In an August 8, 2013, New York Times article entitled, “Ties Fraying, Obama, Drops Putin Meeting,” it was reported that US President Barack Obama on August 7th, cancelled the Moscow summit meeting set for September, “ending for now his signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office. Four years after declaring a new era between the two former cold war adversaries and after his early successes with the previous Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama concluded, according to the New York Times, “the two sides had grown so far apart again that there was no longer any point in sitting down with President Vladimir V. Putin.” The August 7th article reported that the immediate cause was Russia’s decision to grant temporary asylum to Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who disclosed secret American surveillance programs. Yet, according to an administration official who was not authorized to be identified, “this decision was rooted in a much broader assessment and deeper disappointment.” The source went on to leak to the New York Times, “We just didn’t get traction with the Russians. They were not prepared to engage seriously or immediately on what we thought was the very important agenda before us.” The US and Russia were already in difficult talks on arms control, missile defense, Syria, trade and human rights. Obama aides, according to the New York Times, said Moscow was no longer even responding to their proposals. The cancellation did not signal a complete break in US-Russia relations. Obama reportedly will attend the annual conference of the Group of 20 nations in St. Petersburg, Russia on September 5th and 6th, but he will not meet with Putin one-on-one, as customary. On August 9th, two days after the summit cancellation, Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
The New York Times also quoted US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes as stating, “We weren’t going to have a summit for the sake of appearance, and there wasn’t an agenda that was ripe.” However, this statement caps the collection of words and actions that may indicate there is great variance between what original goals of the long-standing practice of engaging in summit meetings, which was to build stronger ties between the US and Russia, between their respective leaders, and what the Obama administration’s concept that summits served as a platform to push forward its political agenda and secure the president’s legacy concerning arms control. Cancelling the summit may very well have damaged US-Russian relations for the remainder of Obama’s tenure. It was a blow against the summit process. However, it may also have adversely impacted prospects for direct talks between the US and other states, US efforts to facilitate negotiations, create a negative image of the US worldwide, and weaken global peace and security.
One of the most important foreign and defense policy issues facing the US is it relationship with Russia. During the Second World War as allies, throughout the Cold War as adversaries, as a member and the driving force behind the Soviet Union, and since the end of the Cold War as an independent state, Russia has been prominent in US thinking on the protection of US interest worldwide and the establishment of global peace and security. During the Cold War, despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts, of high and low gradients, along the course of the Cold War, both states, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, did not. Even during the most troubled times, relations between US and Russian leaders were maintained through a difficult process of summit meetings. Such Cold War meetings may also have been distasteful for leaders on either side to undergo. Truman met with Stalin. Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy both met with Nikita Khrushchev. Lyndon Johnson met Aleksei Kosygin. Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter met with Leonid Brezhnev. Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev. George H.W. Bush met with both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. It was recognized by both states that the direct talks between leaders were critical to avoiding nuclear war. The leaders of both the US and Russia have a primary responsibility to meet their citizens’ aspiration to live in peace, free from the threat of devastating nuclear war. That requires the Obama and Putin to take every step necessary, within the interests of their states, to ensure that peace is maintained. While they may be at odds personally, making a meeting between leaders an unpleasant undertaking, they still must still talk. As Aleksei Pushkov, Chairman of the Russian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee explained to the New York Times, “The bilateral relationship has come to an impasse. It makes it all the more necessary for the two presidents to meet and to try to work out a new agenda for the relations.”
Summit talks allowed US and Russian leaders to move from mutual suspicion toward mutual trust in their states relations. Talks built confidence, eliminated ambiguities about positions, and prevent and guessing over actions, intentions, and motives. Talks also allowed leaders to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns they had within their own high-level relationship. The willingness of both US and Russian leaders to maintain the practice of meeting at the highest level of government, and the eventual establishment of a “red-phone” or direct communication between the White House and the Kremlin, contributed greatly to maintenance of global peace and security. Close contact between leaders gave each a chance to look into the others thinking and sense one another’s feelings. Everything the other said or how the other reacted to statements was important to know. Every inflexion, tone, and change in the others voice provided some insight as to what was on a leader’s mind. Only in that way, could US and Russian leaders even begin to trust one another. In June 2001, President George W. Bush declared after meeting Putin, to the relief of some fearing a new Cold War, that he had “looked Putin in the eye and was able to get a sense of his soul.” Even if a leader determined his counterpart was as not being forthright or simply being deceptive, it was, and remains, important to have the opportunity to confirm this through talks. Negative perceptions are as important to gather as positive ones and must be factored appropriately in the effort to identify and create real opportunities for compromise.
