Obama’s “reset button” with Russia has been an integral part of America’s new innocuous and ineffective diplomatic approach, and has culminated in the nuclear arms reduction treaty, New START.
But the current disconnect between the negotiations surrounding this treaty and Russia’s human rights record is troubling. Boris Nemtsov, former Russian deputy prime minister and founder of the pro-democracy Solidarity movement in Russia, has stated that “Russians do not know what Obama thinks about human rights and democracy.” In the debate over ratification, we must realize that America’s traditional role as a champion of political freedom is in jeopardy.
At the recent Foreign Policy Initiative Forum, held just a stone’s throw away from Foggy Bottom, State Department officials were unsurprisingly quick to defend Obama’s record of standing for human rights during the past two years. But the simple reality is that the Obama administration has placed human rights and America’s political principles in general on the back burner in favor of benevolent multilateralism. The current debate surrounding the ratification of the New START treaty with Russia is an important opportunity to reconnect the disparate strands of American statecraft and revive America’s unique and indispensible role in the world.
Historically, American diplomacy has not been merely a means of negotiating America’s interests. It has also been a tool for advancing liberty and human rights. This understanding began with the Founders, who believed that America’s principles must be reflected in its relations with other nations. Even when the United States was young and militarily weak, its leaders refused to disconnect America’s commitment to political, economic, and religious freedom from the practical concerns of international relations. For example, the American government provided moral and diplomatic support to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, which sought to found a state based on the principle of self-government. The United States did not declare war, but it did use diplomacy to stand for freedom. Despite its limited military strength, the U.S. did not hesitate to risk a confrontation with the Austrian and Russian empires.
Today, human rights groups at home and abroad are beginning to realize that America’s voice in defense of its basic political principles has been greatly diminished in the past two years. Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has offered an explanation of the White House’s foreign policy priorities: The Obama administration’s foreign policy team started out with the idea that “if Bush did it, it must be wrong. So we won’t do it.” According to Dunne, this set the Obama administration back “behind zero in coming up with a policy on democracy and human rights”. This floundering approach has caused the Obama administration to deconstruct the historically intertwined elements of American foreign policy, in which America’s fundamental political principles were an integral part of its interests and foreign policy priorities.
The ratification debate over New START does not take place in a vacuum; rather it involves US-Russian relations as well as US relations with Central and Eastern European countries, all of which should be understood in light of America’s traditional stand for political freedom. Nevertheless, there is ongoing ambiguity over how New START will affect these priorities. Last Wednesday, Senator Voinovich expressed concern about the perceived disconnect between the security concerns of New START and human rights in Russia and among Russia’s neighbors : “I cannot in good conscience determine my support for the Treaty until the Administration assures me our ‘Reset Policy’ with Russia is a policy that enhances rather than diminishes the national security of our friends and allies throughout Europe.”
Within the broader context of American security and reasserting America’s political principles in its diplomatic relations with Russia, there are practical and prudential considerations that advise against ratifying New START this year. Senator Jon Kyl has said he will not support a vote this year, because the Senate should have more time to debate and thereby fully exercise their constitutional “advice and consent” power in respect to this important treaty. But even as support is dwindling among current senators, the White House remains frantically determined to ratify New START before the new session of Congress. And there is likely to be even less support among recently elected senators; ten senators-elect have sent a letter demanding the opportunity to debate New START next session.
The White House has opted to “up the ante” in its push for Senate ratification during the lame duck session. With this unpromising gamble, the White House has chosen to replace prudence with a partisan power play. It is the United States’ principled tradition of diplomacy and the cause of liberty that suffer from this refusal to understand and maintain America’s indispensible role in the world.
The Obama administration needs to rediscover the traditional American nexus between political principles and foreign diplomacy. This connection has been the essential and unique characteristic of American statecraft – it is American exceptionalism translated into U.S. foreign policy, and according to a new Brookings Institution report, a majority of Americans think the U.S. does indeed have a unique—even providential—role to play in the world.
Of course, prudence determines to what extent America can act, but the United States cannot have a foreign policy that fails to reflect the political truths that define it. America stands for the principles of liberty and its interests are to a significant degree defined and shaped by those principles. The debate over New START is no exception.
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