Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Obama's first foreign policy challenge

Well this didn't take long...They were still sweeping up the confetti from Barack Obama's victory rally in Chicago last night when Russia's Dmitry Medvedev issued the first foreign policy challenge of his presidency.

During his annual address to the Russian parliament Medvedev announced that in response to the United States' plans to base a ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia would base their "Iskander" medium-range missiles in the Kaliningrad region on the Baltic Sea. Russia has long opposed the American missile shield, but placing missiles in Kaliningrad (which borders Poland) is the first time they have officially announced steps to counter it. And Medvedev didn't stop there, he also said Russia would electronically jam the missile system's radar, potentially rendering it useless.

Medvedev blamed the recent global economic crisis firmly on the United States, saying that the US created the credit bubble to pump up its domestic economy then did not pay attention to warnings from the global community about the impending crash. The Russian stock market has taken a pounding in the past few months, in large part because of the global economic crunch. He also gave the United States some of the blame for Russia's conflict this summer with Georgia - Russia does not believe that Georgia would have attempted to take action in the region of South Ossetia without first getting approval from the United States.

It was a surprising broadsides from Medvedev, who in recent weeks has repeatedly talked hopefully about improved US-Russian relations under a new American president. It is useful to keep in mind though that his speech was aimed at a domestic rather than international audience, which could be a reason for his more belligerent tone.

We could get a good idea what the Medvedev/Obama relationship will look like two weeks from now. Medvedev is scheduled to travel to Washington DC on November 14 for a meeting of the G20 (a group of the world's twenty largest economies) and has said he would like to meet with President-Elect Obama.

I hope that if Obama decides to take the meeting with Medvedev he studies the Kennedy/Khrushchev meeting in Vienna first. Kennedy went into the meeting under-prepared and was bullied by the bombastic Soviet leader. Khrushchev in turn thought Kennedy was weak, so he was willing to risk putting nuclear missiles on a little island called Cuba and a year later the world would go to the brink of nuclear war.

Medvedev is no Khrushchev, but he is the leader of a Russia that wants to reclaim a place as a great power on the world stage and he shares Vladimir Putin's belief that Russia's overtures towards the United States in the past few years have been met with aggression. Obama certainly shouldn't shy away from the meeting, but he should have a firm grasp of the global situation and Russia's view of the world.
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