US-Russia Relations: It Could Be Worse
A Russian pundit dissects Putin's and Obama's seven year relationship
The author is research professor at the Moscow Higher School of Economics
Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama have probably met with each other for the last time - at any rate, as their countries' presidents. Obama will quit the White House in four months' time and, considering the general state of Russian-US relations, it is extremely hard to assume that an opportunity or a need to organize a special meeting will arise during the time that remains. Thus, the conversation in Hangzhou], which, according to Obama, took place in "an open, honest, and businesslike key" and, according to Putin, helped "to secure an understanding of one another and an understanding of the problems that we face," to all intents and purposes sums up the result of the two leaders' seven-year relationship.
It has to be said that the result turns out rather ambiguous or at least far more multilayered than can be judged from the harshly negative information background and the devastatingly critical public assessments.
This is probably the chief result: Moscow and Washington have gone back to that now rather forgotten state when the most important issues of international politics are resolved in discussions between precisely these two capitals. It is not a matter of the incredible might of Russia and America, for their possibility of controlling world processes has been reduced many times over compared with what it was 30 years ago. It is that there has been a sharp decrease in the number of effective powers in principle. Europe has lost the qualities of a political subject - paradoxically, both as a union and individually (that is, as separate large states). China, India, and Iran, despite the obvious growth of ambitions, aspirations, and potential, are not yet ready to participate independently in the grand military-political game. It turns out that in the Near East and in Ukraine - that is, in the two acutest regional crises today - Putin and Obama find themselves the main interlocutors. Hardly to their mutual pleasure, but still.
It is an open secret that the two presidents never had and still do not have any particular personal liking for each other - the so-called "chemistry." However, to judge from all the comments and descriptions by numerous chroniclers of the Obama presidency, he is not of the "chemical" type at all. Barack Obama does not at all resemble his own image, which half the world fell in love with in 2008 - open, affable, "most humane." The first black master of the White House is a cool and careful pragmatist who does not try too hard to forge close contacts with people, an intellectual who wishes to rationalize everything.
Since a politician in American culture simply cannot be a reserved introvert, the aforesaid qualities have to be offset by public behaviour. Obama made a strange impression as an orator, at least with regard to foreign policy. His statements about specific countries and leaders, including Russia and Putin personally, were frequently made beyond the bounds of what is permissible. Particularly when you consider that he had at the same time to tackle important issues with those countries and leaders. It is difficult to rid yourself of the feeling that it was in this outwardly emotional manner that the American President endeavoured to balance his superrationality in real actions, for which he was constantly being criticized both by opponents and even by associates.
The most graphic example, which cost Obama most dearly, was the "red line" that was once drawn for Syrian President Bashar al-Asad. To begin with, he announced an entirely nonbinding ultimatum. Later, when the time came to implement it, he decided not to do so. At the same time the actual decision was entirely reasonable and most likely helped to avoid something worse. But the manifestation of overt inconsistency damaged both the reputation of Obama himself and America's authority as a power that answers for its words.
However, if we get away from rhetoric (to give him his due, Vladimir Putin never responded to any value statements by his American counterpart), the two presidents, who do not feel a liking for one another, managed to maintain a working contact over those issues on which this was necessary. Both sides displayed pragmatism. If an acceptable scheme for demarcating interests in Syria can nonetheless be worked out over the next few weeks, then this can be regarded simply as a big success.
Relations between Putin and Obama provide an example of quite effective damage limitation in a situation where the actual relations are of an antagonistic nature, when interests do not coincide in the main, and the view of the world coincides in practically nothing. The goal of these relations is not to improve them but to manage risks. Partly as in the cold war, but only partly, since now, owing to the far more complex and tangled international picture, the need for cooperation arises much more frequently than in the era of the world's ideological division.
Whoever wins the election in November, the Russian-American context will change. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton take quite different views of foreign policy, but neither of them shares Obama's approach. Trump caustically and loudly, Clinton in a concealed way, but the different nature of her views is obvious. It is perfectly possible that, following Barack Obama's departure, the restraining role that he played thanks to his distaste for risk taking will become far clearer. We will recall his time as a fairly calm period between Moscow and Washington.