WASH-INGTON - The signing ceremony in Moscow was a grand affair. For Barack Obama, foreign policy neophyte and "reset" man, the arms reduction agreement had a Kissingerian air. A fine feather in his cap. And our president likes his plumage.
Unfortunately for the United States, the country Obama represents, the prospective treaty is useless at best, detrimental at worst.
Useless because the level of offensive nuclear weaponry, the subject of the U.S.-Russia "Joint Understanding," is an irrelevance. We could today terminate all such negotiations, invite the Russians to build as many warheads as they want, and profitably watch them spend themselves into penury, as did their Soviet predecessors, stockpiling weapons that do nothing more than, as Churchill put it, make the rubble bounce.
Obama says his START will be a great boon, setting an example to enable us to better pressure North Korea and Iran to give up their nuclear programs. That a man of Obama's intelligence can believe such nonsense is beyond comprehension. There is not a shred of evidence that cuts by the great powers - the INF treaty, START I, the Treaty of Moscow (2002) - induced the curtailment of anyone's programs. Moammar Gaddafi gave up his nukes the week we pulled Saddam Hussein out of his spider hole. No treaty involved. The very notion that Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will suddenly abjure nukes because of yet another U.S.-Russian treaty is comical.
The pursuit of such an offensive weapons treaty could nonetheless be detrimental to us. Why? Because Obama's hunger for diplomatic success, such as it is, allowed the Russians to exact a price: linkage between offensive and defensive nuclear weapons.
This is important for Russia because of the huge American technological advantage in defensive weaponry. We can reliably shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile. They cannot. And because defensive weaponry will be the decisive strategic factor of the 21st century, Russia has striven mightily for a quarter-century to halt its development. Gorbachev tried to swindle Reagan out of the Strategic Defense Initiative at Reykjavik in 1986. Reagan refused. As did his successors - Bush I, Clinton, Bush II.
Obama, who seeks to banish nuclear weapons entirely, has little use for such prosaic contrivances. First, the Obama budget actually cuts spending on missile defense at a time when federal spending is a riot of extravagance and trillion-dollar deficits. Then comes the "pause" (as Russia's president appreciatively noted) in the planned establishment of a missile shield in Eastern Europe. And now the "Joint Understanding" commits us to a new treaty that includes "a provision on the interrelationship of strategic offensive and strategic defensive arms."
Obama further said the East European missile shield "will be the subject of extensive negotiations" between the United States and Russia.
Obama doesn't even seem to understand the ramifications of this concession. Poland and the Czech Republic thought they were regaining their independence when they joined NATO under the protection of the United States. They now see that the shield negotiated with us and subsequently ratified by all of NATO is in limbo. Russia and America will first have to "come to terms" on the issue, said President Dmitry Medvedev. This is precisely the kind of compromised sovereignty Russia wants to impose on its ex-Soviet colonies - and that U.S. presidents of both parties for the last 20 years have resisted.
Resistance, however, is not part of Obama's repertoire. Hence his eagerness for arcane negotiations over MIRV'd missiles, the perfect distraction from the major issue between the two countries: Vladimir Putin's unapologetic and relentless drive to restore Moscow's hegemony over the sovereign states that used to be Soviet satrapies.
That - not nukes - is the chief cause of the friction between the U.S. and Russia. You wouldn't know it to hear Obama in Moscow pledging to halt the "drift" in U.S.-Russian relations. Drift? The decline in relations came from Putin's desire to undo what he considers "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century - the collapse of the Soviet empire. Hence his squeezing Ukraine's energy supplies, his overt threats against Poland and the Czech Republic for daring to make sovereign agreements with the United States. And finally, less than a year ago, his invading a small neighbor, detaching and then effectively annexing two of Georgia's provinces to Mother Russia.
That's the cause of the collapse of our relations. Not drift, but aggression. Or, as the reset man referred to it with such delicacy in his Kremlin news conference: "our disagreements on Georgia's borders."
Charles Krauthammer is a columnist for The Washington Post. Reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2009 The Washington Post Writers Group