EYE ON ALLIANCES: THE OBAMA FACTOR

Talk of sustained $200 dollar oil has receded as fast as it arrived and its wake has battered the implausible alliance of Russian nationalists, Shiite theocrats and Latin American Marxists that sprang up in the face of the Bush administration’s foreign Policy.


Response to the Obama victory drew very different responses from the Russian, Iranian and Venezuelan governments –prompting not only the test of the president elect predicted by Joe Biden, but also the commitment of nations whose only common cause was anti-American sentiment to cooperation.

The State of the Nation delivered by Dmitry Medvedev this week was the most nakedly aggressive statement made by his government since the cessation of hostilities in Georgia. In direct statements Medvedev threatened to challenge NATO and US plans to put a protective barrier of missiles in Poland with new Russian missile deployments on the borders of former soviet satellites, vowed that the Russian policy in the Caucuses would not be altered by pressure from the west and placed the blame for the economic turmoil threatening the Russian markets squarely on the failure of US banks and regulators. In the days since the speech, developments have suggested that the face Medvedev wears before his countrymen differs from that he shows to the outside world. The Russian president had a phone conversation with president elect Obama yesterday while official statements surrounding the call were couched in less confrontational terms. No doubt the tragic fire on a nuclear submarine over the weekend has underscored the fragile state of their soviet-era military infrastructure in the minds of Kremlin leaders.

By contrast the tone of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s response to the Obama victory seemed remarkably reconciliatory. In a statement posted online the Iranian president wrote that “the great nation of Iran welcomes basic and fair changes in US policies and conducts, especially in the region", among other pleasantries sprinkled amid the saber rattling bluster that the world has grown to expects from this clown prince. As the president of a debtor nation dependant on alliances of convenience to achieve military and energy security, Ahmadinejad has seen his popularity at home plummet with successive diplomatic blunders over Iran’s nuclear program and a series of scandals –most recently the discovery that a trusted cabinet member had forged his academic credentials. As such, securing any audience with the new US administration would provide him more political breathing room. His popularity with voters is not his only concern: Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has been publicly supported Ahmadinejad’s policies to date, but there has long been speculation that the nation’s religious authorities grow tired of his constant posturing. For Obama the cost of any dialogue with Iran in the early stages of his administration would be steep –the alienation of Israel and handy fodder for partisan criticism at home.

Hugo Chavez raised prospects of new dialogue with the US even before the election took place. In a statement on November 2nd he expressed willingness to meet with the anticipated president-elect saying: “Hopefully with Obama, we will enter a new phase”. For Chavez, the prospect of declining oil may bring fewer concerns than many opponents at home and abroad might hope. Although his political base was built on expansive social programs fueled by petro dollars (as was his foreign policy), Mr. Chavez has long singled out Fidel Castro as a role model. Presumably, like El Camandante, Chavez will not be overly concerned about the misery of his people so long as he is able to maintain power for himself and his Bolivarist comrades. Despite this, it is doubtful that Venezuela’s leaders are anxious to see any of its’ regional allies swing towards greater US economic cooperation as the global recession deepens, nor will they be happy about prospects for completing the announced military contracts with Russia now that state coffers cannot count on endless revenues from oil. Like Ahmadinejad, Chavez cannot afford to let the opportunity provided by the changing administration in the US slip through his fingers –Obama’s international popularity provides the chance for US critics to soften their stance without appearing weak at home.

It’s true that politics makes for strange bedfellows, but by any standards the cooperation between Chavez, Ahmadinejad and Putin’s Russia has been particularly bizarre. A convergence of the opportunity for new beginnings with the US and the end of sky-high energy prices (at least for now) seem to spell the end for this alliance of convenience. Whether this will make the world a more secure place, is still far from clear.

Andrew barber
Director