During a crisis, it was very important for the leaders to have a good understanding of as many aspects their counterparts as possible. During the Cold War, there was always the potential for a crisis to arise. In fact there were a few. Those crises more often studied in colleges and universities include: the Berlin Airlift (1946), the Korean Peninsula (1950), Hungarian Revolution (1956), the U-2 Spy Plane Incident (1958), the Berlin Crisis (1961), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), the Czechoslovakia Uprising (1968), the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Gdansk Shipyard Uprising (1980), the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan (1980), and Korean Airlines Flight 007 Shoot-Down (1983). Unforeseen circumstances, placing the US and Russia on the verge of confrontation and conflict could lead to serious crises as well today. (Potential issues could include: the accidental shoot down of a Russian MiG-29 by a US F-16 over Syria, a collision between US and Russian warships in the Mediterranean, or the killing of Russian personnel as a result of kinetic strikes on targets in Syria, etc.) It is far too dangerous to allow any misperceptions to exist. In a crisis, a misperception could result in a grave misstep. The understanding that US and Russian leaders have of the others thinking at the moment of crisis, despite intelligence available and meetings at the ministerial level, will greatly inform the chief executive’s own assessment and eventual response to the crisis. The most recent meeting would be prominent in the minds of both leaders. Frequent meetings between the two leaders would allow them time to develop a “fresh” understanding of each other, and enhances prospects for fence mending. As a result of Obama’s decision to cancel his September meeting with Putin, the last occasion during which the two leaders could interact was June 17, 2013, in Northern Ireland. That meeting went poorly. As Andrei Piontovsky, who is executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow, was quoted in the August 7th, New York Times article as saying, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.” Piontovsky also told the New York Times that “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.”
Obama, Putin and Divergent Thinking
In preparation for an initial summit talk, leaders must learn as much about one another as possible as well as any urgent and important issues before them. What the leaders initially discover is learned in the abstract from reports. After initial summit talks, it would make little sense to continue to set policy goals and approaches based primarily on information developed in the abstract rather than an understanding of leaders, to include his views on issues and his intentions. Doing so would defeat the purpose of direct talks, and a dangerously limited understanding of a counterpart’s thinking could result. Adjustments in thinking must occur. If after summit talks, policy goals and approaches developed are not reached or fail, then it is apparent that an understanding of one’s’ counterpart was not correctly developed.
It appears that despite different backgrounds, experiences, and variety of cultural and other factors, Obama’s advisers reached the erroneous conclusion that Putin’s thinking paralleled his own. Further, it should not have been expected that a positive relationship between Obama and former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev would transfer to a direct relationship between Obama and Putin. It should not have been assumed that the relationship that US President George W, Bush had with Putin, could mean Obama also would have a positive relationship with the Russian leader. Mutual respect, understanding, and friendship needed to be acquired through interactions. The reasoning behind the Obama administration’s decision to send Putin proposals on a variety of issues, some of which he had already in which he had expressed no interest, and after observing his demeanor in Northern Ireland, is difficult to understand. It is unclear how Obama administration advisers assessed Putin would suddenly be convinced to accept what he already rejected. The leaders did not have any occasion to improve their own relationship. Now, it is unlikely that much will be achieved between the two leaders.
