Obama's Expensive Dinner at Prague Castle

06/06/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Robert Amsterdam International lawyer on emerging markets, politics of business, and rule of law

What a difference a month makes: it seems hard to remember just how embattled, undecided, and ineffectual the Barack Obama administration looked just a month ago before the passage of the laborious health care bill. Now brimming with the confidence of a master backroom kingmaker, President Obama sets off for Prague this week to sign a historic nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia to replace the expired START-1 agreement of 1991. Behind all the euphoric handshakes, however, we have chosen to forget certain inconvenient aspects of Washington's "reset" policy with Russia.

Otto von Bismarck did say it best when he remarked that "a good treaty with Russia" is the secret to successful politics, and certainly the aims and ambition behind the Prague Treaty are highly desirable. Coming almost exactly a year to the date of Obama's ambitious speech in the Czech capital outlining a vision of nuclear-free world, and just two days after publishing the Nuclear Posture Review, the treaty calls for a reduction by one-third of each country's nuclear arsenal down to 1,550 deployed warheads and the re-establishment of a monitoring and verification regime.

Though symbolically important as a trust building measure, this modest treaty represents a watered-down version of what was envisioned a year ago, and poses other concerns with regard to political implications outside the security and nuclear area of the U.S.-Russia relationship.

As recently argued by Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the replacement of the START treaty was originally considered an item of "low hanging fruit" for the Obama administration. It was hoped that this treaty would be the first big foreign policy victory for the president to celebrate as far back as the summer of 2009, and proof that the reset policy was working.

Instead, what has happened is that the Kremlin sensed an opportunity for leverage against the diplomatic newcomer, and attached a variety of "linkage" issues to the signing of a new START treaty, such as pushing back against U.S. plans to deploy anti-ballistic missile shield sites in Poland and the Czech Republic (which were scrapped last September in a failed bid to encourage Russian cooperation on Iran).

Obama is also much less likely to ruin the party with any statements condemning the rampant human rights abuses and authoritarian excesses of the Russian government, and the fact that Russia is able to make bargains for such silence within nuclear negotiations is a worrying development. As such, when President Dmitry Medvedev puts ink to paper on Thursday, it will be understood that rule of law and democracy are off the table for the time being.

In reality, Russia needs and wants a new START treaty just as much if not more than the Americans want it - and Obama may have inadvertently paid a higher political cost than was necessary to achieve it. The considerable spending associated with maintaining Russia's large and outdated stockpile of nuclear weapons is unsustainable for a military suffering from extreme shortages in infrastructure, equipment, and training, while the war with Georgia revealed a plethora of new military needs and priorities for the defense budget. Russia would probably end up with a lower number of deployed warheads even if the new START treaty had not been signed.

The fact that the Czech Republic has also been chosen as the location for the signing of the treaty carries great significance, as well as the dinner Obama has scheduled with key Central European leaders. The U.S. president will use the opportunity to attempt to bolster ties and seek to defuse worries that the Czechs and other new NATO members have been surrendered to Russian interests. Does this new treaty, which has involved a softening on the missile shield issue, imply that the United States can be pressured into a military withdrawal from Europe? By signing the pact, is Washington recognizing a new Russian sphere of influence?

The answers to these questions is "no," but in reassuring Central Europe, Obama will have to provide a lot more details. For those with longer memories of the Prague Spring and the fearsome sounds of Soviet tanks crushing down the city's cobblestone streets, Obama's willingness to embrace the Kremlin leadership and reset the relationship signals an existential threat to Central and Eastern European sovereignty. Last summer former Czech President Vaclav Havel and others signed a letter to the American president urgently requesting an affirmation of American support for the region, and warning of Russian intentions. One Czech Ambassador, who expects Obama to face a number of these questions during the dinner, has commented that "Just because you push the reset button doesn't mean you lose your memory. And who better to address such concerns than Obama himself?"

Perhaps frightened by the example made out of Georgia, there are some in the Czech Republic who prefer to cast their lot in with Vladimir Putin, such as Lubomir Zaoralek, the potential next foreign minister of the Czech Social Democratic Party (CSSD). Zaoralek has received much criticism from political opponents for his rejection of the Havel letter to Obama and other anti-American statements, however the lack of clarity of NATO's role in the Central European security structure has made such dangerous positions politically rewarding to the opportunists. With an election soon approaching and the possibility of a CSSD coalition government with the Communists not out of the question, Obama will have to keep in mind who he will be dealing with.

Central Europe has long been a place where empires from the East and West have come to settle their differences, and it will be very important for the U.S. president to use this trip to help unify Eastern and Western Europe against Moscow's efforts to sow divisions. A stable, independent, and democratic Europe is a vital aspect of U.S. security interests, and one that should not be discounted in the deal making with Moscow. Or as two policy experts have recently written in the International Herald Tribune, "Viewed from a broader geopolitical perspective, there is no higher-yield strategic investment the United States can make in Europe today than to aid in the cementing of bonds between the E.U.'s core members and those on its exposed eastern shoulder."

But ultimately for Obama the Prague Treaty is not about Europe, NATO, spheres of influence, or rule of law and human rights in Russia - nor is it necessarily all about mutual reductions in Russian and American stockpiles. It is a Bismarckian moment for Obama to capitalize upon this momentum of international credibility just weeks before the massive review conference of Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, bringing together 44 heads of state (including China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and others) in the largest international political summit in the past 50 years. Obama will certainly be happy to walk in the door after just having signed an agreement with Russia, together controlling more than 85% of the world's nuclear arms, but he will have to remember not to sell the whole farm in pursuit of unlikely dreams.