President Obama cancelled September’s scheduled summit in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The suspected reasoning behind the cancellation was the Russian government’s decision to grant former NSA contractor Edward Snowden temporary asylum.
There exists a milieu of tensions between the United States and Russia — any one of which, or all of them together, can be pointed to as justification for backing out of this summit. In the ongoing Syrian civil war, the US and Russia are backing opposing sides. The US government has been critical of a new Russian law that bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” that is targeted at Russia’s LGBT community. Late last year, the Russian Parliament banned American families from adopting Russian children, done in retaliation for the US enacting the Magnitsky Act.
Undoubtedly, the administration intended to send an undeniable signal of its displeasure with the Putin regime and to show that the United States does not take slights lying down.
They failed. By refusing to meet with President Putin, President Obama has weakened America’s image in the world — and eroded what little influence and leverage the US has over Russia.
The image of Vladimir Putin is that of a competent, secure, tough guy, such as is portrayed in this Russian propaganda music video that is occasionally played at rallies for Putin’s party (United Russia) and on Russian state television. Putin is also notorious for his numerous photo shoots doing all sorts of tough guy things, sometimes shirtless. Contrast this with Obama’s actions regarding Edward Snowden; they alternate between trying to be a bully and acting like a spoiled brat who expected a sports car for his birthday and got a Toyota Prius instead.
Putin walks away from this snub as the tough guy who has yet again defied the bullying of the United States and President Obama. Meanwhile, Obama looks like a weak, whiny, immature, and narcissistic brat. The rest of the world will take notes as they decide which nation’s lead to follow.
In refusing to meet with Putin, Obama missed an important opportunity to advance America’s position on these and other issues. As one example, lost the chance to cooperate with Russia on arms control:
The United States will lose more than Russia by cancellation of the summit, said another high-ranking Russian official.
“Frankly, we don’t need anything from America today, as times when we were looking for IMF loans are in the distant past,” said Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the lower house of Russia’s parliament.
“Snowden will be soon forgotten, but Obama will be criticized at home for dropping Russian-U.S. relations to their lowest point in years,” he said in an interview. “For one thing, Obama badly needs a treaty with Russia on tactical weapons, and how can he get it without negotiations?”
In other words, the US had very little leverage when dealing with Russia — and Obama’s temper tantrum chipped away at what little influence and leverage the US had left. Foreign Relations 101: you walk away from the negotiating table when you have something to gain from it (for example, when Reagan walked away from the Reykjavik nuclear reduction talks in 1986 over missile defense). You do not walk away when there is nothing to gain.
President Obama missed an opportunity to present America’s case on all these issues because of his anger over Edward Snowden.
The children trapped in rough, overcrowded Russian orphanages and Russia’s LGBT community lost an opportunity to have the leader of the world’s most powerful nation call attention to their oppression at the hands of the Russian state at the summit. It would have made it very clear that the world’s most powerful nation stood with them and it would’ve drawn more international attention to their plight. Who knows, perhaps some good may have come out of a meeting between Obama and Putin.
But one thing is clear: it’s time for some adults to take charge of US foreign policy.