On September 11 of this year, the American public awoke to news headlines about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in the New York Times, in which he criticizes U.S. foreign policy and condemns potential U.S. intervention in Syria. The piece immediately prompted a furious backlash from indignant U.S. politicians, as well as marked approval by certain foreign leaders. Central to the heated debate are the sincerity of Putin’s words and the merit of his argument against American “exceptionalism.” Amid media-fueled bickering that seems grounded more on hurt feelings than political theory, a more factual and interdisciplinary perspective—informed by two respected Brown professors—is helpful in assessing Putin’s op-ed.
Professor of International Studies and Soviet History Sergei Khrushchev considers Putin to have “a reasonable and sober vision of the events [taking place] in the Middle East.” He believes that Obama “put himself in a corner when he cut off relations with the Assad regime.” Consequently, Professor Khrushchev feels that Putin was speaking directly to the American public in an effort to “rescue Obama” from gambling with a war in Syria. In contrast, Professor of Comparative Literature Elias Muhanna takes a much less optimistic view of Putin’s motives, claiming that it is difficult to “remove the speaker from the message.” Having followed the Syrian situation very closely on his blog Qifa Nabki, Professor Muhanna believes Russia was not motivated by legal or ethical dilemmas. Rather, Russia simply used the crisis in Syria to establish itself as a power broker, “trying to punch above its weight and put itself on the front page as a power to be consulted.”
Yet, both professors agree that Putin’s critical op-ed is a healthy wake-up call for the U.S. public. They think that it is completely normal for the op-ed to come from a foreign leader. In fact, Muhanna notes that it would be more unfitting for a domestic president to scold the nation. One does not have to look back too far to find an example of this: Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech,” for instance, led to extreme political backlash by several prominent pundits. Muhanna generally wished that “politicians spoke straight…instead of playing into the folly of myth-making in America.”
Questions about Putin’s personality and image also elicited interesting responses. People often joke that Putin’s favorite past time is shirtless horseback riding, reflecting the comical aspect of the persona Putin has developed. Yet, Muhanna had a more critical impression of such aspects of Putin’s public image: “if he is not writing an op-ed for the U.S., he would be wrestling a bear in a tank top, or piloting a submarine, or landing a Mig on an aircraft carrier with no shirt on, he is an attention hogging eccentric who uses the Russian government as his personal fame seeking vehicle.” Although it is not entirely unjustifiable to think of Putin as such a character, Khrushchev drew a more endearing portrait of the man. He noted that Putin was a very successful Russian president from 2000 to 2008: he restored order in the country, overhauled the tax system, helped distribute pensions, and defeated the ruling oligarchy. Landing those fighter aircrafts aside, this is a clear point to focus on, more so than his famous media stunts. Theodore Roosevelt is known to have participated in even more “adventurous” activities, but most people remember him for busting the monopolies and ending the Russo-Japanese war—a parallel President Putin can now easily make with his handling of the current crisis in Syria.
Although a moral incentive for intervention in Syria was present, both professors provided different lenses to look at the issue through. Muhanna believed that strategically, it would have been entirely wrong to intervene in Syria, stating that at this point in the war any active military involvement would be disastrous. Khrushchev argued the same idea from a different perspective, grounding his opinion on the structure of the U.S. government. He emphasized that U.S. policy requires that intervention in a foreign nation first be approved by Congress. Furthermore, he agreed with Putin’s claim that military action that is not in “self-defense” or “agreed upon by the UN security council” is illegal. In short, only an authoritarian regime does not play by the rules—which he adds, is ironically what Obama is pursuing Assad for in the first place.
Russia’s interests in Syria, although highly undermentioned, are a major factor for analysis. It is clear that both professors agreed Russia was essentially showing its muscle to the United States. Yet, as an expert in Russian politics, Khrushchev argued that Russia’s political history demonstrates that its interests lie in former Soviet bloc states. In his opinion, Syria is only a sideshow. That being said, he did add that Russia feels that if the Americans openly allowed their allies, the Gulf States, to crush anti-regime revolts in Bahrain, then Russia has every right to support its ally in Syria. Therefore, the Syrian diplomatic crisis was mostly a game of politics rather than a game of any real vested interest.
American exceptionalism was the most salient theme in the professors’ discussions. In his op-ed, Putin states that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” Though Senator John McCain—one of the op-ed’s most vocal critics—argued that this statement is a tremendous affront to American values, some take it as healthy criticism. By being conditioned to believe that they are exceptional, Americans may be blinded and kept from successfully addressing serious problems in the U.S. political system. Muhanna shared a similar sentiment, but also added that he firmly believes that exceptionalism is not a main driving force of U.S. foreign policy. He says “it is the scale of our economy, powerful interest groups, and our massive military that is running foreign policy.” Khrushchev expressed a very different view. He noted that it is not actually uncommon for any nation to see itself as exceptional. The real problem is not so much American exceptionalism, but rather the United States’ limited dialogue with its enemies. He emphasized that even in the polarized days of the Cold war the United States kept a direct line with the Kremlin.
President Putin may be seen as a tank top wearing bear wrestler, but that does not detract from his prudent criticism of U.S. foreign policy. Regardless of whether his op-ed was a political stunt to upstage President Obama, or a sincere effort to mediate rising tensions over Syria, it is clear that there is something conspicuously wrong with the way Americans deal with international affairs. It took a controversial op-ed piece from a powerful foreign leader to force us to reevaluate our role in world diplomacy.