Putin’s vision of equality

September 13, 2013

The light on the discussions on Syria in Geneva between the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers is dim and flickering and may well be snuffed out. But at least there’s a light.

For the light to become brighter, world powers must declare war not on each other, but on noxious geopolitics. It is time to end the zero-sum game. World leaders are magnetized to its bare calculus: if you’re up, I’m down. It’s not a pleasant equation, but it’s terribly hard to give up.

Vladimir Putin is a great aficionado of the game, partly because he was trained to be, as a KGB officer. All secret service people think that way. In their often brutal world, when your enemy wins, you are pretty sure to have lost. It’s likely that Putin enjoys his success in delaying the U.S.-led putative strike against President Assad of Syria as a move that establishes himself as a world figure with the future of Syria in his hands, while President Obama flails about, seeking to keep the military option on the table while constrained to follow Putin’s way. The Russian autocrat has put himself in tune with public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and put a shine both on himself and on autocracy.

The op-ed he wrote this week, published in the New York Times, and placed there by the PR company Ketchum, was artfully crafted for Western popular assent — right down to the final sentence, an injunction that “we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Putin’s proposing himself as an angel of peace is rich. The last Times op-ed he published, in 1999, justified his flattening of much of Chechnya in pursuit of peace — which was indeed largely achieved — in the rebel Russian province. But the pleasures of cynicism are shallow. In the zero-sum game he has improved his position — and Obama is left with wails of anguish over his “weakness” and “indecision” from every quarter, liberal and conservative, domestic and foreign. 

The pursuit of a paradigm other than the “zero-sum game” goes beyond Russia. At the meeting in June between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both sides pledged themselves to find a “new type of great power relationship.” Like Putin, the Chinese want this to be a relationship between equals — even if they don’t invoke God to make sure it is. Equality is a fine goal; it absolutely negates playing zero-sum games; and it’s one of the sine qua nons of keeping the light above Geneva from going out.

A theme of Obama’s presidency has been the proposed deceleration of America’s global policeman role. Obama has sought an accord that both respects other major powers but also safeguards America and its allies’ interests, and asserts his values of democratic rule and concern for human rights. It’s hard to do that with empires — even when, as in the American case, it isn’t an empire in the classic, British/French/Austro-Hungarian/Russian models. Imperial power can keep the peace, but it also creates many enemies inside its boundaries and out, and stirs vast resentments in other would-be powerful states, which may harbor imperial ambitions of their own.

As Reuters columnist Zachary Karabell noted about Obama recently, the gradual reduction of U.S. dominance may “prove to be one of his greatest legacies,” adding later, “even though the diminution of presidential power is not the kind of thing that makes for compelling historical narrative.” It certainly doesn’t: more, it frightens allies and encourages opponents.

What a real, active relationship among equals could do is extraordinary, because the threats are so huge. Iran’s nuclear program, among many other threats, have highlighted the need for a nuclear-free world. The U.S. cannot — never really could — contain these trends, or any others. It takes a global accord, and global action.

That kind of vision has in the past seemed utopian, and has been the preserve of idealistic liberals and people of faith, whom men and women of power could sometimes indulge, but dismiss as dreamers. Power was the world currency, and those who held it must keep or expand it, else they would in time cease to be masters and become victims.

That has been and is still the malign calculus of nation states. It is the way an imperial presidency that is also a democracy works: weakness empowers the opposition, which promises a return of strength. It is also the need of autocrats: Russian and Chinese leaders need to show strength abroad as well as at home, or the basis of their rule trembles. 

But the slim promise of Geneva, a process that may indeed be the product of clever chess moves by Grandmaster Vladimir, is that another calculus begins to enter into the equation. It cannot be achieved by unilateral renunciation of force, or by grand gestures. It must be achieved by painstaking, lengthy and determined negotiation — infused by the realization that the old game of zero-sum is played out. Nobody is winning.

PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits with U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi (C) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as they each make a statement to the press after a meeting discussing the ongoing problems in Syria at the United Nations offices in Geneva September 13, 2013.  REUTERS/Larry Downing 


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Wow, another great piece! Well said sir!

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

“Zero-sum game” is a nice idea. But I fail to find any period in the mankind’s history when it actually worked.

As to the Russian role in all these equations, it’s hypertrophied by MSM. We Russians have our own interests, obviously. However, our own self-identification doesn’t need any excessive terms, like ‘exceptionalism,’ ‘the sole superpower,’ etc.

I’d say Russians are closer to finding their own “selves” than ever. Perhaps, it’s just happened that the scale of the Putin’s personality (which is – thank god! – adequate to the challenges) was what frightened other “parts” of the “zero sum equation?”

