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Outside View: Obama bad news for Russia

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by John Laughland
Paris (UPI) Nov 6, 2008
According to a widely held view, the election of Barack Obama is good news for Russia. The new U.S. president, the argument runs, will abandon the confrontational style of George W. Bush and adopt a more conciliatory line in foreign affairs, including in relations with Moscow.

There is little doubt that the Bush presidency has been disastrous for both America and the world, and its end therefore can only seem welcome. Unfortunately, however, there are many grounds for pessimism about the future of relations between the West and Russia under President Obama.

The first is the likely foreign policy of Obama himself. Vice President-elect Joe Biden is notorious for his anti-Russian views. In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination in August, Biden specifically attacked the Bush administration for failing to face down Russia. And at a major foreign policy speech in Cincinnati on Sept. 25, Biden said Russia was as much of a threat as Iran. He also spoke warmly of his visit to "Misha" Saakashvili, the president of Georgia -- with whom he is evidently on first-name terms -- and with whom he discussed how Obama would make Russia pay for what he called its aggression against a democratic country.

But the main grounds for pessimism lie in relations with Europe.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's principal foreign policy initiative since his election has been to woo EU leaders, especially at Evian, France, last month. His proposals for a new European security pact are an attempt to give Russia a foothold in military structures that currently exclude it, and thereby to reduce American dominance over them. As such, his proposals should be seen as the continuation of a longstanding geopolitical project for Moscow that goes back at least to the signature of the Helsinki Accords by the Soviet Union in 1975.

However, the election of a Democrat as U.S. president means it is the U.S.-EU relationship that will now be reinvigorated, not the relationship between Europe and Russia.

The Bush years have been exceptionally difficult for the pro-American elite that governs Europe. All the major players in European politics are viscerally pro-American (and concomitantly anti-Russian), but their basic desire to like the United States -- and to be like the United States, for instance, by creating a United States of Europe -- has been thwarted by the contempt in which George Bush is held around the world (and indeed in his own country) and by the evident stupidity of his foreign policy.

In contrast to Bush, Obama embodies all the values with which European leaders are themselves infatuated -- left-liberalism, youth, dynamism, change, even ethnic diversity.

In the run-up to the poll, they have hardly been able to contain their excitement at the prospect of his election. Why, Obama even writes books. Years of pent-up pro-Americanism therefore will now flood out as soon as the mood music of multilateralism starts to be played once more in the White House. EU leaders will again be able to identify America with progress, just as they did when they were young, and they will swoon with delight whenever Obama proposes some new international (i.e., trans-Atlantic) plan to spread Western political values around the world (and to augment the power of the West over it).

By contrast, they see Russia as politically reactionary and as a threat to their most cherished ideals.

This much has been evident from recent statements by two leading EU politicians. Last week, in his annual speech to the EU's Institute for Security Studies in Paris, High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana spoke with obvious warmth and enthusiasm of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

"I have been and remain a firm believer in the power of the United States and Europe to act as a force for good in the world," he said, uttering not a single word of criticism of U.S. foreign policy over the last eight years.

When he came to speak of Russia, however, his tone of voice hardened and grew cold. He spoke as if Russia were a country with which he was obliged but reluctant to do business. He dropped a heavy hint that Russia was using energy exports as a strategic weapon -- a severe accusation to make against a neighboring country with which the EU is trying to negotiate a partnership agreement -- and he dismissed Medvedev's proposal for a new European security pact (inasmuch as he mentioned it at all) as too vague to merit any consideration now. He even said condescendingly that Russians have a special political mindset that Europeans had a duty to try to fathom, as if Russia were suffering from some strange collective psychosis.

The same goes for the article in British newspaper The Guardian on Tuesday by the president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering.

Poettering also enthused about the prospect of a "trans-Atlantic fresh start" following the American elections, and he invited the new U.S. president to address the European Parliament next year. By contrast, his reaction to the election of Medvedev as Russian president in March, and to his inauguration in May, was complete silence on both occasions.

Poettering's only statements concerning Russia in recent months have been to support Georgia and to attack Belarus.

Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that Medvedev's attempts to direct the attention and affection of the EU elites toward their fellow Europeans east of Ukraine will ever get off the ground.

The division of the European continent between East and West, so useful for American geopolitical strategy, is likely to continue.

(John Laughland is a British historian and political scientist and the director of studies at the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation in Paris. A version of this commentary was first published by RIA Novosti, but the opinions in it are the author's alone.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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