Open-mike diplomacy

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

The Seoul Nuclear Security Symposium provided a set stage for the last summit between Russian president Dmitry Medvedev and his U.S. counterpart Barack ObamaSpeaking for the media after a 90-minute meeting, both leaders used the opportunity to showcase positive developments in U.S.-Russia relations — the New START treaty and Russia’s accession to the WTO, in particular — that have taken place over the past three years under their stewardship.  Both spoke about the urgent need to jumpstart economic and trade relations between the two countries.  Both paid tribute to the good personal chemistry that helped them keep the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations on course.

The problems that divide Moscow and Washington have been mentioned too.  One of the most acute is a disagreement over approaches to ending violence in Syria; another, more chronic, is the lack of a shared vision on the architecture of European missile defense.  Choosing his words very carefully, Medvedev acknowledged that at the moment, Russia and the U.S. very taking dramatically different positions; yet, he argued that a room for a compromise still existed.  Obama concurred by saying that time was right for experts from both countries to begin detailed discussions on the technical aspects of this complex issue.

But any substantive discussion in the the Medvedev-Obama rendezvous was overshadowed by a gaffe that the media pounced on: chatting without interpreters between the conclusion of their one-on-one and the beginning of the media briefing, the presidents did not realize that the microphones were already on.  Continuing the conversation and referring apparently to Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin, Obama was heard as saying to Medvedev: “On all these issues, particularly on missile defense, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.”  “I understand.  I understand your message about space.  Space for you,” Medvedev responded.  “This is my last election,” went on Obama, “After my election I have more flexibility.” “I understand,” again replied Medvedev, “I will pass this information to Vladimir.”

Gaffes at such a high level are bound to have domestic repercussions.  Medvedev got away lightly: his critics in Russia took advantage of the “pass this information to Vladimir” line to highlight the president’s lame-duck status.  But Obama found himself in hot water: the Republicans accused him of readiness to make concessions to Russia that could undermine the strength of U.S. missile defense.  House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said he would be curious to hear what the president meant by “flexibility.”

The leading GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney immediately jumped into the ring and described Obama’s comments “an alarming and troubling development;” he went further, calling Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe.”  Romney’s joy over Obama’s gaffe is understandable: he had a terrible week — with his own adviser comparing him to an Etch A Sketch toy.  Plagued with perennial accusations of being too “flexible” on issues, Romney was all too happy to hang onto something he has never wavered over: his opposition to Obama’s Russia policy, beginning with the New START treaty.

If Obama has learned anything during his 3+ years as president, it is how to conduct damage control.  Speaking to reporters the next day after his “open-mike” meeting with Medvedev, Obama made fun of his gaffe and then, turning serious, proceeded with describing missile defense as “extraordinary complex [and] very technical” issue.  Given this complexity, the president argued, it would be virtually impossible to win broad consensus in Congress for any major security agreement with Russia in an election year.  Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in a statement re-iterated the boss’ message: “since 2012 is an election year in both countries…it is clearly not a year in which we are going to achieve a breakthrough,” Rhodes said.

There is no doubt that Romney as the Republican presidential nominee will attempt to make Obama’s Russia policy an election issue in November.  Expect images of the president cuddling with Medvedev in Seoul to be repeatedly played in TV ads produced by the Romney campaign.  It is however unlikely that the “flexibility” gaffe will have any serious negative impact on Obama’s re-election prospects.  Romney’s overly aggressive anti-Russian stance, including his opposition to the New START treaty, is not widely shared even among the Republicans — and is definitely unpopular with independent voters.  Besides, by recklessly calling Russia the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe,” Romney made it more difficult for himself to criticize the Obama administration’s policies toward China, Iran, and North Korea.

It was almost heartbreaking to watch how Medvedev and some Russian officials rushed to defend Obama against his GOP rival.  Relax, folks!  Obama is an adult and can stand for himself.  If Moscow really wants to see him re-elected, it could help by immediately stopping the ridiculous anti-American campaign that by now, with the Duma and presidential campaigns concluded, has completely outlived its usefulness.

Let’s give Obama a break.  Or, in his own words, space.

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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7 Responses to Open-mike diplomacy

  1. iastreb says:

    I think the biggest story here is that the trajectory toward a US compromise with Russia on key issues such as missile defense is clear. Gaffe or no gaffe, Obama’s chances for victory remain unchanged. Romney’s strident designation of Russia as “enemy number one” will hurt him more in the campaign – for the reason you point out, Eugene (it will make it hard for him to argue Iran is an existential threat), but also because, as the polls published today in Foreign Policy show, there is little support in the US for making Russia into an enemy. What we are beginning to see is a steady retreat in a US policy designed to erect obstacles in the way of a closer Russia-Europe relationship.

    • Eugene says:

      I agree, but I’m concerned about Russia’s ability/inability to “compartmentalize” different aspects of the relationship. What I mean is that I’m practically sure that in order to get rid of JVA, the Obama administration will have to strike a deal with Congress on S. 1039 — in some or other form (see my previous post). This is still very sensitive matter for Moscow, and I only hope that the row over S. 1039 won’t spoil the AMD negotiations.


  2. donnyess says:

    If the Russian media were smart, they would give Romney max exposure to promote patriotic sentiment toward Putin. Profile Romney as a politically connected rich kid from Detroit…which he actually is. Then compare contemporary Detroit to Yeltsin’s Russia. The future relationship between Russia and US probably looks like the one between the US and Iran…regardless of who gets elected.

    • Eugene says:

      I agree 100%. Yet, in contrast, some in the Russian media were happy when Romney trashed Russian elections. They have this mentality: anyone who kicks Putin is the best friend of Russian democracy.


  3. Dear Eugene,

    My impression is that Romney overplayed his hand on this episode. It is difficult for me to judge the mood in the US from a distance but from over here I get the impression that there has been a more negative reaction to Romney’s response than to Obama’s original comments. For the rest I think Iastreb has got it right: Obama’s prospects of winning the election are unaffected but the comments do suggest a desire on his part for further compromise with Russia. Overall this all seems to me hopeful.

    I thought the Russian response to Romney’s comments was measured and appropriate.

  4. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    It’s difficult to be absolutely objective here. As an Obama supporter, I tend to downplay the negative reaction — undeniably real — caused by his gaffe. What is safe to say is that if Romney got something criticizing Obama, he immediately negated this advantage by his Russia statement.

    However, in general, I agree with Iastreb: this won’t be an issue in the election.


  5. Pingback: No Camping |

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