On Friday Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had nothing but praise for Mr. Obama’s ability to push the New START treaty through to ratification in the Senate this week, saying the US-Russia pact on nuclear arms reduction will be the “cornerstone” of a decade of enhanced security in Europe and beyond.
Then there's the state visit by China’s President Hu Jintao slated for mid-January, which may help Washington-Beijing relations – at least in the short term. China’s apparent desire to avoid any hiccups before Mr. Hu’s arrival, some US-China experts suggest, may be a factor in North Korea’s uncharacteristically mild response to South Korea’s recent military exercises.
Obama even ended the year on a cheery note with British Prime Minister David Cameron, when the two leaders – who haven’t always seen eye to eye –wished each other “happy holidays” and all the best for the new year in a telephone conversation Dec. 21. The two have differed this year over economic policy for addressing the global downturn – more stimulus (Obama) versus deficit reduction (Mr. Cameron). And the Briton’s determination to pull all British combat troops from Afghanistan next year was not music to Washington’s ears.
But Tuesday’s phone call highlighted the fact that the two leaders are “on the same page” on Afghanistan, according to No. 10 Downing Street, with both men emphasizing that 2011 will mark the beginning of a transition to greater responsibility of Afghan security forces, as agreed by NATO at its summit in November.
The White House read-out of the phone call noted that Obama and Cameron discussed counterterrorism cooperation and Middle East peace efforts – but if the world economy was part of the conversation, it failed to make it into the official synopsis.
Still, it was Mr. Medvedev who most directly addressed his positive relations with the American leader, in an end-of-year interview with Russian television stations.
The Russian president said Obama “fulfills his promises,” adding that “in rather difficult circumstances, he was able to push through the ratification of [a] paramount … document which will ensure our security in the coming years.”
Medvedev’s glowing words reflect what some foreign-policy analysts have said is probably the closest and most productive relationship Obama has developed with a world leader. Indeed, many perceive that Obama has not hit it off with many of his peers. He miffed European leaders by announcing that Asia would be his administration’s geographical priority, and some analysts say the White House has little to show for an overly optimistic assessment of what a warming toward China could deliver.
But Russia and the impact of Obama’s “reset" of relations are viewed differently. James Lindsay, director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, notes in a year-end assessment of Obama’s foreign policy on the CFR website that Russia’s support was crucial to Washington’s successful drive this year in the United Nations Security Council for a new round of sanctions on Iran.
Still, it is “very easy to overstate how much US-Russia relations have improved,” says Mr. Lindsay, citing diplomatic cables released by the Wikileaks website that suggest some US diplomats remain distrustful of Russia and concerned about corruption there.
If the Wikileaks cables damaged US-Russia relations, Medvedev didn’t let on in his TV interviews. He dismissed one diplomat’s classified comment that he was like “Robin” to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s “Batman,” and said the cables have had “no influence on our relations with the United States.”
Whether he intended to or not, Medvedev laid down a kind of challenge to Obama when he said the American president “can be counted on to keep his promises, whether it’s on the WTO or strategic arms agreements.” The WTO is the World Trade Organization, which Russia is seeking to join. Obama is committed to Russia’s entry, but White House officials acknowledge that the battle to get Russia into the WTO could make the START debate look like a cakewalk.
The White House has said it would like to move on the issue in the spring, but it will need congressional approval of changes in existing trade laws in order for Russia’s WTO membership to go forward.
So stay tuned: A year from now, will Medvedev still be praising Obama for keeping his promises?