President Obama talks about Vladimir Putin as if he were a Pennsylvania “clinger” who operates on outdated principles, who is driven by fear, and whom unfortunately the post-Enlightenment mind of even Barack Obama cannot always reach. Deconstruct a recent CBS News interview with President Obama, and the limitations of his now-routine psychoanalyses are all too clear. Consider the following presidential assertions:
Obama said in the CBS interview that Vladimir Putin was “willing to show a deeply held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union.”
Is that any surprise? Why would Putin not “show a deeply held grievance” — given that Russians enjoyed far more pride and influence when they had far more territory and power than they do now? Just because elites in the West might consider Denmark and Luxembourg model societies, given their per capita incomes, ample social services, high-speed mass transit, and climate-change sensitivities, does not necessarily mean that the grandchildren of Stalingrad and Leningrad would agree.
“Considers”? Did we miss something here?
Did not the Soviet Union disappear from the map? Did not it leave in its ruin a much smaller Russian Federation — one perhaps far less dangerous and with more potential to get along with the West, but with far less likelihood of regaining the glory and influence that many Russians had come to appreciate?
Obama went on: “You would have thought that after a couple of decades that there’d be an awareness on the part of any Russian leader that the path forward is not to revert back to the kinds of practices that, you know, were so prevalent during the Cold War but, in fact, to move forward with further integration with the world economy and to be a responsible international citizen.”
Who “would have thought” that?
Only a naïf.
Does Obama believe in a linear trajectory of history, in which man’s nature is constantly improved with greater material bounty and ever more education, until we reach the apparent present utopian state, where “integration with the world economy” and being “a responsible international citizen” must logically preclude most aggression?
That foreign-policy scenario, given the nature of man, is about as believable as an assertion that we 21st-century Americans long ago transcended 19th-century rough-and-tumble politics and government corruption, where once upon a time presidents lied brazenly to the people, government bureaus went after an administration’s political enemies, and California state legislators were facing charges of gun running, bribery, and fraud. Given Benghazi, the AP monitoring, the NSA and IRS scandals, and the serial non-enforcement of settled law, I’d say the present administration is closer to Boss Tweed than to a promised 21st-century “transparent” politics.
As far as Putin’s pre-Enlightenment, pre-Harvard brain goes, I think he would prefer to humiliate the U.S. over Syria, block our initiatives in the U.N., empower Iran to cause nuclear mischief in the Middle East, and take two steps forward absorbing former Soviet republics while taking one step backward as he assures Obama on each occasion that he has no more territorial aspirations in Europe.
Obama is perplexed by Putin’s Neanderthal club-waving. But Putin believes that he does not need aircraft carriers and Marines to exercise national clout — only his own indomitable will and adversaries who “would have thought” he was better than that.
Obama also said that Putin sees the breakup of the Soviet Union as “tragic.” I suppose Obama means “tragic” in the Sophoclean sense of great ambitions gone terribly wrong through hubris, with disastrous consequences all around. But I doubt that Putin believes much in the ironies and paradoxes of tragedy. He embraces no such complex anguish about the end of the Soviet Union; he merely knows that Russians once were powerful and now they are not. And that is not so much tragic as a very bad thing — though a bad thing that still can be rectified in the time remaining until 2017.
Apparently, enlightened minds assume that no sane person could imagine that the collapse of a criminal regime that butchered 10 to 20 million of its own people, and caused misery for a half-century around the globe, could be seen as anything but wonderful. Thus the unenlightened and anguished Putin surely must wrongly interpret the collapse of the USSR as “tragic,” rather than in such primitive fashion lament it as something disastrous for the Russian sense of self.
Obama went on: “There’s a strong sense of Russian nationalism and a sense that somehow the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past and that he wants to, in some fashion, reverse that or make up for that.”
Most countries other than the United States and Sweden entertain “a strong sense of . . . nationalism” in that they view themselves as exceptional people with interests to be protected and promoted. Russians don’t just sense that “the West has taken advantage of Russia in the past,” but know that we have: They lost the Cold War and we won it. That fact has meant that from 1989 onward, the U.S. has had strategic options that were simply unavailable between 1946 and 1989. A sole superpower can do things that one superpower cannot in a bipolar world where power is balanced and thus often neutralized.
Why is Obama somewhat perplexed that Putin and Russians in general would like “to reverse that or make up for that”? For our part, we should ensure, as much as we feasibly can in a nuclear world, that Russian values — tsarist, Communist, or Putinist — are kept within the borders of the Russian Federation lest they destroy, as they so often have in the last three centuries, those countries without Russian majorities — the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, the former Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria, among others — that are unfortunate enough to be both small and proximate to Russia.
Obama added: “What I have repeatedly said is that he may be entirely misreading the West. He’s certainly misreading American foreign policy. We have no interest in encircling Russia and we have no interest in Ukraine beyond letting the Ukrainian people make their own decisions about their own lives.”
This appeal to enlightened reason is rather pathetic. I doubt very seriously that Putin believes that reset policies have led to an encirclement of Russia. I doubt also that he is “misreading” the West.
Is not the very opposite true?
More likely Putin is reading us all too well, and therefore believes that the West is so distracted, weak, or self-absorbed that it most surely has no interest in Ukraine at all. Obama misses the point that it is precisely because we have no demonstrable interest in Ukraine — even in the marginal sense of trying to help it retain its autonomy — and because Putin has read that attitude very well, that he has decided to carve it up.
Obama continued. “And it is true that we reject the notion that there is a sphere of influence along the Russian border that then justifies Russia invading other countries. Certainly they’re going to have influence because of trade and tradition and language and heritage with Ukraine. Everybody acknowledges that. But there’s a difference between that and sending in troops, and because you’re bigger and stronger taking a piece of the country — that is not how international law and international norms are observed in the 21st century.”
Why necessarily is the 21st century any different from, say, the 19th? Are politicians now smarter, more ethical, and less inclined to bully, to cheat, and to lie? We should not confuse material and technological progress with moral progress. Google or Apple is as likely to offshore money and outsource jobs as any 1950s smokestack corporation. Obama (“punish our enemies”) waged a campaign and raised money in a fashion not much different from that of any late-19th-century bare-knuckle brawler. When Obama boasted that he had a “pen and a phone” and would bypass Congress, he was assuming that he was stronger than Congress, and therefore had the 19th-century power to do what he wished with executive orders, in a way entirely antithetical to both constitutional governance and his own prior 21st-century vows of ending “red” and “blue” political divisions.
If I were Obama, I would not boast about the moral superiority of the modern world — as if we don’t any more allow hundreds of thousands, or rather millions in aggregate, to die in places like Rwanda, Serbia, or the Congo. If anything, when we compare a 19th-century pogrom to a 20th-century Auschwitz, or what the Athenians did to the Melians with what Mao did to his own people, or what the 9/11 hijackers did with what a 19th-century anarchist did with a bomb, or what racist Belgians did to 19th-century Congolese with what Congolese did to Congolese in the 21st century, the modern world does not come off too well. Europe between 1815 and 1914 was a far less bloody and less dangerous place than Europe between 1914 and 1989.
Obama also pointed to the U.N. vote and noted with satisfaction that 100 countries voted in favor of a resolution that condemned the invasion of Crimea, and only eleven voted against it.
To paraphrase Aristotle, it is easy to be moral in our sleep. Obama apparently cannot distinguish between what nations profess in the abstract and what such professions cost them in the concrete, when there are consequences beyond rhetorical gymnastics. The vast majority of members of the League of Nations condemned Italy for annexing Abyssinia, Japan for doing the same to Manchuria, and Germany for absorbing Austria. In rare cases, there were even various embargoes, sanctions, and ultimata that were for a time loudly voiced. But nothing much else happened.
We are pleased that the majority of U.N. members do not approve of Vladimir Putin. But unless the United States shows extraordinary leadership, most nations in Putin’s path are likely to make the necessary arrangements for their survival and assure him that their prior votes of outrage were mostly for show.
What is tragic in this crisis is Obama’s bewilderment that Putins still exist in his 21st century. They do, and will in the 22nd century as well.