On March 2, "The New York Times" reported that U.S. President Barack Obama had written to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting that reconsideration in Moscow of the extent of its support for Iran's nuclear program might result in a U.S. suspension of plans to establish a missile-defense system in Poland and a radar station in the Czech Republic. The Russian leadership rebuffed Obama's outstretched hand. Moscow, Medvedev said, would welcome discussions about missile defense, but would not link such talks to its policy toward Tehran.
Too often, new U.S. administrations assume that the reason for the failure of engagement lies more with their predecessors than with their adversaries. Obama is no different, but rushing into diplomatic initiatives, however well intentioned, can be costly.
The impact on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of Obama's proposed quid pro quo with Russia could be profound. Founded in 1949 as a collective-defense pact against the Soviet Union, NATO spanned continents and the Atlantic Ocean.
For collective defense to work, however, President Harry S Truman determined that all NATO members should enjoy equal defense. Western Europe would not simply be strategic depth for the United States, but would enjoy the same level of protection. NATO expanded over the years. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952; West Germany in 1955; and Spain in 1982. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, NATO moved eastward. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999, and Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states five years later.
Central and Eastern Europe have always been sensitive to the perception that they retain second-class status within both the European Union and NATO. As the Russian government grew more belligerent in its opposition to the radar station and antiballistic-missile base, some U.S. diplomats floated the idea of placing the facilities in older NATO members, such as Italy or the United Kingdom. Former President George W. Bush rightly opposed such a compromise in order to signal that every NATO member was equal, and that Eastern Europe was not simply strategic depth.
It was to cement this point that both Prague and Warsaw agreed to host such facilities despite sizable domestic opposition. Scrapping the European antiballistic-missile coverage altogether would, in effect, relegate first-tier missile defense to North America, which maintains its early warning radar and missile defense in Canada, Alaska, and the continental United States.
While Obama and his aides campaigned for a return to realism in foreign policy, their approach to diplomacy suggests dangerous idealism. The Obama era may have begun on January 20, but neither Moscow nor Tehran abide by the U.S. political calendar. It is not possible to simply "reboot" relations.
For Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, realism means maximizing Russian power. He does not seek good relations with the West; he seeks the resurrection of Moscow as the leader of an informal empire corresponding to the borders of the former Soviet Union. Putin appears to see Russian aid to the Iranian nuclear program as a win-win situation for Moscow. On one hand, Russian nuclear assistance to Iran has netted Rosatom, the Russian state nuclear-power agency, billions of dollars. Russian military sales -- either direct or channeled through Belarus -- are icing on the cake. On the other hand, in the unlikely event that the United States strikes Iran militarily, the price of oil will shoot up, pulling the shaky Russian economy out of recession.
Iranian officials, likewise, see the United States' back against the wall. On February 11, 2008, commemorating the 29th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced: "I officially declare that Iran has become a true and real superpower.... I say with a loud voice that the era of imperialism and [U.S.] bullying has come to an end."
In fact, the time for a deal such as the one outlined in Obama's letter to Medvedev may already have expired. On February 27, delivering the Islamic republic's official sermon, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, among the most powerful figures in Iran today and himself once a target of U.S. engagement, declared, "Even if the Russian experts don't complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iranian experts will finish the job."
Obama may see his offer to Russia as pragmatism, but gestures create precedent. U.S. allies who fear that Washington is willing to sacrifice allies for the sake of diplomatic convenience may question whether alliances remain built on today's interests only, or also on shared values and history. If, after all, Russian antagonism forces U.S. concessions over Poland and the Czech Republic, why not increase Russian belligerence in the Caucasus, Central Asia, or on the Korean Peninsula? If the Obama administration signals that Poland and the Czech Republic are on the table, why should Ukraine and Georgia not be? Why should China not expect to deal over Taiwan, or why should Iran -- another target of Obama's desire to engage -- not demand concessions on Israel?
Diplomacy should always be a strategy of first resort. But Obama should realize that diplomacy with dictatorships is not the same as diplomacy among democratic nations. If democracies can be swayed with values and incentives, altering autocrats' behavior often requires far more complex coercion, not simply idealistic letters. If Washington is to remain strong, its alliances must remain strong. The White House must learn that the best security comes from supporting allies, not cutting deals over them.