Acting upon what is discovered in the abstract can adversely impact summit talks, themselves. Presenting proposals or even taking steps on an issue of mutual interest, having reached an incorrect conclusions on a counterparts most likely response, based on reports and other data, will likely illicit a negative response. As a courtesy, and in an effort to avoid such difficulties, it would be best to delay any large steps relevant to the relationship until after there has been some dialogue and an understanding of goals and interest between the leaders is established. Any planned steps could even be discussed at the meeting. That builds confidence. It is uncertain as to how Putin regarded Obama’s decision to bring his family to the Moscow for his first summit meeting with Medvedev in 2009. It should have been made completely clear to Medvedev, Putin and their advisers that meeting was the paramount objective of the visit. Obama may have felt that bringing his family to Moscow displayed and openness and degree of trust he had for the Russians. Yet, from the mind’s eye of the Putin, a former KGB (Soviet Security Service) operative, who was actually the real power in the Russian Government as Prime Minister, that choice may have been viewed as a distraction, or attempt, almost as form of tradecraft, to lull Medvedev and himself into a false sense of security. (Tradecraft refers generally to skills used in clandestine service to include efforts to manipulate opponents.) Putin and his advisers could have concluded Obama was using his own family in an obvious effort at manipulation. That most certainly would have displeased Putin, and starting his thinking on Obama off on the wrong foot. Other steps by Obama may also have drawn suspicion from Putin. This type of thinking by Putin was evident at a news conference between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June 2013. When Obama tried a little levity stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” However, instead of playing along, Putin sternly retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”
Mutual Respect and Public Statements
When US and Russian leaders meet, there should not be the thought to report more than necessary about what was said during the meeting, particularly if it creates a very negative impression of the other. This is counterproductive and could destroy the summit method for the two leaders to talk. The word “summit refers to meeting as if the leaders where high up on the summit of a mountain, where no one could hear them talk. During an August 9, 2013 White House Press Conference, according to a transcript published on that date by the Washington Post, Obama explained that there were “a number of emerging differences that we’ve seen over the last several months around Syria, around human rights issues, where, you know, its probably appropriate for us to take a pause, reassess where it is that Russia’s going, what our core interests are, and calibrate the relationship.” Obama stated that “our decision to not participate in the summit was not simply around Mr. Snowden, it had to do with the fact that, frankly, on a whole range of issues where we think we can make some progress, Russia has not moved.” On Putin directly, Obama commented, “When we have conversations, they’re candid. They’re blunt. Oftentimes they’re constructive. I know the press likes to focus on body language, and he’s got that kind of slouch, looking like the bored kid in the back of the classroom. But the truth is, is that when we’re in conversations together, oftentimes its very constructive.” Later on NBC News “Meet the Press,” on August 11, 2013, journalist, David Brooks of the New York Times, referred to Obama’s cancellation of the summit meeting as a “smack down of Putin.”
Describing the other leader in unflattering terms, despite any disappointment or dissatisfaction is an error. Summit meetings represent a remarkable opportunity for US and Russian leaders to prove themselves as reliable global partners, but courtesy, mutual respect, and peace must be maintained. The fact that meeting in Northern Ireland was established and attended by Putin was evidence enough of his willingness to talk. Apologists for Putin might explain that the body language he displayed, through his posture, indicating his impressions, was not deliberate. It was a genuine expression of his feelings at an inopportune time. Interestingly, when leaders express, themselves, before advisers in their governments, as a technique, and perhaps as a habit, they often communicate likes and dislikes through body language. Nevertheless, there was no cause to disparage Putin regarding it. Criticizing Putin publicly, by evaluating his contribution to summit discussions and by making denigrating statements about his appearance, can only further damage the US-Russian relationship, and most certainly, Obama’s relationship with Putin. Taking such giant steps backward in developing trust will make moving forward on talks with that Putin extremely difficult, if not impossible. What was driving Putin to display such disapproval should be at issue. It should be addressed by the two leaders and overcome.
Attempts at shaping public perceptions of the relationship between the two leaders may not always yield the desired result. While the Obama administration is certain of its decision, other states and other leaders may not view the cancellation as an appropriate step. This effort may create two “public relations blocs” of states, one supportive of the Obama and the other in support of Putin. (When Putin meets with Rouhani during an announced meeting in September, undoubtedly he will provide Rouhani with a “complete” picture of what occurred from the inside.) Obama, as well as Putin, must show restraint. In the US, as of late, even the most sensitive information, from covert operations, cyber attacks, and classified names, places, and activities of operations undertaken in previous administrations are anonymously leaked to the press almost routinely. Putin has not made any comments about Obama’s August 9th press conference.
The Cancellation’s Impact on Other Negotiations and Direct Talks
Obama’s decision to cancel his meeting with Putin also has the potential to greatly harm the global dialogue among states. Obama’s decision sets a precedent. The cancellation will likely have an educational effect on other leaders reluctant to engage in talks on their respective counterparts on difficult issues. The world could witness leaders more frequently choosing action rather dialogue to resolve issues. Both Obama and Putin, in many ways, serve as “role models” for leaders of other states and non-state actors in negotiations. Previously, in situations where parties are unwilling to come to the table, US and Russian negotiators could always point to own talks between their leaders as an example of how even great adversaries eventually can come to table and reach some agreement on issues. At the moment, for the US at least, that is no longer the case. Issues over which leaders states in opposition needed to meet, may now have a far less chance of being resolved. As role models for other world leaders it is essential that Obama and Putin act in a manner to facilitate dialogue, even if issues are difficult to resolve just their predecessors had during the Cold War.
