Despite all the uproar generated by President Barack Obama’s open-mike comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the nuclear summit in Seoul, no one should be shocked that election-year calculations play a major role in international politics. It is perfectly understandable that, in gearing up for what will be a tough and challenging re-election campaign, Obama would prefer not to have to deal with crises now if they can be postponed until after the ballots have been cast. This same logic has driven efforts to persuade Israel not to launch a strike on Iran, which might have immediate and drastic consequences for the U.S. economy in the months prior to the November ballot.
Moreover, a campaigner cannot be a good statesman, particularly in an environment where a willingness to search for mutually acceptable solutions is attacked by domestic opponents as weakness. The kind of compromise that permitted the New START treaty to move forward, for instance, would be impossible for Obama to repeat over the coming months, so Moscow does not stand to gain much by pressing hard for concessions over missile defense at the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago. Of all people, Vladimir Putin, set to return to the Russian presidency in May, should understand this dynamic perfectly. His harsh attacks in recent months on U.S. policy, which caused some Western analysts to declare the demise of the U.S.-Russia “reset,” were part and parcel of an electoral strategy designed to strengthen Putin’s nationalist credentials.
The question is whether Putin, and other foreign leaders, are anxious to do Obama any favors. Do they want to help the president by postponing potentially troublesome matters until after the presidential election? Or have they calculated that having a different occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue come January 2013 is more in their interests?