Edward Snowden, Vladimir Putin and the limits of American diplomacy

June 25, 2013

(Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his first public comments on the arrival of Edward Snowden, made his case for refusing to extradite the American secrets-leaker to the United States. He said that Snowden is in the transit zone of Moscow's international airport (although Russia's own rules say he now requires a visa), would eventually be departing and, more to the point, has broken no Russian laws.

This does not actually prevent Russia from honoring the U.S. extradition request, though. Both Russia and the United States, though they do not have a bilateral extradition treaty, have shipped fugitives to one another, as states without such treaties often do. As Secretary of State John Kerry put it, responding to earlier Russian refusals to extradite Snowden, "There are standards of behavior between sovereign nations."

For the moment, Moscow appears to be holding firm against Washington's demands. Within the United States, that's prompted some alarm over not just Russia's refusal – which is not shocking – but America's apparent inability to force its will on the issue. From Washington's point of view, Snowden is an American fugitive wanted on serious charges, hanging out at the Moscow airport, and we can't even compel his release. Whatever happened to American power abroad?

It turns out, though, that for all of the United States' wealth and military might, this has never really translated into an ability to dictate to foreign countries. Sovereign states and their leaders tend to do what they perceive is within their best interests. Right now, extraditing Snowden would not seem to be in either Russia's or Putin's interests. Refusing the extradition request, on the other hand, reaps all sorts of benefits: it allows Putin to portray himself at home as standing up the Americans, satisfies the desire to poke Washington in the eye and could hypothetically grant them some access to Snowden's information.

So how do you change that calculus? It's not clear you can. Were the U.S. and Russia closer allies, with all the cooperation and mutual interests that entails, then Washington might have more leverage with Moscow. But, despite the Obama administration's efforts at a "reset," the relationship has been pretty sour. Threats or foot-stomping would actually risk entrenching Putin, increasing his incentives to defy what would be seen in Russia as "bullying."

Diplomacy, in its simplest form, is about finding a way to line up your interests with the other guy's. In this case, that would mean finding a mutual interest between Washington and Moscow on the Snowden case. Maybe one exists, but no one has found it. But that process typically involves helping to provide political cover to your negotiating partner, to allow him or her greater leeway to take some risks for you. Shaming, scolding and threatening, particularly the leader of a country with a history of skepticism toward American power, does not have a history of success.

Council on Foreign Relations scholar Micah Zenko draws an interesting comparison to an April 2001 diplomatic crisis between the United States and China. An American spy plane had collided with a Chinese jet, killing its pilot, and made an emergency landing in Hainan, where the plane and its crew were recovered and then held by the Chinese government. It was a diplomatic nightmare: China was outraged over the spying and the death of its pilot; the United States also knew that Chinese officials could ill afford to appear looking weak.

The Bush administration resolved the issue, after 11 days of diplomatic wrangling, not by projecting power but by finding concessions it could give Beijing and by engineering political cover that would make it easier for Chinese leaders to release the crew and plane without losing face. The "letter of the two sorries," as it was called, apologized twice, once for the pilot's death and again for spying. As Zenko recalls, the L.A. Times reported at the time, "A senior U.S. official said the impasse was broken when the Bush administration agreed to insert ‘very’ before ‘sorry.’"

That might not be as satisfying as simply ordering Beijing to release the plane, but it was a diplomatic strategy that acknowledged China's stake in the issue and worked to find a mutually acceptable solution. And it worked. It's not clear that this sort of solution would exist in pressuring Russia to release Snowden. Maybe it does exist and it's just a matter of finding it. But, if it doesn't, that's not necessarily an indictment of American decline. It's just how the world works.

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Caitlin Dewey · June 25, 2013