The recent televised exchange between Russia’s President Medvedev and George Stephanopoulos concerning Medvedev’s impressions of Obama has been making the rounds recently, largely in the context of “Isn’t it a relief to have a thinking president who is respected again?” A partial transcript:
MEDVEDEV: He’s very comfortable partner, it’s very interesting to be with him. The most important thing that distinguishes him from many other people — I won’t name anyone by name — he’s a thinker, he thinks when he speaks. Which is already pretty good.
STEPHANOPOULOS: You had somebody in your mind, I think. (LAUGHS)
MEDVEDEV: Obviously I do have someone on my mind. I don’t want to offend anyone…
But, given recent developments with Russia, Medvedev’s calculated compliment serves as one of the most revealing admissions we’ve seen in a long time. In the last 14 months, Russia has gotten its way with Poland and the Czech Republic, reneged on the much-ballyhooed quid pro quo deal that, in exchange, it was going to help stop Iranian proliferation, been eager for a nuclear deal in which its aging arsenal will reach parity with our own (replete with a Russian opt-out clause), arranged for new arms sales in the many billions of dollars with Hugo Chávez, and insidiously warned former Eastern European satellites and once-Soviet republics that the U.S. is no longer to be taken seriously as an advocate of their autonomy.
No wonder Medvedev is giddy — all of which raises a more fundamental question, beyond the old being-liked-versus-being-respected divide, about the current reset-button foreign policy.
It was advertised as restoring our stature in the world; but so far the policy consists of winning over former belligerents. In other words, states like Iran, Russia, Syria, and Venezuela were once estranged but now are happier with us. But, one wonders, are a Britain, Colombia Germany, India, Israel, Japan, and others?
Making enemies, rivals, and neutrals like our leaders may or may not be wise, but it certainly is not an end in itself. It suggests that we have forgotten why exactly in the first place Syria was considered an enemy and Israel a friend, or the Czech Republic a good ally and Russia a suspicious hegemon, or Colombia a model of democratic reform and Venezeula an example of growing autocracy and regional instability. The answer predates and transcends “that someone on my mind.”
Quite simply, when Stephanopoulos laughs like that, millions in the Czech Republic, Poland, the Baltic States, Georgia, the Ukraine, and the streets of Teheran might beg to differ — or perhaps think Medvedev is chilling rather than funny.