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

It’s an odd kind of “success” – and to be sure, I’ve only heard journalists (and Voice of Russia) describe it as such so far.

Historians rarely get the luxury of controlled experiments, but Libya (where President Putin let the UN do as the West wanted) and Syria (where he made it do as he wanted), are probably as close as it gets. “Success” for President Putin’s approach would surely have been for Libya to become the bloodbath and Syria to disappear from our front pages, and not, as actually happened, the other way round.

This is only a success if you buy into President Putin’s (and most of the Tsars’) idea of splitting the world into “sovereign” and “dependent” countries (I see that Belarus is to go without gas supplies this winter for getting too cocky in a commercial dispute), along with the notion that the lives of private citizens are capital which can fairly be spent on the leader’s vanity.

Even by his own narrow interests, his veto of action against Syria is a failure, as it’s given Jihadist fighters a safe base just a short distance from the Caucasus.

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive

Putin, as much as Obama, is interested in the domestic audience only. Which would never support anything more than the war of words.

That is where the limit of his authority is set.
All blah-blah about “dictator” or “autocrat” is for non-Russian MSM.

It would sound absolutely fascinating for Russians if Putin is called “dictator” here.

There is a good discussion in another opinion here at Reuters. How big/small politicians can be these days?
The Putin’s challenges are enormous. His responsibility and his mandate (67% with 80% turnout) are enormous.

The system in a transitional phase (Russia) is only be compared with FDR or CDG.

Back to the Wider Middle East. Syria can be considered only with Iran. The present CW agreement gives some time not only to Putin – but to all leaders.

Let’s see what the wording of the tomorrow’s U.N. repost is going to be.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

One reason why Mr. Putin looks so good now is because he was made so by his propaganda machine that became pretty skillful for the last 13 years of his ruling in Russia. All these images of Putin macho man, Putin on a horse, Putin and Siberian tiger, Putin flying, Putin diving, etc. etc., have been a great commercial trick that has worked nicely on uninformed populace not only in Russia, but worldwide too, thanks to the Internet.
Also, we are flatly losing propaganda war to Russia for many reasons, and Russian oil money that Mr. Putin has almost full control of isn’t the least. If you read Russian Internet and official press today, you’d think that the Cold War is still alive and well. (BTW, this also explains why Mr. Snowden was so welcome in Russia.)

Posted by UauS | Report as abusive

You don’t know Vovan Putin. He is just not guy who would make anything just for PR.

He was this way from day one.

Posted by OUTPOST2012.NET | Report as abusive

Putin looks so good because … he is much more closely aligned with “Western” people than our own self-created “leadership”.

No American politicians get the real cause there is so much dislike of our political “system”. How about it is totally unresponsive to our own needs? Not to mention our own interests and our own opinions? Whatever they “represent” it is not representative Government, at least of people. Now of course, it makes a lot more sense if you think of them as representing money. They have simply been bribed.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

I agree with a comment made earlier about huge influence of money on politics in Washington. It is a simple and undeniable fact that neither the President nor the Congress is truly representing the interests of regular Americans. They tend to represent, or rather serve, big money and/or influential organizations that have access to it (i.e., AIPAC). Big money doesn’t like sovereign governments representing their nations’ interests and possessing means to defend them. It’s the antithesis of the power of money. This is why the Big Money fights an incessant political war in US aimed at limiting the influence of government over the life of the nation, particularly its socio-economic life. Similarly, this is why the Big Money pushes for the foreign wars that undermine foreign sovereign governments, particularly if they happen to control valuable assets, e.g. oil (ironically, these wars are done by the hands of the otherwise disparaged US government). In view of that, Putin is a major irritant. No matter that he is supported by the bulk of his people, he has to be vilified and branded an autocrat and a villain. Why? Is it because he dares to try building a cohesive Russia, based on its native sense of cultural identity and historical destiny, and not on the vulgar Western-style hedonism? Or maybe it is because he tries to protect Russian economic interest by stopping Western oil giants from taking over Russia’s strategic oil and gas industry. Or maybe it is because he stops the West from undermining Russia from within by sponsoring political campaigns of brainwashed politicians (like it was successfully done in 1917). Or is it because he dares to think he can stop the West from redefining the Middle East as it suits the Big Money and AIPAC? Now, that is too much. What a nerve, what an autocrat!

Posted by Tyshkevich | Report as abusive

Putin writes: “we must not forget that God created us equal.”

As he locks up critics and billionaires and gay people in Russia for ‘flaunting their obvious defects.’ Putin is a joke. He is afraid of everyone, and lords over a drunken sprawl of baby-sellers and white-slave herpes. The smart Russians have left Russia.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive