Realpolitik and Joseph Biden

For anyone in need of advanced evidence of how disorganized America’s foreign policy towards Russia will likely be over the coming years, there is this priceless gem about former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s recent trips to Moscow at the request of the Obama administration as an unlikely envoy in nuclear non-proliferation talks. As National Security Advisor to President Nixon, of course, it was Kissinger’s advocacy of détente that helped relax U.S./Soviet relations – but in more recent times, these Cold War visions of Russia have taken on a distorted sense of false realism (at least right up until the war with Georgia, when Mr. Kissinger suddenly went on radio silence).

The irony of the two nations’ post-Cold War quagmire is that realpolitk is again very much in vogue.  No matter how many human rights atrocities make the news out of Moscow this year (already people are forgetting about Markelov), the Obama administration has already made overwhelmingly clear its need for amiability in U.S./Russia relations, what with all the old nukes still floating around, the Iran question, the broadening Kyrgyzstan base imbroglio and related issue of Central Asian militarization, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that “mutually assured destruction,” the logic behind dueling arsenals, is an increasingly irrelevant relic in an era of preemptive strike capabilities and stateless nuclear terrorism.

All of which is to say, Vice President Joseph Biden’s speech tomorrow at the Munich Security Conference, which promises to clarify Obama’s Russia strategy, likely through the prism of nuclear disarmament, will probably reflect enough contradictions to keep everyone guessing.

Some clues have already surfaced: last October, in aspeechbefore the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Secretary ofDefense Robert Gates delineated his desire for a Reliable ReplacementWarheads program, in which building a new generation of allegedly saferwarheads could theoretically alter Washington’s anti-nuclear strategywith Moscow, much to some pacifists’ chagrin. “To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain acredible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpilewithout either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing amodernization program,” Gates said in the speech, causing one media outlet to suggest that Obama and the Pentagon are “pulling in different directions“. Iran plays, too: while it remains to be seen the extent to which Obama’s pledge to dialoguewith the country will impact his Russia policy, it certainly won’t makeit any simpler, especially given the recent news of Russia’s intent to start an Iranian nuclear plant in 2009.

Given all the competing interests, it’s easy to understand Russia’s cynical expectations for Biden’s speech. “It’s scarcely worthwhile to expect any practicalproposals from Washington right at the Munich conference – the onesthat would change radically the former U.S. approaches to the things ascrucial as the missile defense, control over the conventional weaponsand nuclear disarmament,” Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, who will be on the Russian delegation in Munich, told a Russian state media outlet. “Still, we expect that Joseph Biden, a manwell-versed in the art of polemics and a professional in internationalaffairs will make us understand to which degree all these hints areserious,” he said.

It will take a master of polemics just to navigate this avalanche of competing interests and expectations, not to mention that fact that, as described by Angela Stent, it is impossible to be certain that the Russians actually see any advantage in improving relations.

Photo: US Vice President Joe Biden reaches forthe milk alongside former British Prime Minister Tony Blair during theNational Prayer Breakfast at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC,February 5, 2009. (AFP/Getty Images)