Belmont Club

Stratfor on Obama's diplomatic 'reset' buttons

Stratfor says that never has a incoming administration been talking to so many people. But it adds that what is important isn’t the the volume of talk, but what is being said. In that regard, it’s easier to figure out what foreign governments want than what BHO will agree to. Here’s what they want, in a nutshell. The question is what will Washington agree to give them. Some of the desires are mutually contradictory. Stratfor notes that Obama is mostly dealing with enemies. Only in Europe is it dealing with Allies. One would have thought that America could also see itself as dealing with Allies in the Middle East.  What’s really interesting about Stratfor’s analysis is the degree to which the Obama administration may have let America’s rivals dictate the frame of reference of the problem. By seeing things in terms of how much to give the enemy, we minimize the shadow question: what do we want to happen?

Russia, according to Stratfor, wants to be accorded the status of a near-great power.

The Russians are pushing for a grand deal that guarantees a rollback of NATO expansion to Georgia and Ukraine, scraps plans for U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD), maintains some semblance of Russian nuclear parity in post-Cold War treaties, and ensures Western noninterference in a region that runs from the Baltics down through Eastern Europe and across the Caucasus and Central Asia — what Russia views as its rightful sphere of influence. Only then can Russia feel secure from the West, and confident it will remain a major player in Eurasia in the long run. In return, the Russians theoretically could make life easier for the Americans by cooperating with Washington against Iran and increasing support for U.S. operations in Afghanistan through the expansion of an alternate supply route — two key issues that address the most pressing threats to U.S. national security interests in the near term, but which may not be entirely worth the strategic concessions Moscow is demanding of Washington.

Europe is looking for protection before venturing further afield. Here is where a tradeoff with Russian desires may be necessary.

Before taking any further steps in Afghanistan, the Europeans, including those Central and Eastern Europeans who mostly take a hard-line stance against Moscow, first want to know how Obama intends to deal with the Russians. Even with the Poles going one way in trying to boost NATO security and the Germans going the other in trying to bargain with Russia, none of the European states can really move until U.S. policy toward Russia comes into focus. The last thing the Poles would want to do is to take an unflinching stance against Moscow only to have the United States cancel BMD plans, for example.

Iran wants its share of Iraq and recognition as a major player.

Iran knows that even with the United States drawing down from Iraq, Washington will still maintain a strategic agreement with Baghdad that could be used as a launchpad for U.S. designs in the region as it works to protect Sunni Arabs from Iranian expansionist goals. At the same time, Washington has come to realize that its influence in Baghdad will have to be shared with the Iranians given their geographic proximity and clout among large segments of the Iraqi Shia.

Taliban — they are licking their chops.

Talk of reconciliation with the Taliban from a U.S. position of weakness raises the question of how the United States can actually parse out those Taliban members who can be reconciled. It also raises the question of whether those members will be willing to put their personal security on the line by accepting an offer to start talks when the United States itself is admitting it is on the losing side of the war.

Syria is waiting to be served.

The Americans want Syria to end its support for militant proxies like Hezbollah and stop interfering in Lebanese affairs. But Syrian dominance over Lebanon is non-negotiable from the Syrian point of view. Lebanon historically has been Syria’s economic, political and military outlet to the Mediterranean basin, allowing Syria to play a prominent role in the region. If Damascus is not in control of Lebanon, then Syria is poor and isolated. Even though the Americans and the Syrians are holding talks again, it is still unclear that Washington is willing to accept Syrian demands regarding Lebanon. And unless the United States is, these talks are guaranteed to remain in limbo.

Diplomatic engagement can create instability as well as enhance it. On the one hand, these initiatives could be seen as a period of consolidation after decades of US expansion. But on the other hand, they may simply be a retreat back to Fortress Singapore, along the lines of General Percival. Paying off enemies doesn’t always bring lasting peace, though providing them with stable and sustainable borders often does. The futurity of these diplomatic initiatives is what dynamics they will set in motion and whether those dynamics will be positive or negative. Stratfor says that it will be some time before these complex interactions are internalized, not only in Washington but in foreign capitals. “As is widely known, presidential transitions take time, and diplomatic engagements to feel out various positions are a natural part of the process. Tacit offers can be made, bits of negotiations will be leaked, but as long as each player questions the ability of Washington to follow through in any sort of “grand bargain,” these talks are unlikely to result in any major breakthroughs. So far, Obama has demonstrated that he can talk the diplomatic talk. The real question is whether he can walk the geopolitical walk.”

Peregruzka, anyone?

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