Obama, Romney, And The Reset

Latest contribution to the US-Russia.org Expert Discussion Panel on the question of which US Presidential candidate is best able to meet the challenges ahead:

When predicting election outcomes, I prefer to listen to those who put their money where their mouths are. As of the time of writing, the Intrade predictions market gives a 66% implied probability of an Obama win. The major betting websites are even more optimistic about Obama’s chances, with most of them giving him implied odds of about 80%. He is even considered more likely than not to win the popular vote, though because of the peculiarities of the US electoral system, it is also quite possible for him to lose the popular vote but still win the Presidency (about a 25% chance of this, according to Intrade). I will now most likely lose the symbolic $10 I placed on a Republican candidate win back in May 2010, when a sharp but unsustainable spike in favor of Obama accruing from Osama bin Laden’s assassination created very good odds for the contrarian gambler. Still, I don’t regret the investment. Always bet against your preferred candidate – that way, you will never be wholly disappointed.

We know that Obama is phlegmatic on the ill-thought out Magnitsky Act, and is likewise lukewarm about missile defense in East-Central Europe – to the extent that he pledged “more flexibility” on this issue to Medvedev in an unfortunate open mic moment that the Republicans later spun for all it was worth. (The Poles seem to have come to terms with this, and are now preparing to spend $4 billion of their own money to modernize their AA systems in the next decade). This is probably driven not so much by a desire to enlist Russia as an ally, as to give the US room to deal with the more pressing issues that will dominate Obama’s second term: The withdrawal from Afghanistan; the military pivot to Asia; a sluggish economy plagued by chronically high budget deficits; the accelerating climate crisis. Another alternative is that Obama’s people take seriously the CIA/Stratfor theory, hinted at by Biden in 2009, that Russia’s “shrinking population base” will nullify it as a Great Power in a couple of decades; hence, it is no longer worth aggressively confronting it as natural trends will doom it to eventual irrelevance anyway. But whatever the true motivations, we can reasonably expect the Reset to survive under a new Obama Presidency.

The GOP position is rather less compromising:

… we urge the leaders of their [Russia] to reconsider the path they have been following: suppression of opposition parties, the press, and institutions of civil society; unprovoked invasion of the Republic of Georgia, alignment with tyrants in the Middle East; and bullying their neighbors while protecting the last Stalinist regime in Belarus. The Russian people deserve better, as we look to their full participation in the ranks of modern democracies.

Needless to say, the only part of “the Russian people” who would look on these urgings with sympathy are the small gaggle of pro-Western liberals like Lilia Shevtsova (who brought this to my attention). They slavishly side with America against their own country on every issue they disagree on, so long as it helps undermine Putin. While she is right that such policies would “send a strong signal of support to Russian liberals that America does care about the values and principles it preaches”, it would also likewise alienate not only the Russian government but ordinary Russians too (41% of whom prefer Obama to 8% for Romney in a recent Levada poll). Coupled with his equally confrontational attitudes to China, and the aggressive neocon foreign policy advisers he has surrounded himself with, Romney would appear to be dead-set on provoking into existence that nightmare of Cold War planners – a Russian-Chinese alliance. This would be first and foremost a disaster for America itself.

Then again, as many have already pointed out, Romney is a flip flopper, and his bellicose rhetoric may well dissipate should he somehow find himself in the White House. Though Romney might describe Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe”, that did not prevent his son Matt from recently flying to the evil empire to promote his real-estate company and purportedly assure influential Kremlin advisers that his dad does want good relations between their two countries. If money and the practical exigencies of Presidential office trump his campaign rhetoric, there is good reason to hope that the Reset can survive even under a Romney Presidency.

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