Rupert Cornwell: Time for the US to level with Russia

Share
Related Topics

The US lame-duck Congress on Monday reassembles for its final session. The most important thing it must do is ratify the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start), signed in Prague last April by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, cutting the US and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals. If not now, it may be never – and the consequences could be dire.

But why the fuss, it will be asked? The Cold War is long since over, the two countries are no longer locked in an ideological and military battle for global supremacy. And the new treaty doesn't even impose very dramatic reductions; can't it wait? The answer is, no.

Right now, the required two-thirds majority of 67 votes is just about there in the outgoing Senate, where Democrats have a 59-41 advantage. Come January, when a Tea Party-driven Republican Party takes control of the House and adds six seats to its strength in the Senate, that will no longer be the case. Conservatives will be in the ascendancy, making the familiar, overblown argument that the treaty sells US national security down the river.

Ratification, they and indeed some liberals here will add, would also signify tacit US acceptance of the growing authoritarianism and general lawlessness of the Russian government (as in the brutal and unpunished attacks against journalists whose work displeases those in power, and the farcical retrial – or rather show trial – of the former oligarch Mikhail Khordokovsky).

Right on cue, that old neo-con warhorse John Bolton popped up in The New York Times yesterday, claiming that the new treaty was a sell-out on missile defence, and would gravely weaken the American "nuclear umbrella" that underpins international security. Congress, he argued, should have nothing to do with it. But such arguments do not hold water.

First and foremost, for the US to shelve this treaty would send – not for the first time – a message about the hypocrisy of Washington's efforts to halt the spread of nuclear weapons, above all, of course, to Iran. The fragile edifice of non-proliferation rests on a bargain between the nuclear and non-nuclear powers. The former will not try to acquire nuclear weapons if the former reduce, and ultimately eliminate, their own arsenals. If Start is not ratified, the US will yet again stand guilty of telling the world: "Do as I say, not as I do".

As for pulling the rug from under US security, the treaty stipulates that after seven years neither side will be allowed to deploy more than 1,550 strategic warheads, or 700 launchers. In fact, the actual changes, thanks to past reductions and abstruse counting rules, will be relatively small. But the treaty reinstates an important inspection regime, and improves the climate for bigger cuts in the future.

Senate inaction (or, worse still, rejection of the treaty) could also have an impact on Russian internal politics – and one that would slow down progress on what human rights advocates here and everywhere desire: the transformation of Russia into a modern, law-governed state.

Right now, Moscow is consumed by a single question: who will be the establishment candidate in the 2012 presidential elections? Will it be the conservative former president Vladimir Putin, or his hand-picked successor, Dmitri Medvedev? It may of course already be a done deal, and Putin, ever the organ-grinder to Medvedev's monkey, has stitched up victory in advance.

But the current fierce jockeying within the Kremlin suggests otherwise. If so, then the 2012 election is shaping up as another instalment of the age-old struggle for Russia between Westernisers and Slavophiles.

In that case, the US and its allies are surely rooting for Medvedev who, however imperfectly, appears to represent modernising and Westernising forces within Russia, and who offers the best hope of improvement on the human rights front. Medvedev also has been the prime mover on the Russian side in efforts to "re-set" relations between Washington and Moscow, after the deep chill of the later Bush years. He happens, too, to be one of few foreign leaders with whom Obama has established genuinely close personal ties. Not to ratify Start would merely play into the hands of the Putin camp, and conservative nationalists who still smart at defeat in the Cold War and see a plot in every foreigner. As ever, they claim, the US wants to impose its will on Russia, and Congressional inaction on the treaty will be presented as further proof of that. The worst thing the US could do now is give a helping hand to an old guard seeking to turn the clock back. If the lame-duck Congress lets Start rot, it will do precisely that.

Obama won't find salvation in Asia

It's an old saw of US politics that when the going gets rough at home, a president heads for foreign parts. Richard Nixon sought refuge from Watergate in Soviet summitry, Bill Clinton went peacemaking in Ireland amid the Monica Lewinsky scandal. And now there is Barack Obama's trip to Asia, in the aftermath of his crushing midterm election setback.

The habit makes perfect sense. So often we forget that for all the might of his office, an American president's domestic power is limited – certainly in comparison to his French counterpart or a British prime minister. Foreign policy is where he has a pretty free hand.

But it's not exactly plain sailing for Obama abroad, either. The hopes inspired by his 2008 election, and the premature award of the Nobel Peace Prize a year later, have faded. He's been well received in India, and in Indonesia where he spent four years of his childhood. But in Seoul at the G20 he is walking into a currency war in which the US is widely perceived as villain. Maybe he should have stayed at home after all.

r.cornwell@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Rohingya migrants in a boat adrift in the Andaman Sea last week  

Burma will regret shutting its eyes to the fate of the Rohingya boat people

Peter Popham
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor