On Monday in Seoul, South Korea, reporters waiting for remarks following a meeting between President Obama and Russian President Medvedev overhead Obama tell Medvedev: “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved but it’s important for him to give me space.” Obama added: “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”
The antecedent to “this,” is certainly Russia’s various demands that NATO limit the missile defense system it is building in Europe, which is intended primarily as a defense against missiles launched by Iran or other rogue nations. Russia still believes that its security depends on mutual vulnerability to retaliation. Russia has demanded some operational control over NATO’s missile defenses and written guarantees that Russian missiles will not be targeted. Several times, Russia has also threatened to withdraw from the New Start Treaty unless NATO makes concessions, most recently just three days before the Medvedev/Obama summit.
Obama sees arms control as a means of getting to a world of zero nuclear weapons. But disarmament can’t work when your negotiating partner really wants to maintain its arsenal to keep you vulnerable. Maintaining mutual vulnerability to retaliation would mean we also remain vulnerable to any aggression. The whole point of missile defense is that we prefer not to be vulnerable at all. Obama’s comments suggest he’s willing to go along withRussia’s program when it becomes politically possible to do so.