Fourteen days in October 1963, a young president, freshly elected to the White House, bore the test of a lifetime. The Soviet Union positioned nuclear tipped missiles (SS-4s and SS-5s) on Cuban territory, enough to give it first strike capability on the continental US. In what is widely considered to be the consummate display of presidential bravery, President Kennedy called the Soviet Union’s bluff and through a diplomatic tango, had the missiles removed, averting Armageddon.
On November 5, 2008, the day after the historic US election that galvanized a nation and the world, in a not so quiet move, Russian president Dmitri Medvedev, pledged in an unusually assertive and nationalistic first annual address to the nation speech, that Russia will counter American plans for a missile shield based in Eastern Europe. Mr. Medvedev bombarded his audience with attacks on Washington, blaming it for everything from the global financial crisis to the “selfish” foreign policy that triggered the Russian incursion into Georgia. Mr. Medvedev announced that Iskander Ballistic missiles will be placed in the Russian territory of Kalingrad, which is snuggled between Poland and Lithuania. He left unsaid whether they would carry a nuclear payload. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, Russian missiles will actively targeting Europe and US bases on the European continent.
Russia, which views the US missile shield as an existential threat to its security, pledged to actively defeat any US anti-missile system. Mr. Medvedev’s speech was for US consumption- i.e., the incoming Obama administration – as a test of its mettle. President-elect Obama, who initially disagreed with the missile plan, later modified his opinion, on the condition that the anti-missile system not target Russia. Presidents. Medvedev and Obama are similar is quite a number of ways: each is a young president, each a lawyer by training, and each has been criticized roundly for an apparent lack of political experience before taking the helm.
However, in a clearly aimed shot across the bow, Mr. Medvedev intends to test the incoming Obama administration’s resolve with regard to the anti-missile system, perhaps in the belief that Mr. Obama will not be as assertive (or brash) as his predecessor. Whether the missile system is appropriate, Mr. Medvedev plans to test the resolve of the President-elect, with ramifications that go far beyond the physical placement of an anti-missile system. Negotiation is always best, diplomacy is always key in this fast changing geopolitical scene; but signs of weakness or indecision do not bode well. As President Kennedy so articulately stated, “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” Mr. Obama seems to exude this wisdom.
During his sole high level meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in June 1961, President Kennedy, however eloquent, was verbally blitzkrieged by his much older opponent. During this verbal spar, Mr. Khrushchev targeted the US’s alleged hypocrisy in foreign relations, and – in presaging Mr. Medvedev’s words – accused the US of standing against the freedom and sovereignty of other nations. Khrushchev ended his tirade by warning that it would be very “unwise” to surround his country with a ring of US military bases. He left this verbal one sided brawl with a very low opinion of the new American president, whom he famously characterized as “too intelligent and too weak.” Mr. Khrushchev’s subsequent ratcheting up of the rhetoric and his anti-American gambits, such as the Berlin wall and nuclear missile placement in Cuba, were based in a large degree on the impression formed during the Vienna negotiations in the embryonic days of the Kennedy Administration.
It remains to be seen how Mr. Obama will react to the first test of his administration. However, much like Soviet Premier Khrushchev several decades ago, President Medvedev may be surprised.