In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov with a reset button in Geneva. The symbolic gesture was to usher in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. No more missile crisis, no more pounding shoes on a desk at the United Nations. If the fall of the Berlin Wall had symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the gift of the reset button was supposed to symbolize the beginning of positive cooperation.
Things did not work out that way. President Medvedev was replaced by President Putin and the atmosphere surrounding his relationship with Barack Obama has been described as chilly at best. The high (or low) point of that relationship occurred when President Obama canceled a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow before the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was the Federation’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, considered a traitor by the United States for leaking secret information about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping activities, an obvious poke in the eye to the United States.
How are we to understand the meeting in Geneva between Lavrov and John Kerry on September 12? How are we to understand the U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria? Is this the beginning of a true reset in the relationship?
First to the meeting. President Obama had dug himself into a corner by proclaiming over a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by President Assad would be crossing a red line. When chemical weapons were used in the Syrian civil war by the government, the U.S. claimed, Obama was forced to say he would respond. Instead of waiting for United Nations verification or an eventual reaction by the United Nations (probably to be blocked by Russia and China), the President announced that he was prepared to punish Syria with a limited military strike. Already confronted by a dubious American opinion tired of fruitless and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, President Obama postponed the attack by going to Congress, but the military option was still on the table.
It was then that we officially learned from a seemingly impromptu comment by John Kerry after the G20 summit that there was a Russian proposal to have the Syrians accept international control of their chemical weapons and their eventual signing of the chemical weapons convention. Most speculation has the origin of this idea coming from an informal discussion between Putin and Obama at the Summit. Thus the follow-up meeting in Geneva, an official recognition by the Russians of their appreciation for Switzerland’s assistance in helping them join the WTO.
How are we to understand the U.S./cooperation on Syria? Quite simply it is in the interest of both parties. From the United States perspective, it allows a very reluctant President to avoid a negative vote by the Congress reflecting a negative attitude by the American people for a military strike. Although the President has tried several times to justify the intervention as somehow being in the national interest, it has not worked. From the Russian perspective, it avoids seriously damaging their ally Assad as well as putting Russia back as a diplomatic leader. In other words, a win-win situation for both sides.
Was is most interesting here is that whereas the previous reset button had been in the context of bilateral relations, this reset is within the context of an internationalization of the Syrian crisis. Some involvement of the United Nations and other countries is inevitable concerning the chemical weapons situation as well as any resolution of the crisis. The United States and the Russian Federation are taking a lead role, but they are not acting independently.
This is not the beginning of a true reset button in the sense of the warm relationship between Hillary Clinton and Sergey Lavrov, and Dmitri Medvedev and Barack Obama. This is a most practical association that reflects mature leadership where cooperation is to the benefit of both sides. Will this lead to further cooperation on other issues? Maybe, and maybe not. What is important here is that the two leaders understood that the Syrian crisis could get out of control. They both assumed their responsibility, a sign of real leadership. Discussions about Obama’s lack of credibility or coherence miss the point. For the moment, he has acted responsibly to avoid a major crisis, even if it was to his own doing. For that, and the contribution of the Russians, we should all be grateful.