Pinn illustration
© Financial Times

An opinion poll released last week revealed some heartening news for the US. President Barack Obama is the most popular political figure in the world. The least trusted leaders, according to a poll of 20 countries conducted by, are President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad of Iran and Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. When Mr Obama has breakfast with Mr Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, it will be a meeting between the world’s romantic hero and one of its pantomime villains.

But charm and good looks can only get you so far in geopolitics.Mr Obama’s charismatic aura is obscuring an uncomfortable truth. His foreign policy is in crisis.

The arms-control agreement signed on Monday between the US and Russia will give the president some badly-needed positive news to bring back from Moscow. But beneath the smiley surface, relations between Russia and the US remain tense and suspicious.

Just a few months into his presidency, Mr Obama’s policy of engagement with Iran has also been all but wrecked by the violent crackdown in that country. His advisers once day-dreamed about a dramatic presidential trip to Tehran, a speech before cheering students, a disarming smile for Mr Ahmadi-Nejad. All of that is unthinkable now. Instead, Mr Obama is left having to cope with a wounded and aggressive Iranian government, intent on pressing ahead with its nuclear programme. The US president will now have to fend off the “bomb Iran” lobby – but without being able to point to a plausible diplomatic alternative.

The policy of American engagement with Russia is going only a little better. Agreements on arms control and transit routes to Afghanistan cannot extinguish the still smouldering antagonisms created by last year’s Georgia war.

Above all Mr Obama is getting nothing on the issue he placed at the centre of his drive for a rapprochement with Russia: Iran.

Mr Obama’s problems with Iran and Russia are merging into a single, nasty mess. The president had seen an improved relationship with Russia as the key to solving Iran. The idea was that the newly friendly Russians would help to talk their Iranian neighbours into a nuclear deal. If that did not work, Russia would help to tighten sanctions on Iran. Without the Kremlin there can be no new United Nations sanctions on Iran (that pesky Russian veto). A package of western sanctions that does not include Russia would be too full of holes to put real pressure on Iran.

But Russia looks very unlikely to co-operate with the US on sanctions. So both the Iranian and Russian problems are getting worse.

The impasse over Iran points to a broader problem in the Obama approach to Russia. The new administration reckoned that President George W. Bush had got sucked into an unnecessarily antagonistic relationship with the Kremlin. Mr Obama wanted to play down arguments over Georgia and missile defence, and instead engage Russia on more important strategic questions where the countries have shared interests: arms control, Iran, terrorism, Afghanistan, the world economy, climate change. Once the Americans and Russians got used to co-operating on these big issues, they could return to the difficult problems in a calmer atmosphere.

The trouble is that while Mr Obama wants US-Russian relations to be about the creation of “win-win” situations, the Russians are treating the relationship more like an arm-wrestling match. They seem intent on exploring whether America’s efforts to get past the dispute over Georgia mean that the US is now prepared to grant them their longed-for “sphere of influence” in the former Soviet Union. The US has had to push back – creating continuing tensions over Georgia, Ukraine and missile defence.

The Americans think they have detected a genuine split in Russia between relative liberals around President Dmitry Medvedev and a more thuggish group around Mr Putin. Mr Obama has almost said as much. But even if the split exists, it is not much help – for it seems that the Putinites are in the ascendancy. One sign of this was Russia’s recent decision to abandon its pursuit of membership of the World Trade Organisation.

The result is that the US government’s efforts to press the reset button have not really succeeded in rebooting US-Russian relations. Despite Monday’s deal, they are still angry and dominated by mutual suspicion.

This presents both a foreign policy and a domestic political problem for Mr Obama. He is not making progress on Iran, and the clock is ticking. Fresh problems in Russia’s “near abroad” could blow up at any moment. And at home, conservatives are itching to paint him as a “second Jimmy Carter” – weak, naive and pushed around by foreigners.

Faced with this critique, the president will be under pressure to prove that he can be tough. But that can be a dangerous trap for a young, liberal president: similar pressures led John F. Kennedy to take the first steps into Vietnam and President Carter to launch the disastrous effort to rescue the American hostages in Iran.

The Bush administration tested to destruction the idea that American foreign policy should be based on confronting “evil”. So this is indeed a moment for Mr Obama to be tough on foreign policy. He needs to be tough enough not to be panicked into macho gestures by the setbacks he has suffered in Russia and Iran.
More columns at
Read and post comments at Gideon Rachman’s blog

Get alerts on US when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article