As Barack Obama faces the prospect of dealing with a much less friendly congress next year, he is understandably trying to get as much business as possible through the old “lame duck” congress before its term expires on January 3. One such project is ratification of the “New Start” arms control treaty with Russia.m

The good news is that the treaty is unmistakably beneficial for the United States as well as the world in general; it’s hard to make any sort of rational argument against ratification. The bad news is that lack of rational backing doesn’t seem to be a problem for large sections of the Republican party, whose only interest is in frustrating the president — and since ratification requires a two-thirds majority in the senate, the co-operation of at least some Republicans is indispensable.

But even if ratification takes a slower and more tortuous path than should be necessary, Obama can be proud of his record in improving relations with Russia. Another milestone was reached last week at the NATO summit in Lisbon, where Russia and NATO agreed that neither poses a threat to the other and that they should co-operate in defence measures for the future — including possible Russian participation in NATO’s controversial missile shield project.

It has taken longer than it should have to reach this point. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989-91, the basic rationale of NATO — the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation — disappeared. The Western powers could have disbanded it, or invited Russia to join, which would have amounted to much the same thing.

But they did neither. The European countries wanted to keep America tied into the European military system as a sort of reserve player in their own quarrels, and military spending had too much of a hold on the US political process to permit any serious cutbacks. Instead NATO extended its reach to the Russian border and proceeded to look around for new missions.

It eventually found them, first in Kosovo and now more substantially in Afghanistan — further from the North Atlantic than anyone would have imagined. But it also remained conscious of Russia, and Russia in turn could hardly help but see NATO as a threat: particularly after it took in new members such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic states, for whom Russia was the hereditary enemy.

Suspicions worsened after the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, when many Western politicians talked up the possibility of admitting countries like Georgia to NATO and then-presidential candidate John McCain took a particularly bellicose line against Russia. If he does nothing else, Obama at least deserves credit for having prevented a McCain presidency and the real possibility of a new cold — or even hot — war.

In fact, however, the relationship with Russia is something Obama can work on with considerable freedom from political interference. (New Start will still be observed even if the senate never ratifies it.) Even presidents who are domestically hamstrung can largely conduct their own foreign policy, as Nixon, Carter and Clinton all did, and while Russia will pose challenges there is little of the fanaticism that continually frustrates progress in, say, the Middle East.

Improving relations with Russia is a classic win-win proposition; it reduces the pressure on the West and also strengthens the more progressive forces in Russia by drawing the country more closely into the European net. Russia may at last become a “normal country”, as Mikhail Gorbachev intended. Decades of enmity are not going to be forgotten overnight, but it seems that real progress is being made in overcoming them.

While closer relations between Russia and the EU, for example, can be seen to have the eventual goal of Russian EU membership (even though no one dares mention that in public), the idea of Russian membership in NATO still seems almost like a contradiction in terms. But if Obama does his job well, one of his successors may feel able to just let the alliance wither on the vine.

Peter Fray

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