Anyone who ever worried that Barack Obama might not be Made in the USA should take comfort from his quintessentially American response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to give temporary asylum to Edward Snowden: pouting.
Democratic and Republican presidents alike tend to believe that if other countries don’t act like our “friends,” then they must be our enemies. This attitude creates unrealistic expectations that slow the healing of old injuries, and subverts the potential for a meeting of minds on critical issues — such as Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
It’s a truism that nations have interests, not friends or enemies. This may sound cynical, but interests act as lighthouses on the rocky shores of foreign policy. In a storm, they help governments distinguish between what they must do to survive, and what they might wish to do if seas were calm.
It is deeply in the interest of the United States to engage other countries in umpiring the peace of the world — and thereby make itself less of a target. Russia has an equal interest in helping Syria, its neighbor and ally, out of the messy corner into which President Bashar al-Assad has painted himself. Moscow also needs to contain the regional damage that could otherwise spill into Putin’s backyard. We can and should work together, letting our interests rather than our passions guide us.
History shows that Russia is neither America’s permanent ally nor our permanent enemy. In the 19th century, czarist Russia was the closest thing the United States had to a friend. In the Civil War, it alone of the great powers offered succor to the Union, and shortly afterward Moscow sold Alaska to the United States in preference to Great Britain, which controlled adjacent Canada.