US/Russian Relations: SNAFU

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.

No Show, Over Snowden

So after much speculation, President Obama has decided he will not now meet with his Russian counterpart ahead of the G20 conference next month. The White House has announced that this is for a variety of reasons and a general lack of progress on a wide range of issues, including Syria.

Certainly there are a number of issues that are negatively impacting US-Russian relations at present and the Syrian situation is one of them. However, without the Snowden incident, the meeting would likely have gone ahead. The White House is rolling out other phantom issues to present this as less of a knee-jerk reaction, but that is what it is. If the White House wishes to cancel the meeting to make a specific point, then it should admit as much.

As it is, this cancellation is largely symbolic. The meeting was never being billed as a high-profile summit exactly, merely a handy opportunity to get together whilst Obama was in the neighbourhood.  Clearly, there is a great deal of posturing going on here. Putin wishes to reassert Russian influence on the world stage and so stood up to the United States by provided Snowden with asylum. At this point he is more interested in playing hardball than engaging in diplomatic niceties with President Obama.

Obama is sending several messages. Internationally he is demonstrating a growing frustration with the Russian leader, while domestically he is attempting to demonstrate resolve as well as toughness in the face of Russian aggression. His dealings with Russia have been a mixed bag to date. He had the benefit of dealing with Medvedev initially, but the true nature of Russian politics was revealed in Obama’s open microphone disaster that acknowledged Putin’s continuing influence and hinted at Obama’s weakness.

Obama’s every move in regard to Russia is made as he rapidly enters Lame-Duck territory. This is nothing personal, but as his second term ticks by, more and more eyes are turning to 2016 and his eventual successor. The Kremlin is aware of this and will not be in any great hurry to curry favour with a president who will be out of office in 40 months. He does so with a new foreign policy team, including Samantha Power and Susan Rice, now advising the president daily as his national security adviser. Both have been very quiet on this issue, however, with deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes front and centre. It is a shame he was passed over for the top job for what were clearly political considerations.

The Snowden affair is proving to be embarrassing and troublesome for all concerned and so far no one is emerging with their reputations intact. The US appears vindictive to many for pursuing Snowden; the Russians appeared to be dithering before finally acquiescing to grant Snowden asylum; while Snowden’s claims to be defending freedoms and liberties has taken a pounding by his choice of Russia as a location from which to defend such values.

Speaking to Jay Leno, hardly an IR specialist, the president noted last night that Russia is sinking back into a Cold War mentality. Such statements are unhelpful and are indicative of the poor state of relations that show no sign of improving any time soon. We have actually come along way since the Cold War, as my forthcoming book, Clinton’s Grand Strategy, will demonstrate. The fact that this meeting is being cancelled over Russia’s granting of asylum to an American citizen, rather than over the downing of a U2, is an indication of this.

Putin has never been a soft and cuddly individual and is no Boris Yeltsin, but are things as bad as during the Cold War? Of course not. Is Russia putting its national interest ahead of Obama’s political needs? Absolutely. Why wouldn’t it?

President Obama risks making this too personal. He’d best not get into a struggle with Putin, as it will only make things worse, and when push comes to shove, the former community organiser may find an ex-KGB lieutenant colonel to be a dangerous adversary.

However, this decision, while not helping matters, is not likely to have a knock-on effect. The two men will both be at the G20 and may even have meetings there. No one should expect a repeat of the Olympic boycott of 1980 as the Russians haven’t invaded anywhere…yet!

A Second Rate Team for Obama’s Second Term?

Having spent the best part of the last year working to secure his re-election, Barack Obama can now return to his day job. The lull in US involvement in the international arena ends now and is more likely to be more assertive in a second term. If the Obama team has learnt anything in its first term, it is that talk is cheap and often ignored. The historic address at Cairo University promised much, but delivered little and helped lead to a drop in US support in the region. Obama may have proved his ability to charm the American electorate, but he will be unable to apply this to the Mullah’s in Iran or to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose actions threaten to overshadow Obama’s second term in office.

With so much at stake in the world, a major decision needs to be announced as to whom Obama will appoint to lead America’s over sea’s endeavors. Any second term administration witnesses a major shake up in personnel, and this is to be expected. What is less expected is the time that is being taken to make any such announcements.

The sudden departure of General Petraeus will present the President with an un-necessary headache as he is forced to address one extra office to fill, which presumable he had not expected to need to focus upon. The fallout from this departure also threatens to cast an ill light over the new administration, its foreign policy team and raise further questions in regard to the events in Benghazi, upon which Petraeus was scheduled to testify, prior to his resignation.

The Key positions will be at the Pentagon and the State Department. At State the easy move would be to promote from within, as traditionally occurs in second term administrations. Alas, second term can also mean second rate, as the top players move on to be replaced by their underlings. The emerging consensus is that Susan Rice, currently the US representative at the UN is likely to become Secretary of State, continuing a trend that began with Madeleine Albright. Where this to occur, those reaching voting age in 2014 would have lived their entire lives without a white male Secretary of State.

With Hillary Clinton’s imminent departure, President Obama could well decide to be his own Secretary of State, especially if he elects to focus on international affairs in his remaining time in office. As such he could afford to appoint a less high profile individual to the post, although whether Susan Rice carries the credibility necessary for this office is open to speculation.

One name that is generating a great deal of attention is John Kerry. Having lost the 2004 presidential election to George W. Bush, Kerry has been openly supportive of Obama’s bid to reduce nuclear stockpiles and as such could be a strong contender for the job at the State Department. Where this to happen, the question would arise as to where Rice would move; The NSC is a possibility.

What appears unlikely is a repeat of Obama’s first term effort to appoint a series of high profile envoys to the world’s trouble spots. Despite the apparent genius of this idea, the initiative appears to have been a failure, with Senator Mitchell resigning and Dick Holbrooke managing to alienate all and sundry before passing away in post. His was a tragic case of personality impacting negatively upon his gifts and, therefore, never achieving the top positions that he and his supporters believed him capable of.

In regard to the top job at the Defense Department, President Obama would be well advised to follow the precedent set by Bill Clinton, who reached across the political aisle in his second term and appointed a Republican to the top job at the Pentagon. This would solve the problem of a rather weak bench of Democratic candidates to chose from. Where he to do so he could also earn some much needed respect from members of Congress whom he desperately needs to woo in order to get any budgetary proposals passed in a second term.

Were Obama to follow this Clinton model, the options are intriguing. Could he for example, move to appoint Colin Powell? The logic in this appears apparent, after all Powell did endorse Obama for the re-election and has a respected military background. However, Powell has already served as Secretary of State and it would be most unusual to return to a cabinet in a reduced capacity. For this reason, I believe that this option can be discounted, although a role for Powell could still be found in an Obama White House. Other Republican options include Chuck Hagel and Dick Lugar, who may appear more likely considering Powell’s previous record of services.

Whoever gets the nod to these top positions, however, in Obama’s second term, and with a presidential legacy to be secured, there will only be one star on the team: President Barack Obama.