President Obama may well have cancelled his planned meeting with Vladimir Putin ahead of the G20 Summit this week, but that does not mean an end to diplomatic relations between the two countries. In the UK we are often guilty of placing too much focus on the relationship between the Prime Minister and the President in our endless assessment of the Special Relationship. The same mistake is arguably being made in current assessments of the US-Russian relationship. The two leaders may not be meeting, but the two countries continue to have diplomatic relations and their officials will continue to meet and liaise, despite this diplomatic tiff.
Such a situation is evidenced today with Secretary of State John Kerry and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel due to meet with their Russian counterparts. Make no mistake, Edward Snowden will be the elephant in the room, but he is unlikely to arise in conversations with the Defence Secretary. The Snowden issue may well form part of Secretary Kerry’s discussions, due to the diplomatic nature of the situation. I expect Kerry will lodge a formal complaint and make it clear that the US wants Snowden back. He will, however, be eager to move on to other matters such as the Middle East peace talks and other matters that are currently defining the US-Russian relationship.
The most challenging divide between the United States and both Russia and China, is over Syria. The inability to enact change through the UN Security Council due to diplomatic intransigence is a serious impediment on the road to an eventual solution in the region. It is, in many ways, reminiscent of the situation the US found itself in during the 1990s with regard to Bosnia, when the Russians again blocked any moves through the United Nations. It was this situation that exacerbated US moves away from the UN, and its perceived position of multilateralism, towards an embrace of NATO and allegations of unilateralism that reached an apex under President George W. Bush.
Russian and Chinese intransigence over Syria has doubtless enabled President Assad’s forces to re-group and repel rebel advances. The great challenge for the US, however, is knowing quite who the rebel forces are. It seems that whilst the West can rightly critique the Assad regime for its actions, it must be wary of merely arming rebel groups whose true intents and motivations remain a mystery. The fear of eventual Blowback is all too real in this instance. Meanwhile arms continue to flood into the region as both sides dig in for a long haul struggle. Yesterday’s assassination attempt on Assad is evidence of the increasing stakes in the country.
The disagreement with Russia over the situation in Syria is but one in a series of phantom issues that the White House has raised to mask the underlying rationale for cancelling this leadership meeting. The US State Department has insisted, “We were not at the point on our progress on a number of these issues where a summit at a presidential level was the most constructive step.” Yet the issues that have been raised are insufficient to justify the cancellation. Another excuse has been the Russian crackdown on gay propaganda, which Obama said the US has no patience for. However, the views of the Russian leadership on this matter are not new and so it is interesting that this has suddenly reared its head. Obama has hardly been a leading advocate of gay rights in the US until very recently, so it is interesting that he is suddenly attempting to prescribe social policy to Russia. The Kremlin will be aware of the administration’s position on this issue and will treat this as foreign meddling in a domestic matter. The Russian leadership will be ill prepared to take such complaints seriously from an America president bout to enter Lame Duck territory.
Ultimately, if it had not been for the Snowden incident the Obama-Putin meeting would be going ahead, however, to avoid appearing petulant, the Obama administration has raised a host of other issues upon which the White House and the Kremlin disagree. This, of course, is counterproductive. If the administration is frustrated enough with the Kremlin to cancel this meeting then it should openly announce the reasons for this and make a point of doing so. Blaming this on a variety of other issues makes the White House appear weak and vacillating.
Clearly, it is always preferable for leaders to engage in dialogue. The whole point of having meetings is to advance a dialogue on areas of disagreement. Leaders do not meet to discuss areas of agreement: That really would be a waste of time. Posturing has always been a part of diplomacy, however, in this instance the Obama administration is attempting to have things both ways: Cancelling the meeting on the one hand, but failing to be honest about the rationale on the other. This seems to be an ill thought out decision and one wonders if this is due to the changing personnel in Obama’s national security team, who are only now finding their feet at the UN and at the NSC. Today’s meetings with Kerry/Hagel and their Russian counterparts will likely be business-like and cordial, though I would not expect any great developments to emerge from them. At best they will lay the groundwork for continuing discussions on the vital issues of the day.