When President Obama arrives in Moscow July 6, he will enter a world that has very little in common with the world he knows in the U.S. In the U.S., openness and compromise are prized qualities. In Russia, contentious issues are generally decided by force.
Russia, like the Soviet Union, is a hall of mirrors in which nothing is what it seems. President Medvedev and other Russian officials will argue forcefully against the installation of an U.S. anti-missile system in Eastern European and NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. But they will not be trying to make Obama believe their statements. They will be trying to convince him that they believe them.
In fact, Obama is being invited to a performance in which the Russian officials have pre-assigned roles. The roles can change, of course. This is why the official who plays King Oberon today can tomorrow play Puck. But the performance never becomes real. It is always based on the notion that truth is not valuable for its own sake, but is only whatever is useful at any particular moment.
Obama is from the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, as am I (I used to live down the street from him on Hyde Park Boulevard.) Despite justifiable neighborhood pride in his election, Obama’s roots in our community make me uneasy. Hyde Park is the neighborhood of the University of Chicago and it is a place where people generally believe that the world’s problems are the fault of the U.S. This attitude may induce Obama to take the Russian performance literally. Obama is a sophisticated and worldly man, but experience of the special psychological atmosphere of Russia is something that few people have. He should bear in mind the wisdom of George Orwell, who wrote: “He nothing knows of England who only England knows.”
— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State.