“Tonight, in this election, you, the American people, reminded us that while our road has been hard, while our journey has been long, we have picked ourselves up, we have fought our way back, and we know in our hearts that for the United States of America the best is yet to come.”
Barack’s acceptance speech did exactly what it had to. It thanked all the right people and reminded us that he is at heart a family man. It gave a gracious nod to the challenger. And if it hadn’t been noticeably free of John McCain’s name, that speech could have been the one delivered in Chicago just about four years ago, right down to the last journey metaphor.
Sitting in my room, listening to his 20-minute speech, I felt as though I was at a spelling bee with all the buzzzzz-buzzzzz-buzzwords being thrown around. I understand that campaigning is a difficult task. To simultaneously brand oneself and allow for an understanding of the meaningful subtleties that your specific policies and character project is hard. So fine, focus on your patriotic and presidential public image until you get the votes. But after inauguration, realize there’s an expectation of follow-through. Each four-year term a president serves ideally will result in a little more than extra jargon for political science students to memorize or staged pictures with foreign diplomats. So we’ve given you another shot, Barack!
At the beginning of Obama’s first term, the great orator sought to turn powerful rhetoric into progress with a “Russian reset.” The American image projected by Bush wasn’t necessarily one most Russians appreciated and Obama was going to change that. By diminishing forcefulness and projecting friendliness, the United States was set to adopt a doctrine of “mea culpa,” of humility.
But this attitude failed to account for the pragmatism of political circumstances. It takes more to accomplish political ends than gestures. Russian policy isn’t a reactionary response to American friendliness. With considerations in the Middle East, oil prices drive policy. The Russian resistance to interventions in Libya, then Syria over the past two years, and over the past decade in Iran is intrinsically attached to a desire to keep oil prices high and Russian exports lucrative. So now, four years later, we find a Moscow that is hardly a supportive ally in the Middle East.
Even more concerning, progress with nuclear strategic arms reduction is unimpressive. More than 90 percent of the nuclear weapons in existence are in stockpiles in Russia and the United States, and a lack of trust (based upon a mismatch of political interests, as in the Middle East) prevents the two sides from making real changes to that fact. The inability of the two biggest nuclear-weapon states to make these reductions creates no incentive for any other nuclear weapons state to consider reduction, and further supports non-nuclear-weapon states’ cries that Russian and American goals of a nuclear-free society are hypocritical.
USAID itself was expelled from Russia this September when the Russian government became fed up with USAID support for democratic organizations. The Russian government obviously cares a little more about disbanding election-monitoring groups than befriending the United States. Obama has underestimated the personal impact Putin has on Russian ideology; if friendship and alliance free of political pressure is the goal, the United States would have to accept at face value the adherence to some of the more unsavory, undemocratic elements of Russian policy in Russia and beyond its borders. That’s certainly not something that Obama’s reset policy did, and, in my opinion, falls well outside the realm of what it should be doing.
This October, the Russian foreign minister said, “If we talk about the ‘reset,’ it is clear that, using computer terminology, it cannot last forever. Otherwise it would not be a ‘reset’ but a program failure.” I’m no English major, but that seems incongruous with the optimistic wordplay Obama has been batting around with regards to Moscow. Match the public sentiments of Russian officials with the deliberate expulsion of USAID from Russia and it becomes strikingly clear that it’s not perceptions of a boisterous, domineering, Bush-led America on the global stage that has been preventing tighter relations between these superpowers.
The fact of the matter is that different ideologies and enormous nuclear arsenals make for a complex relationship, and merely engaging Russia in a conversational and amicable fashion won’t reset that. Sometimes it does take pressure to accomplish the ends that are valuable to Americans. It’s up to Obama then, not to campaign for Russian approval, but to determine what is most valuable to American foreign policy under different circumstances. If it’s better to step up on nuclear arsenal reductions and be the first to suggest a compromise, then that’s what needs to happen. Americans can be friendly and unassuming! But if it’s better to amp up pressure on Russia with regards to Syria, with regards to Iran, then we need to realize that words can’t go it alone. My vote going into this new administration is for a new start. It’s probably time to reset rhetoric and focus on meaningful progress.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Wednesday. You can follow Lydia on Twitter @ThurmanLydia.