Medvedev-Obama: The Cheeseburger Summit

Ariel Cohen /

Following months of intense diplomacy between the United States and Russia focusing on “resetting” bilateral relations, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev visited the United States for two days. The tour included stops in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Stanford University, and a Washington, D. C summit with President Obama.

In trying to move the focus of US-Russian ties beyond security and geopolitical issues such as arms control and Iran, the trip was intended to take the relationship to the next level—greater economic engagement. It was also intended to show the smiling face of Russia for the U.S. Senate, which will soon consider ratification of the New START strategic nuclear treaty, signed by both Presidents in April.

Overall, the summit was arguably mostly about optics and perceptions—intended to trumpet success and make both leaders look good. This was exemplified when both leaders took a limo to Ray’s Hell Burger in Arlington, Virginia. The two ate cheeseburgers and even shared a plate of fries, eating amongst the regular crowd.

While this event created a feel-good atmosphere, it was misleading. Why? No matter how delicious were burgers and fries, this exercise will not resolve the imbalances and strategic rivalries that Obama is creating in the U.S. relationship with Russia.

Cheeseburger diplomacy and rhetoric of “partnership” with the Kremlin will not address the deficiencies of the New START Treaty and self-imposed limitations on missile defense. Nor will it make our friends in the former Soviet Union safer.

Presidential smiles and handshakes will not improve the rule of law within Russia and the state of political and economic freedoms—both long-term interests of the United States and the Russian people.

At a U.S.- Russian Civil Society Summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke about the benefits to Russia already accruing from the “reset:”

…following the U.S.-Russian Innovation Dialogue last February, Russian and American NGOs signed an MOU to promote the Text4Baby bottle, which uses mobile service technology to provide health information to pregnant women and new mothers.

While talk of baby formula bottle labels and Iphones abound, there was no mention of human rights violations, beating of demonstrators who support the Russian Constitution, increasing control of media, and the rollback of political and economic freedom by the Russian Government.

Medvedev promised that Russia will be committed to a predictable investment environment and will battle to curb corruption. However, these words rang hollow as the TV channels are under rigorous state control; murderers of the lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who was allowed to die in custody, and of prominent journalists and human rights activists are at large, the Mikhail Khodorkovsky second trial is continuing unabated, and liberal opposition is hounded.

Moreover, state management of innovation, even if coupled with technology from Silicon Valley, is unlikely to make Russia a high tech superpower. The extractive industries is where Russia’s comparative advantage lies, while the Soviet-era science and technology base is deteriorating. After all, its source of support was the Soviet military-industrial complex.

Lastly, the US-Russian bilateral strategic agenda is far from being all sunshine. The New START treaty, signed by U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on April 8, clearly does not serve U.S. strategic interests. Problems include limitations on U.S. nuclear modernization, on ballistic missile defense and conventionally armed ICBM capabilities, as well as ambiguities surrounding verification. There are serious concerns about START in the Senate. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recent objections to US and EU unilateral sanctions on Iran.

There may be a rocky road ahead, where it really matters – in geopolitics and arms control. And no amount of burgers and fries is going to change that.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. The author thanks Owen Graham, Research Assistant at the Davis Institute.