By Gordon M. Hahn
The connection between these two things – diplomacy and respect – has been lost on American foreign policymakers under the Barack Obama administration. In a recent oped in the independent Russian daily Nezavisimaya gazeta, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s translator and advisor, Pavel Palazchenko, noted the positive role American respect for their Soviet interlocutors had on the making of perestroika and the end of Cold War. Many years after the (first?) Cold War’s end, President Ronald Reagan’s fomer Secretary of State George Shultz invited Palazchenko and former Soviet Foreign Minister Press Department chief Gennadii Gerasimov to lunch. “Interacting with you, Shultz said, we tried to show you that despite all the disagreements, we regarded you with respect. Gerasimov and I confirmed that we felt this and particularly from Shultz” (Pavel Palazchenko, “V Belovezhskoi pushche ne prislushilas’ k preduprezhdeniyami Gorbacheva,” Nezavisimaya gazeta, 19 May 2015, www.ng.ru/ng_politics/2015-05-19/14_gorbachev.html).
Obama has taken a distinctly different approach, having been schooled in the leftist cricles that sees their opponents as fascists, racists, sexists, etc., etc., etc. (http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2013/01/at-church-obamas-pastor-calls-republicans-the-enemies-starts-chanting-forward/). As with his domestic opponents, Obama prefers to issue snide and insulting remarks about his competitors, opponents and, as he once called Republicans, his enemies. In October 2010, In a radio interview for the Hispanic ‘Univision’ channel on Monday, Mr. Obama was trying to assure Hispanics and illegal aliens that he would reform immigration regardless of Republican opposition: “If Latinos sit out the election instead of saying, ‘We’re gonna punish our enemies and we’re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us,’ if they don’t see that kind of upsurge in voting in this election, then I think it’s gonna be harder and that’s why I think it’s so important that people focus on voting on November 2” (http://hotair.com/archives/2010/10/25/obamas-turnout-pitch-to-latinos-get-out-there-and-punish-your-enemies/). Never in the American history had an American president described the opposition and fellow Americans in public as “enemies.” Moreover, he was engaging in the most dangerous form of populism by telling one ethnic group that another was its enemy.
Thus, it was no surprise to this Russia scholar that when the U.S.-Russian ‘reset’ soured, Obama began to issue condescending and insulting remarks addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s person rather than his policies, often phrasing the U.S.-Russian relationship as a contest between Obama and Putin. Well before the Ukraine crisis began in October 2013, Obama had turned to denigrating Putin’s person. In August he cancelled a summit in Moscow over the Snowden affair and in a later statement in which he characterized Putin as like “the bored kid in the back of the room”: “I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes it’s very productive” (www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/09/us-usa-russia-obama-idUSBRE9780XS20130809). One cannot imagine an Eisenhower, a Reagan, or even a Nixon issuing such remarks on the personality of a world leader. In December 2014, for example, Obama again personalized the relationship, saying “Putin is not a stupid man” but with Putin presiding over a falling currency and shrinking economy, this “does not sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/12/21/us-ukraine-crisis-obama-idUSKBN0JZ0G820141221). In March 2014 Obama engaged in some amateur psychoanalysis of and somewhat insulting conclusions about his Russian counterpart rather than Russian policy: “I think he’s been– willing to show– a deeply– held grievance about what he considers to be the loss of the Soviet Union. You would have thought that– after– a coupla 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” (www.thewire.com/politics/2014/03/obama-says-that-putin-is-entirely-misreading-the-west/359771/). Even at the height of the Cold War, American and other Western presidents never criticized the personages of the various CPSU general secretaries. Yet Obama seemed shocked and insulted when months later at the height of the Ukrainian civil war late last summer Putin had stopped answering his phone calls, sending them straight to his voice mail box (www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/furious-obama-says-calls-putin-going-straight-voicemail).
The Obama approach to diplomacy and politics in general has accelerated the great decline in American political culture’s traditional strain of comity and tolerance of pluralism. Now, Washington is an echo chamber of a very narrow set of points of view issued by competing careerist pundits, outbidding each other in their russophobic pronouncements about ‘fascist Russia’ and Putin as the Hitler or Stalin of today. Russia threatens not just Ukraine, but Western Europe and America with imminent invasion in this view. This already narrow range of acceptable and rather hysterical opinions is further narrowed by government-media ties that are particularly pernicious when there is a Democratic administration teamed with the traditionally liberal and increasingly leftist mass media (excluding radio). Furthermore, today’s bizarre consensus on Russia squeezes the last vestiges of alternative opinion, because at present the paranoid view of Russia of liberals and the left largely match those of Republicans, though the correspondence of the overall stance towards Russia is driven by different views and interests between ‘left’ and ‘right’.
But as veteran diplomat and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger warned: “the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one” (www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/henry-kissinger-to-settle-the-ukraine-crisis-start-at-the-end/2014/03/05/46dad868-a496-11e3-8466-d34c451760b9_story.html). While I would quibble with the second phrase in Kissinger’s statement, the Obama administration was curiously inactive from the February 2014 Maidan seizure of power forward, letting Europe engage in the diplomacy while it bought Kiev’s claims of rejecting neo-fascism and sniped at the Russian and its president as essentially fascist. Now Kiev has adopted a series of pro-fascist laws and has been allowing neo-fascist parties, groups, and battalions to functions as vigilante groups attacking ethnic Russians and anti-Maidan activists on Kiev-controlled territory while its official armed forces and the neo-fascist dominated volunteer battalions bomb civilian targets with impunity.
Washington would do well to heed Kissinger’s words. Indeed, if done earlier, along with eschewing its own Cold War-era thinking, the Ukraine crisis need not have been. For it is one thing when other countries lose the art of diplomacy; it is quite another when the leading Western power has.
Gordon M. Hahn is an Analyst and Advisory Board Member of the Geostrategic Forecasting Corporation, Chicago, Illinois; Senior Researcher, Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California Analyst/Consultant, Russia Other Points of View – Russia Media Watch; and Senior Researcher and Adjunct Professor, MonTREP, Monterey, California. Dr Hahn is author of three well-received books, Russia’s Revolution From Above (Transaction, 2002), Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007), which was named an outstanding title of 2007 by Choice magazine, and The ‘Caucasus Emirate’ Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He also has authored hundreds of articles in scholarly journals and other publications on Russian, Eurasian and international politics and wrote, edited and published the Islam, Islamism, and Politics in Eurasia Report at CSIS from 2010-2013. Dr. Hahn has been a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (2011-2013) and a Visiting Scholar at both the Hoover Institution and the Kennan Institute.