The World from Berlin 'Obama Has Cleverly Put the Ball in Medvedev's Court'

US President Barack Obama's offer to Russia to abandon its missile defense shield in return for Moscow's help in keeping nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands has upped the ante on US-Russian relations. German commentators praise Obama's shrewdness but still see complications ahead.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he is happy that "our American partners are ready to discuss this problem."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says he is happy that "our American partners are ready to discuss this problem."

In George W. Bush's playbook, the best offense was a good offense. With his latest offer to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, US President Barack Obama has signaled that he follows a different philosophy when it comes to playing in the global political arena.

Despite his stated intentions, Bush's plan for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe still killed (at least) two birds with one stone. It set in motion the development of a system that could theoretically defend against a potential Iranian long-range missile capability. And it flexed America's muscles in response to Russia's newfound confidence.

Obama's plan kills two birds with one stone, too. It offers the US a chance to back out of a plan with questionable applicability and technological feasibility while at the same time forcing Russia out of the position of the aggrieved. But Obama's tactical maneuvering is aggressively defensive; it tacitly forces Russia to show the world whether it is willing to give up extensive trade and lucrative arms and technology deals with Iran in order to help calm growing fears about Iran's developing a nuclear bomb.

In his response to Obama's letter from three weeks ago, which included the offer, Medvedev wants to dispel the impression that it is somehow his turn to act. For example, he told reporters at a press conference in Spain on Tuesday that his letters and telephone conversations with Obama included "no talk about some kind of trade-off or quid pro quo" and that, instead, he was just happy that "our American partners are ready to discuss this problem," which he hinted was not the case under the Bush administration.

German commentators are not buying it. They recognize the shrewdness of Obama's move and are anxious to see how Russia responds. But they also acknowledge that an end to the missile shield plans also has consequences for Poland and the Czech Republic, as well.

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"Strategy forums have already been discussing for a long time the possibility of a 'great bargain' whereby America would cancel its plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe in return for a promise form Moscow that it will help Washington prevent Iran from gaining the ability to produce nuclear weapons. But the plausibility of this scenario hides what is, in reality, a rather complicated situation. As long as the UN is involved in negotiating with Tehran, the Chinese will also have a say in the matter, and there's no way they are going to let Washington and Moscow use their votes to pressure it. America also needs to take into consideration its allies in Europe and especially Poland and the Czech Republic, who decided to back the plan despite massive opposition. The issue is both about how reliable Washington's pledges are as well as one of saving face for Warsaw and Prague."

The Financial Times Deutschland writes:

"(President Obama's) offer to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is a clever move because it puts the ball in his court. With his offer, (Obama) is turning the tables: It is no longer the Americans who are threatening the security of Europe but, rather, the Russians who are being called upon to contribute to global security."

"The pressure on Moscow is now increasing to take a clear position on this issue and participate in potential future rounds of sanctions against Tehran. What's hard to know, however, is how effective this kind of cooperation would really be. Up to now, Iran hasn't seriously reacted to either threats or diplomatic efforts. Instead, it has just carried on with its nuclear program unperturbed. Chances are slim that there will be a new international offer before the (Iranian) presidential election in June, nor would one be very sensible. After that, however, the Americans might need to make use of the connections some of their allies have with Tehran. If Russia feels some sense of obligation, something will have already been accomplished."

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"If Obama can keep his footing during his initial steps on the foreign policy stage, one thing will become rather clear: The new US administration will not pussyfoot around when it comes to global politics. It is confident in its power and is sending out a signal that it is also prepared to exert it. At the same time, though, it is also making it clear that it wants to free itself from the obsessions of Bush's policies: the unflinching fixation on fighting terror; the missionary zeal for spreading freedom and democracy. Its message is that that is all part of the past and that US diplomacy will now pursue a new realism."

"When it comes to Russia, this signals that Washington is taking Moscow seriously and is not trying to dupe it in the way that Bush did with his plans for a missile defense shield. That is also important for a government that is doing all it can to be seen as a peer of the US. But it also means that the US isn't just backing down from a position but, rather, is unflinchingly pursuing its own interests. It is an offer with two-way flexibility: If Russia takes action and the pressure on Iran proves successful, the US will adapt the circumstances to its position. Obama has succeeded in creating a situation in which he has used the missile defense shield to gain some leverage."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"(US President Barack Obama) has outlined a plan that, if successful, could change the way that developing nuclear powers are dealt with by transforming the diplomatic coalition of the willing into a new, reliable and global situation based on agreements. The current nuclear non-proliferation treaty is no longer sufficient for keeping nuclear weapons from spreading. As one of that agreement's original primary sponsors, Russia should once again be persuaded to back a project of global disarmament. That is only going to work, however, if America meets Russia half way on the issues that Moscow has really chosen to make a stand on and if Russia is prepared to seriously negotiate."

"Both sides know where they stand. If Washington and Moscow can stop taking such defensive positions for no real reason, it would be a sign that serious talks have begun. In the end, the missile defense shield might even become totally unneeded."

-- Josh Ward, 1:00 p.m. CET


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