It is striking, when they are together, how much more vital Russian President Vladimir Putin seems than President Obama. Obama is in better shape and younger, but there’s somehow more rawness and power in Putin’s bulk. The two offered rival views of the world in speeches to the UN on Monday, and it was likewise Putin’s world that seemed more vital and real, and Obama’s that was more elegant but dimmed.
Obama sounded familiar notes during his address. He mentioned cooperation in his second sentence, international rules and norms by his sixth, and international order by the seventh. When he addressed specific issues, like Syria and Ukraine, it was in the context of those rules and their breach. Within minutes, he had condemned those, like the unnamed Putin, who would return to a might-makes-right zero-sum international game.
Putin sounded a different note. Freedom, he said, could only come from state sovereignty, by which he meant state power, legitimate because it was there. He hammered on state power, urged the support of Bashar Assad’s authority in Syria, and paradoxically called for recognizing the rights of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine. But there are no paradoxes in Russia, or in Putin’s view of power.
BARACK OBAMA AND VLADIMIR PUTIN SPAR ON SYRIA AND UKRAINE AT UNITED NATIONS
Different words, and a different tone; but today, it is striking that Putin’s values are the ones that are flourishing.
Ethnic solidarity. Tribal loyalty. And power above all, state power, legitimate by definition, not so different from the divine right of kings.
Obama’s world is a classically liberal one, in the best sense, based on common prosperity and peace. Its weakness is that Putin does not value the dividends of peace as much as he values the dividends of power, and because he doesn’t, his surrounding states can’t, either.
Obama spoke of the “consequences” that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had forced him into, but to Putin those limited consequences were well worth it.
A sharp lesson had been taught to other Eastern European states that would defy him. For Estonia, which had a security officer kidnapped from its soil last year before he was sentenced by Russia to 15 years for spying. For Latvia, with its 26% ethnic Russian population. For Georgia, with NATO membership as a lost dream. Even in Poland, there are the forces of accommodation who are unheroic but believe in hedging their bets. They may well prefer Obama’s world, but Putin’s is a far surer thing.
The Middle East has joined Putin’s world as well. At the peaks of American power, the Arab states have bought into American rules and norms because they had no choice. In 2003, in 1993, in 1973, different rulers at different times have bought into the American order. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat used his unprecedented Russian support and weapons to start the Yom Kippur War, which he lost, and was forced to accept a peace. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat accepted the same peace in 1993 at Oslo, once the collapse of the Soviet Union had made military defiance of the American order seemingly untenable. And the region grudgingly accepted George W. Bush’s democratization crusade, though they would drag their feet and stall until the luster had come off.
Explaining why Obama’s world finally collapsed in the Middle East depends largely on which original sin you believe in: the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or its abandonment in 2011. Maybe Syria in 2013. Maybe Iran in 2015. Maybe none. Maybe all. But the old order and norms are gone. In Syria, a civil war is being fought with brute force among the most ancient identities possible, those of Sunnis, Shiites and Alawites. There’s not much talk of norms.
VLADIMIR PUTIN TAUNTS PRESIDENT OBAMA FOR FAILURE TO STOP ISLAMIC STATE ON ’60 MINUTES’
This, then, is the great irony facing the President: That only when Putin’s world of power has been thwarted can Obama’s world of norms and order prevail. He can lecture the UN about the benefits of prosperity and peace, but until the aggression of Putin and others has been settled, the aligned and nonaligned alike have to hedge their bets.
Russian and Chinese power is lasting, and the American ideal is fleeting. We have to win Putin’s game before we can play our own.
Andrew L. Peek (@AndrewLPeek) is a professor at Claremont McKenna College and was a strategic adviser to the top NATO commander in Afghanistan.