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Agenda: With George Friedman

6 MINS READDec 23, 2010 | 18:22 GMT
The new START treaty with Russia approved by the U.S. Senate does not create a brave new world, says STRATFOR founder George Friedman, but its passage offers better prospects for forthcoming tricky relations with Moscow than not passing it. Editor’s Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, STRATFOR cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. Colin: The United States Senate approves the much-debated nuclear treaty with Russia. But is it really a new start? In the end, many Republicans decided to back the treaty and it achieved the required two-thirds majority with a vote of 71 for, 26 against. Colin: Welcome to Agenda, today with George Friedman. George, in terms of global geopolitics, how important is this Senate vote? Dr. Friedman: From the point of view of this particular treaty, it's not very significant at all. The reduction in warheads really doesn't affect the balance of terror, apart from everything else because there is no balance of terror. This is an issue from 30 years ago. That's when it mattered. Now, it really doesn't. However, it did matter from the standpoint of the ability of President Obama to conduct foreign policy. If he couldn't take this fairly innocuous treaty and get it through the Senate, it would have indicated that really his foreign policy capabilities were crippled. At the same time, as Republicans pointed out, it left open a bunch of questions that weren't properly part of this treaty but really mattered, such as the Russian relationship to ballistic missile defense, the status of tactical nuclear weapons, and more importantly the general relationship between the United States and Russia. Colin: Will this essentially Republican decision refresh Obama? Dr. Friedman: No, what Obama had on this was a near-death experience, which he survived. But there's very little victory here because in the end what he got was a fairly vanilla treaty, and the other issues between the U.S. and Russia really weren't expressed. What you really did see was the extent to which rather an uncontroversial treaty — endorsed by Republicans and Democrats, the secretary of state, and all sides and so on, and the shows that Obama put on how — close it came to not passing. I mean I think that's the most important thing. Obama is back against the wall in making foreign policy and what this entire incident shows is just how weak he is. This should not have been a debate. Colin: Would it smooth the path of some of those negotiations you've just mentioned, such as with Iran and over a European ABM system? Dr. Friedman: Well, let's begin with why this treaty emerged and why it became important. After the famous restart button incident with Hillary Clinton, there was a question of how to get relations with Russia better. And the theory was that it was important to have something to build confidence and this treaty was an easy thing to do and get the two sides used to working together. Well, that didn't happen — it almost fell apart, it didn't build confidence. Most importantly, the theory that confidence building would change the American or the Russian position on Iran or their position on ballistic missile defense — I think it was basically flawed. Russia and the United States disagree on some really important issues that affect the national security of each country. There's some overlap in their views, there's some difference in their views, neither country is going to change their position because they got the warm and fuzzy feeling from getting this passed. Colin: The treaty still leaves much of nuclear arms reduction still to do, but presumably it will alleviate the fears of European countries like Germany. Dr. Friedman: The Germans have really serious disagreements with the United States, both over financial matters and over the future of NATO. I doubt that the Germans are going to relax over this because I don't think they regard it as that significant. It may well have been that if it had failed it would have increased nervousness, and I really think that's the way this treaty should be viewed. Had Obama not been able to get this passed, there would have been some serious questions, not so much about the United States, but about Obama's credibility as president. That he got it passed doesn't solve those problems. It doesn't alleviate the question of whether or not Obama is capable and in control of his foreign policy because he shouldn't have had a crisis in the first place over it. Colin: Is it a given that the treaty will now pass through Russia's Duma? Dr. Friedman: Well, I think the Russians will probably pass it and I think they're going to have a parallel crisis over it to show that the Russians also have a democratic system, they also have to ratify it and it's not a slam dunk that they will. So the Russians will now posture serious questions, and they'll posture the serious questions not because Putin and Medvedev don't control the Duma, but because they don't want to have been almost embarrassed by the U.S. Senate without almost embarrassing them back. Colin: Assuming it's all signed and sealed by, say, March, what will then be the next step in negotiations between the United States and Russia? Dr. Friedman: Well, I mean it's the same steps that are in place right now. Russian relations with the former Soviet Union, the status of NATO and EU expansion, the Iranian question, a host of issues. The Russians have shifted their policy somewhat from a singular focus on rebuilding the former Soviet Union — their sphere of influence at least — beyond that. They feel that they've achieved the core of what they needed to achieve. And they're prepared now to be more flexible, both for example in terms of what their prepared to tolerate in Ukraine and in terms of what they're willing to negotiate with the European and the Americans. So the Russians have entered a new sphere. The Americans, at the same time, are now in a deep debate over every issue on the table, including foreign policy, with clearly a disagreement between the Republicans and the Democrats over core issues such as the relationship with Russia. I think we will see the Russians testing the Americans around the periphery, in places like Georgia, Moldova and the Baltics. They will be trying to test how strong or weak Obama is, how resolute he is. I think what they come away with from this entire affair is the old Russian understanding that where there's weakness, move. And I think they're smelling a great deal of weakness. Colin: George, thank you.

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