Every once in a while a surprising thing happens in geopolitics and the entire world is taken off guard. Wars and the like usually have a long burn leading up to them so that when they occur no one is surprised. Certainly the arrival of the Arab Spring in Tunisia was one such event that changed the shape of an entire region and now one letter appears to be setting the stage for yet another shift. Vladimir Putin, the longtime President of Russia, published an Op/Ed in the New York Times this morning and I suggest you read it for the following reasons not the least of which is that it’s nearly unprecedented. The column does many things but below are some of the more important and the reasons why they’re important.
The letter sets forth how the balance of global power should proceed:
For nearly 50 years the Soviet Union counterbalanced the West during the Cold War and while it was a terrifying time for the world it was also a lot more stable then that it is now. I’m not saying that the specific form of stability was preferable but there was predictability and the burden of global influence was shared. America didn’t feel they had to be the world’s police and couldn’t have been had they wanted to be.
In Putin’s letter he states that continued unilateral action by the US across the world runs the risk of undermining the UN’s mission. In short, it runs the risk of undermining compromise between nations and souring partnerships. It’s a savvy observation. “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorization.” He has real history behind him here. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was never approved by the UN, we went it alone, and our military adventures abroad in places like Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan have all been independent actions. Putin rightly points out that the world doesn’t like this, that it undermines the contract between signatories to the UN charter.
Bottom line, Putin is saying “less you alone and more us.” Yes, he means specifically Russian influence. You see, Russia has been down a long time, since the fall of the Berlin wall, the crash into history of the Soviet Union, but Russia is ascendant now. Their influence is expanding and they have allies. Putin, it seems to me, is saying “it can go the way it did during the Cold War or it can go differently.” Differently would be less US hegemony and that’s not a bad thing in my view. Hegemony is expensive in both lives and money.
The authoring of the letter itself indicates extreme seriousness:
The President of a major power does not publish a letter issuing a specific course of action unless he is prepared to follow through in some substantive matter. To do otherwise is to declare weakness in front of the entire world and Russians aren’t big fans of showing weakness. Putin is putting it on the line here. He’s trying to forge a path not just for Russia but for the Middle East as well. The negative repercussions of the Arab Spring have rocked the region and the US has been unable or unwilling to do anything to even steer events there. Putin sees opportunity for Russia to “help” and that help will give Russia cache and regional influence. The US is floundering. We’re providing weapons and funding to extremist groups, ignoring what effects the fall of Assad would have in the region, and moralizing about a conflict in which we are clearly biased. We’re overstretched. If Russia leads on this then they begin to take leadership on world issues again. He who plays the pipe also calls the tune.
Bringing a peaceful end to Syria’s chemical weapons program would be an incredible accomplishment. Bringing about some plan for resolution in the Syrian civil war would also indicate that Russia can deliver. As far as world opinion is concerned, everyone loves a leader that can deliver. This section is both true and encouraging for a variety of reasons:
From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue enabling Syrians to develop a compromise plan for their own future. We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.
This isn’t to say that Russia hasn’t picked a side, it has, it’s just to say that we’re playing the wrong game here. It’s time to re-institute the rules.
The guy knows how to be prideful and extend an olive branch at the same time:
The final paragraph of Putin’s column is masterfully crafted. He manages to do two things. The first is that he compliments President Obama and says that they’re coming to accord. This has not been said by a Russian President about an American one since the drunkard Yeltsin occupied the Kremlin in the 90s. Despite assertions from some corners of the web (*cough cough* Buzzfeed) Russia and the US are closer right now than they have been in over ten years. It’s just that closer doesn’t have to take on the form of best buds. Only the immature or foolish that believe that international relationships work the way friendships do. Nations are not people.
Putin also manages to challenge the US to be what it claims to be, a believer in Jeffersonian equality, that all people are created equal. He rightly points out that this belief stands in stark opposition to the Reaganistic belief in “American exceptionalism,” that the US is the only shining beacon on a hill. This is important because it’s a discussion that the US has been having internally for decades and that exceptionalism has won almost every time. John McCain is idiotically stunned by Putin pointing out this dynamic as are some other Senators. But if they had their way we’d just bomb everyone that didn’t agree with us.
Here’s the text:
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
This is the best thing that’s happened for President Barack Obama since Osama bin Laden was killed whether foreign policy analysts see it yet or not. Here’s hoping he’s ready to shift gears and play the old game of diplomacy those of us who voted for him believe he can.