It's the middle of a big week for President Barack Obama, one in which he tries to move from reactor to actor on the world stage. He's certainly hitting the venues for it -- the Hague, Brussels, Rome -- but settings only overwhelm substance for the unwary. His lauded though lagging nuclear security initiative -- intended to rein in nuclear weapons-capable materials with an eye to ultimate nuclear abolition (the latter a romantic but unrealistic goal) -- has its latest biennial summit, largely overshadowed by the latest crisis he's wandered into, that of Ukraine and Russia. European allies, their economies more intertwined with and dependent upon Russia, haven't matched the reality of their reaction to Vladimir Putin's Crimea grab to their rhetoric despite weeks of Obama urgings.
Will Russia have to do more than it's done so far to endure any serious punishment? Despite the endless rhetoric, you bet.
Amidst all this, Obama, with his eye on his much distracted from Asia-Pacific Pivot, engages with Chinese President Xi Jinping, tries to bring squabbling allies Japan and South Korea, clinging to preferred views of the 70 years past Pacific War, together in a trilateral mini-summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, and deals with America's image problem.
He might want to think about another needed big Pivot ally, the one with an ocean to call its own. India is siding with Russia in the Ukraine crisis. As are, in one way or another, the other emerging powers of BRICS -- Brazil, China, and South Africa.
After laboring long on a tougher response to Putin's Crimea move, Obama and the other Western powers, acting as the G-7, canceled the G-8 summit set for Winter Olympics site Sochi and essentially disinvited Moscow from being part of their club, at least for now. But in response to that, the BRICS group of five major emerging economies -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- declared Monday that it opposes sanctions against Russia and urged nations to work through the UN, where Russia holds Security Council veto power, instead.
And our man in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, officially endorsed Russia's annexation of Crimea. We sure made a great choice in that buffoon. Nation-building, indeed.
Perhaps to the administration's surprise, just because India has some common cause with the US, a common cause that needs to be developed, with regard to China does not at all mean it concurs with regard to its longtime friends in Moscow.
The reality is that, with the US having engaged in dramatically expansive surveillance and drone strike programs around the world, distrust of the US is on the rise again in the world, after subsiding for awhile with the advent of Obama. Something which is a major theme in, ironically enough, the new Captain America movie, latest extravaganza in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In regard to which Obama announced Tuesday that he will end the National Security Agency's global "bulk collection" collection practices which so many find chillingly invasive. The devil's in the details, of course, but the move sounds like a belatedly responsive step in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations.
From Russia, the Obama Administration not so cleverly having delivered him into spymaster Putin's practiced hands by blocking his flight to Latin America, ex-NSA analyst Snowden called Obama's shift "a turning point." Perhaps so.
For his part, even as tough new sanctions proved evanescent, Obama worked to redefine Russia's Crimea move as not that big a deal after all. It's an action taken, he said, not out of strength but "weakness." Not that the US or the West can do anything to reverse it, mind you.
Russia, said Obama, is no threat because it is only a "regional power."
I think Obama is wise, belatedly, not to make too much of the threat from Russia. For he is accurate in saying that Russia is acting "defensively" with regard to the Ukraine crisis. After all, it was Putin who found his moment of triumph in staging the Sochi Winter Olympics without any terrorist incident and with Russia winning the medals count tainted by the coincidental coup in Kiev replacing a Russia-friendly, democratically elected president with a pro-Western interim government whose first move (later reversed) was to abolish Russian as one of Ukraine's two official languages.
The fact is, as I've written right along, the Obama Administration should not have been surprised that Putin reacted so aggressively. He had, after notoriously lectured Obama about Ukraine and America's support for NATO expansion to Russia's borders in their long meeting during the 2009 Moscow summit.
But Obama was churlish in denigrating Russia's stature as merely that of a regional power.
Russia is not a superpower, nor do I expect it to become one again in the future. Unless the US bollixes things up, that is, which I suppose is possible. But Russia is clearly back on stage as a world power.
It was Putin, after all, who provided Obama with the path forward on Syria after the president, to the shock of many Americans, nearly steered the US into the middle of the Syrian civil war. And Russia is clearly a power player not only in the Middle East but also in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Central Asia, and key parts of the Asia Pacific, from Vietnam to India. And in outer space, as well.
The reality is that the US space program is heavily dependent on Russia. Not only for the International Space Station -- since the only way today to send anyone into space is via a Russian rocket launched from their longtime Baikonur space complex in Kazakhstan (which I once searched for on a backpacking trip) -- but for some other launch purposes.
Then, of course, there is the global program which is the actual cause of this week's Obama trip, Obama's initiative to reduce nuclear weapons. Russia, as the world's other major power in nuclear weapons, has been and continues to be, even amidst the Ukraine crisis, America's key partner in this.
Obama laid out the aims of his initiative in an April 2009 speech in Prague, one of a series of major addresses which helped win him that year's Nobel Peace Prize. A year later, he returned to Prague to unveil his nuclear security strategy, with Russia very prominent in the public mix of his plans, with the American and Russian presidents providing the action centerpiece for it all with a big nuclear weapons reduction treaty, as I wrote nearly four years ago.
So after Obama and Medvedev signed the nuclear arms reduction treaty, which will cut the atomic arsenals of both the U.S. and Russia by nearly one-third, he spent the rest of his time in Prague meeting with the leaders of a dozen Central and Eastern European nations.
Obama is in the midst of a nine-day period of intense focus on nuclear weapons. Before the Prague summit last week, Obama announced a new nuclear doctrine for the U.S. He renounced the development of new nuclear weapons and narrowed the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be used, explicitly renouncing the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Which, notably, does not include Iran and North Korea.
Obama declared that nuclear terrorism, carried out by transnational, state-less groups and rogue nations, is the greatest threat to America's national security.
All of these moves appear to be fine with Russia, whose help is necessary in any sanctions regime against Iran.
And while the US and Russia have chilled relations in some other areas, active cooperation on the nuclear security front continues as usual.
Indeed, the biggest problems for Obama's nuclear security initiative appear to emanate from, well, right here.
Critics such as Ploughshares Fund president Joe Cirincione note that the Obama Administration cuts spending on non-proliferation programs by 20 percent in its latest budget proposal while increasing spending on modernization and maintenance of the US nuclear arsenal by 7 percent.
I see the reason for the latter: Modernization for the nuclear arsenal is because it won't be cut further in the foreseeable future -- Russia has no interest in going below 1500 or so warheads -- and older warheads can become dangerous/dysfunctional.
But I don't know why the administration cut funding on non-proliferation.
The administration is also behind its own timetable for securing all known nuclear materials around the world, which was to have happened by this year. And it has to set new standards for the security of nuclear materials.
It's one thing to acknowledge, as Obama did from the beginning, that his goal of nuclear abolition was very blue sky, something that would not be accomplished in his lifetime. Frankly, I'd bet that it never happens. That it seems unrealistic does not mean that it is not a righteous goal.
But it's another to fall back from a difficult but achievable goal like nuclear security. Cutting the non-proliferation budget is penny wise and pound foolish, to say the least. If we can't pull what we must of the rest of the world together in order to dramatically cut back the prospect of nuclear terrorism -- something very much in the interest of every major power on the planet -- it's pointless rhetoric to even suggest that nuclear weapons can ever be abolished.