The reviews of President Barack Obama‘s Moscow trip are in – and they are distinctly lukewarm.
Those who see a lack of breakthroughs at the summit point out that the two sides did not resolve the most difficult issues in the relationship, in particular US plans to install components of a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic and possible Nato membership for Ukraine and Georgia. The Kremlin objects to both vehemently.
But these issues were never going to be resolved at the summit – and for good reason.
The notion that they could have been rests on the assumption that the United States can "do deals" with Russia on major foreign policy priorities. In this case, the Obama administration supposedly should have been able to negotiate a "grand bargain" with the Russians, whereby, for example, it would agree to soft-pedal Nato membership for Ukraine and Georgia, and in return Moscow would put pressure on Iran to get back to the negotiating table.
This assumption is false. The US does not engage in grand bargains or quid-pro-quos. Issues like missile defence and Nato enlargement are decided on their merits. Further, such unwritten back-room deals would undercut the transparency we expect from our government.
The administration’s ongoing comprehensive review of missile defence – not a deal with Moscow – will decide the fate of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. Other states’ positions on the issue can be taken into account, and, as Obama made clear in his meetings with the Russian leadership, they will be. But a determination of what sort of missile defence is in the US national interest will ultimately guide the decision.
The criteria for enlarging Nato to include Ukraine and Georgia also do not include a deal between the US and Russia. Instead, the primary factor is the readiness of these states for membership – their militaries’ level of modernisation, the maturity of their democratic institutions and their success in implementing other reforms necessary to meet Nato’s requirements. If and when Ukraine and Georgia meet all the criteria (which neither do at present), then it is a decision for all members of the alliance as to whether to accept them. The US is not in a position to determine the outcome of this process on its own.
In short, even if the US were to engage in horse-trading with the Russians, it does not have horses to offer when it comes to missile defence in eastern Europe and Nato enlargement. The administration cannot doctor the outcome of its review of missile defence in order to gain a concession from the Russians. Neither can it pre-emptively deny Ukraine and Georgia’s Nato membership perspectives.
So expecting a resolution of these disputes during the summit was unrealistic – they simply could not have been resolved in negotiations between the US and Russia.
But there was in fact a breakthrough of a different sort at the summit: the two countries were able to acknowledge their disagreements without letting them prevent progress on issues of shared interest. In their private meetings and public appearances, Obama, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin discussed the issues on which they differ and explained their respective positions without indulging in hysterics or mutual recriminations. The dialogue between the two presidents on missile defence was so productive that it resulted in an unexpected statement calling for a joint assessment of the threats it should address.
This is quite a contrast to the Bush era, when both sides preferred bellicose rhetoric to a civil exchange of opinions. The result was an inability to work together on some of the most important issues facing the two countries and the world.
That Russia and the US were able to manage their disagreements – that is, agree to disagree on certain issues so as to be able to work together on others – was one of the most important results of the summit. If the two countries can maintain this productive atmosphere in the future, there is great potential to broaden and deepen cooperation on issues of mutual interest, such as arms control, stability in Afghanistan and nonproliferation, that began last week.