged cabinet-level officials to report periodically to Presidents Bush and Putin on their progress in key areas. The Clinton administration also struggled with this problem; its Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, pairing the vice president with Russia's prime minister, was often criticized for prioritizing meaningless "deliverables" for public consumption over substance.

Hopefully, the new U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission will be more successful-but it won't be easy. The administration clearly wanted to create a new structure and was advised to do so by a broad range of nonpartisan commissions, including the Hart-Hagel Commission on U.S. policy toward Russia. Whether or not the Obama team got it right will depend heavily on whether the commission is "presidential" in fact or in name only.

The central challenge is the fact that the American and Russian governments and the personalities within them don't mesh together well. A new iteration of the Gore-Chernomyrdin process won't work; Vladimir Putin has already said that he does not see himself as Russia's vice president. Nor is it clear that Mr. Biden would eagerly welcome being closely identified with Putin, especially after the way that Republicans attacked Gore over his Russia connection in the 2000 presidential campaign.

Similarly, the American and Russian national security advisors don't fit together well because Moscow's Security Council does not have the interagency coordinating role that the famed National Security Act of 1947 gave to America's National Security Council.

What the Obama administration-and the Kremlin-chose to do is to establish a commission nominally co-chaired by the two presidents and coordinated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Both are highly regarded by many in their own countries, but Russia's Foreign Ministry suffers from a weak position in Moscow's Byzantine and opaque decision-making processes. Notwithstanding the Russian foreign minister's personal reputation, it is unclear what authority he will have to press the Russian leaders of the commission's "working groups" to work cooperatively with their American counterparts. Especially since about two-thirds of those officials report to Prime Minister Putin and not to Medvedev, who is widely viewed as less influential anyway.

For her part, Secretary Clinton has her own national political constituency and holds the American cabinet's most senior post. Despite this, she is likely to face many of the same challenges as Mr. Lavrov in encouraging disparate elements of the U.S. government's bureaucratic machinery to engage constructively with Russia.

Moreover, working groups directly addressing military and security issues are tellingly absent from the commission. This may well be a plus-it avoids the fiction that the Russian Foreign Ministry or the State Department can "coordinate" the work of powerful security institutions in either country. But it also means that some other mechanism will be required to integrate their discussions into wider bilateral talks.

All of this means that the success of the model that the United States and Russia have established for dialogue-like the Bush-Putin checklist approach-will in the end lay predominantly with Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev themselves. How much time is Obama willing to spend on Russia, given the many other challenges he faces? Will Obama and Medvedev establish meaningful accountability for officials who don't "get with the program"? Will Medevedev actually be able to deliver when he makes a commitment? The answers to these questions will determine whether arms control, cooperation on Afghanistan, or anything else in U.S.-Russian relations really works-or whether it doesn't.


Paul J. Saunders, Executive Director of The Nixon Center, is the associate publisher of The National Interest.