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J.E. Dyer: Russia, Iran Standing Off from Obama Showcase Events

Vladimir Putin

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And we’re not.  There are a couple of potential factors in the decisions of Putin and the mullahs not to treat seriously with the US, for the time being, on the most important security matters.  One of them is that the US has little credibility as an enforcer.  What are we going to do if Iran cuts off nuclear talks?  Demand more talks?  Obama pre-neutralized US credibility on missile defense with his “flexibility” promise to the Russians; why come to the NATO summit when you can just wait for a collapse of American will after the US election?

Waiting could turn out to produce much bigger benefits than trying to fit into today’s American-sponsored multilateral efforts.  The second factor, which is both cause and effect of all the others, is that the world’s correlation of geopolitical power is changing.  It’s already happening.  The strong potential for Greece’s departure from the Eurozone is just the best publicized, most urgent of the current developments.

But there are others, like Japan’s growing concern over the predations of Russia and China on islands long claimed by Tokyo.  In early May, Japan made the unprecedented move of proposing that Russia return only two of the four northern islands – the Kuril Islands – claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia since World War II.  This is a major concession, and is undoubtedly related to the growing belligerence of China over the Senkaku Islands on the other end of Japan.

It may well have been encouraged in part by the Russian strategic bomber exercise in April that saw 40 bomber aircraft flying just outside Japanese airspace, along with the near-simultaneous naval exercise between Russia and China in the Yellow Sea (the first such exercise ever conducted).  Japan can ill afford to be in armed disputes on both ends of her archipelagic territory, but neither can she afford to suffer humiliating losses in those disputes.  Asia is not a good place to appear weak or friendless; Japan will want to be on better terms with one of the land powers at any given time, and it appears Russia is Tokyo’s first choice.

In theory, Japan should be able to rely on the support of her principal ally, the United States.  Our posture on the Senkaku Islands dispute is that it must be resolved through negotiation, not through force majeure.  On the Kurils, we have explicitly supported Japan’s claim since 1952 – but early in 2011, when Russian plans to upgrade the weaponry on the islands made headlines, our embassy in Moscow hid behind the claim of a media misstatement, when the Russian foreign ministry complained about our position on the matter.

If Obama is shifting our security focus to the Far East, one thing he will have to understand is that the resolution of our allies’ territorial problems is the hinge-point of our effectiveness.  We don’t weigh in on the negotiations; that’s for the parties to work out.  But we do back our allies up.  The problems may not seem big or important, but the security context we set for the resolution of these issues is what makes it useful – or not – to be an ally of the United States.

The questions are (a) whether Obama can understand and act on that reality, or (b) whether it even matters all that much at this point.  There will be no magic pill in the election of anyone to the Oval Office this fall; a switch of administrations will probably produce a brief hiatus, but will also represent an opportunity for status quo-busters.  Things have changed so much already that the political constructs within which the US and Europe operate too frequently come off now as complacent, head-in-the-sand pieties.  The holiday from history is over, although we may be the last ones to see it.  Neither Russia nor Iran – nor China, North Korea, or Syria, for that matter – is very interested in signing anything with the West right now.  Good deals based on the old assumptions aren’t as tempting when better ones seem to lie just over the horizon.

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