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November 9, 2012

INTERNATIONAL: Obama’s return a test of evolving foreign policy


DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — RUSSIA

During his first term, Obama made improving relations with Russia a priority. His so-called reset policy yielded dividends, including a major nuclear arms control pact, Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and Russian help with the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

But as he moves into his second term, Obama’s Russia policy could take a bumpy turn. Among the areas of contention: Russia’s backing of Assad’s regime in Syria and opposition to increased Western sanctions on Iran.

In March, Obama was caught on a microphone telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev that the U.S. would have more flexibility to work on missile defense issues after the election. Moscow wants Obama to scale back the U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe that Russia has stridently opposed. But any move by the White House to limit those plans would provoke cries of appeasement from Republicans, who will continue to control the House of Representatives.

Obama is pushing to lift Cold-War era trade restrictions that are preventing U.S. companies from enjoying the full benefits of Russia’s entry into the WTO. U.S. lawmakers, including many from Obama’s party, are tying the removal of restrictions to another bill that would target senior Russian officials implicated in human rights abuses with financial sanctions. The Kremlin has said it would retaliate with economic measures of its own.


There’s little appetite in Washington to haggle with North Korea for possible deals to provide aid in return for a rollback in Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Last year, Obama’s sole attempt at negotiating a nuclear freeze with North Korea in exchange for food aid ended in failure when Pyongyang launched a long-range rocket in defiance of U.N. ban. Now, North Korea is hinting that it may withdraw from its 2005 commitments on denuclearization as a prelude to declaring itself a nuclear power, which would bring strong U.S. objections.

Washington could respond by moving to tighten already tough sanctions against the North, but that could likely leave the U.S. at odds with the winner of a December presidential election in key ally South Korea. The next president is expected to adopt a more conciliatory stance toward the North than the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak, who has been Obama’s staunchest backer in Asia.

The U.S. will continue urging China to use its fraternal relations and economic leverage over North Korea to urge it to disarm, but China will remain reluctant to use too much pressure. Beijing fears a collapse of fledgling leader Kim Jong Un’s government and the instability and flood of refugees that could ensue. China also fears the possible emergence of a U.S. ally on its border if the rival Koreas unify.

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