The role of the ‘hot mic’ in international diplomacy is intriguing. When US president Barack Obama and his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy bad-mouthed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the last G20 summit meeting in Paris, and the ‘hot mic’ caught on to their aside, Paris and Washington had egg on their face.
Clearly, the two statesmen were caught unawares that the ‘hot mic’ was picking up their ‘frank’ aside as to what a ‘pest’ Netanyahu could be as an interlocutor. But Obama’s aside on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit at a meeting with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev on Monday that was caught on ‘hot mic’ also served a good purpose.
Obama was caught on tape pleading with Medvedev that Russians shouldn’t press too hard for the time being on the contentious issue of the missile defence. Obama said he needed “space’ till the 2012 elections are over. “After my election, I have more flexibility,” He was apparently unaware that his conversation was being recorded by a journalist.
The contrast couldn’t have been sharper. While Paris swung into action to ‘kill’ the story on Netanyahu and to disown Sarkozy’s caustic views, Obama actually held his ground and went on to defend what he said. He explained a day later: “The only way I get this stuff done [deal with Moscow on missile defence] with the Pentagon, with Congress, if I’ve bipartisan support and, frankly, the current enviornment is not conducive to those kinds of thoughtful consultations.”
Obama has a point here. True, Republican vultures are hovering in the stormy skies of American politics to tear him apart on any and every conceivable issue, including ties with Russia (or China). And in the American dysfunctional system today, Obama is also right in saying that pushing through any innovative ideas on the foreign policy front is a formidable job.
But what intrigues me is the impact this brouhaha would have on the Russian side and what it could mean for the climate of US-Russia ties. Obviously, the Russians are on 24×7 basis closely studying how Obama proposes to deal with a Russia under the Vladimir Putin presidency.
Well, the consummate diplomat that he is, Obama virtually signalled from Seoul the US-Russia reset is ‘on’, no matter the change of guard in the Kremlin.
Why did he signal that? For one thing, Obama counts on Moscow not to queer the pitch on a range of issues that hold the potential to disrupt international security (and his re-election bid in November) — Iran, Syria, Afghanistan.
Washington played it rough during Putin’s bid in the March 4 election. But the Russians are large-hearted people. Moscow will now patiently wait for Obama’s second term in the Oval Office. After all, Obama held out a ‘presidential assurance’ on the one issue that matters to Russia’s foreign and security policies most in the coming decades — its nuclear parity with the US (what Moscow calls ‘strategic balance).
And, Obama is likely to make it for a second term, with the US economy slowly turning around. The Russians are very pragmatic and they take a long-term view, too.
Of course, Obama meant the conversation with Medvedev to be private and confidential. But now that it lies in the public domain, it could also have collateral impact on third countries — China, Iran, Syria, etc. — which would now onward keep wondering where to take the rhetoric in US-Russia ties seriously and where not to.
On balance, therefore, Obama wins hands down. Medvedev is right: Mitt Romney’s theatrics is out of touch with reason and the spirit of our times.
– March 28, 2012