On both Syria and on Israel-Palestine, it would be difficult for the US claim moral authority to challenge any refusal either side to talk. Indeed, there would be little the US could say without appear hypocritical, if parties to either negotiation were to cancel a meeting. It could represent and new and unusual situation where the US may no longer be viewed as a genuine facilitator of negotiations. Secretary of State Kerry has invested considerable time and effort on both issues, and it has been difficult for the US to bring parties to the table for negotiations. Kerry’s job may have been made a lot harder as a result of Obama decision not to meet Putin. US efforts to establish better relations and a dialogue between other states may have been compromised.
North Korean and Iranian leaders might find it far more difficult to reach out to the US for direct talks. Undoubtedly, crossing the divide, to open negotiations with the US, was already a very difficult and potentially politically destructive undertaking for leaders of those states. Any attempts at establishing direct talks now would reasonably be discouraged by Obama’s decision. For Secretary Kerry, it would be difficult enough to get serious talks started with North Korea and Iran, and create some compromise with those states. It was thought by some that the involvement of Obama in the process would jump start efforts and he would bring fresh thinking with him. On North Korea, experts have indicated Kim Jong-Un seeks a serious dialogue with the US and wants to be convinced the US intends him and his country no harm. However, given Obama’s cancellation of his meeting with Putin, there is assurance Obama will follow-through with the negotiation process. In Iran, the new president, Hassan Rouhani has indicated a desire to have direct talks with the US. He has done so in the face of opposition from conservative and hard-line political leaders. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has stated, “The Americans are unreliable and illogical, and are not honest in their approach.” By cancelling the meeting with Putin, evidence was provided in support of the most negative views expressed in Iran of US intentions, and Rouhani’s position on direct talks invariably has been weakened. It would be counterintuitive for a state to negotiate with a leader who has the potential to simply cancel or withdraw from talks if the leader opposite him is not to his liking, regardless of the issues at hand. The behavior is simply destructive. Without assurances that Obama could serve as a reliable party to negotiations, it would be difficult to believe any state would seek to have the leader in the process or reach a settlement during his tenure as president. This situation should also be closely monitored to discern responses as they may relate to the summit cancellation.
While it appears somewhat difficult for Obama to accept just how great the difference between Putin’s thinking and his own. Being unable to reach a compromise and agreement on the nuclear issue, as well as others should neither be the cause to cease all talks. Reacting in frustration is never the right answer. Obama and Putin arrived to power from to completely different paths, having two very different backgrounds. For Putin, nuclear weapons are not simply a policy issue. Nuclear weapons are viewed as a means of survival for Russia. Reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a level, determined through the bean-counting of nuclear forces by US analysts, would never be acceptable. He is concerned with his nuclear forces’ capabilities, real and emerging threats, and human nature. The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades. Being in a contentious relationship, Obama and Putin were unlikely to be the ones to resolve the nuclear issue. Pushing Putin to accept proposals in which he was not interested would never achieve anything positive. Insisting the September summit be used to deal with such proposals was a doomed effort.
By inviting Obama to Moscow for summit talks, Putin indicated a desire to engage in dialogue. US-Russian summit should not have become opportunities to take for granted. Putin left the door open for Obama to cancel, perhaps not thinking that he would. Putin could have cancelled the meeting himself. He, too, was part of the difficult meeting between the two leaders in Northern Ireland in June and was aware that communications between his advisers and Obama’s had stalled, and Russia was not responding to proposals being sent from the US. However, Putin did not cancel. Frank and tough talk can have its place, but at this point, genuine communication about concerns and goals is required. Over the years, that has been the essence of summitry. From the first summit meeting during the Cold War to the most recent in June, building the relationship between US and Russian leaders, building confidence, and establishing mutual trust remains a primary goal of the meeting. Business can be done during talks. However, with the summit meetings being so few, and so intense, and relations between Obama and Putin being strained, using summit talks as a platform to push a unilateral political agenda, was a terrible mistake.
Perhaps there could be a return to the original concept of summitry. Obama and Putin need to improve their relationship. The rest of the world is watching, and other leaders will very likely follow their example. They could meet again, not to score political points, complete some political agenda, or establish anyone’s legacy, but in the name of their citizens and in the name of global peace and security. According to the New York Times, Yuri Yushakov, an adviser to Putin, explained. “The United States is not ready to build relations on an equal basis.” This point may be the very basis on which to start a new, and more productive, conversation.