Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama clashed at the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly on Monday. Understandably most commentaries have focused on the jabs they threw over the crises in Syria and the Ukraine. Yet their speeches also displayed fundamentally different visions about world politics and the role of the U.N. in it.
The wordcloud above summarizes this neatly: The word that President Obama used most in comparison to Putin was “people.” By contrast, Putin emphasized the word “state” much more than Obama.
To Putin, the U.N. is a venue where states can cooperate against common threats, like terrorism, but that refrains from intruding in the domestic affairs of states and that stands aside when states (or great powers) can’t agree. By contrast, Obama portrays the U.N. as a centerpiece to a liberal international order that espouses respect for international law, human rights, and democracy. Those who have taken a basic course in international relations (IR) theory would recognize these as differences between a Liberal and a Realist worldview. Indeed, both presidents explicitly criticized not just the other’s policies and actions but also each other’s worldviews.
Obama first heralds the achievements of the liberal international order.
Over seven decades, terrible conflicts have claimed untold victims. But we have pressed forward, slowly, steadily, to make a system of international rules and norms that are better and stronger and more consistent. It is this international order that has underwritten unparalleled advances in human liberty and prosperity. It is this collective endeavor that’s brought about diplomatic cooperation between the world’s major powers, and buttressed a global economy that has lifted more than a billion people from poverty. It is these international principles that helped constrain bigger countries from imposing our will on smaller ones, and advanced the emergence of democracy and development and individual liberty on every continent.
He then highlights the critics:
There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date — a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own. Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force. On this basis, we see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law. We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights that are fundamental to this institution’s mission.
These phrases could come almost directly from an international relations theory textbook. For example, the belief that “power is a zero-sum game” refers to an understanding that gains for one state must mean losses for another states, thus discounting the possibility of mutually beneficial cooperation that makes all states more secure. Obama is picking a fight with realists not just in Russia but also in “advanced democracies” and at home. In what is no doubt a reference to the recent debate on the Iran deal, Obama says that some domestic critics claim that “[..]the only strength that matters for the United States is bellicose words and shows of military force.”
Obama then continues to argue that U.S. responses to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea are not at all driven by U.S. economic or security interests but by “fidelity to international order.” In other words, the U.S. is not just looking out for itself but seeks to defend an order based on law and human rights that benefits humanity.
Realists are typically skeptical when leaders of great powers speak about acting on behalf of the moral purposes of the universe. As Hans Morgenthau put its:
“what the moral law demands is by a felicitous coincidence always identical with what the national interest seems to require.”
Putin criticizes U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War for arrogantly pursuing its agenda without concern for the objections of others.
We all know that after the end of the Cold War the world was left with one center of dominance, and those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that, since they are so powerful and exceptional, they know best what needs to be done and thus they don’t need to reckon with the UN, which, instead of rubber-stamping the decisions they need, often stands in their way.
To Putin, international order is not about vague principles but about agreed upon rules how to make decisions. The most important one is respect for the veto power of the permanent members of the Security Council (including Russia, of course):
As diplomats say, pass or not pass. And all the actions of any of bypassing this order are illegitimate and contrary to the Charter of the United Nations, contemporary international law.
So, it is illegitimate and illegal to bypass Russia’s veto in some claim of pursuing higher moral purposes in Syria (or Kosovo). Putin’s ideal image of the U.N. seems to be something like the Concert of Europe, which mostly existed for two purposes: to maintain a balance of power among the great powers and to stop the spread of dangerous (to sovereigns) revolutions. Indeed, Putin alludes to this history:
[..]instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, some prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are “democratic” revolutions. Just look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa [..] Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disasters and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life. I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done? But I’m afraid that this question will remain unanswered, because they have never abandoned their policy, which is based on arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity.”
Putin’s main call to action is to face a threat that is common to all states and perhaps the state system: terrorism. Here it is Russia that proposes to act for the good of all:
[our offer is] guided not by ambition, but by shared values and common interests on the basis of international law, to work together to meet the challenges and to create a truly broad international anti-terrorist coalition. Like the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite in their ranks a variety of forces ready to firmly confront those who, like the Nazis, sows evil and misanthropy.
One must be careful not to equate public speeches with the sincere worldviews held by these two leaders, and even less so by these two states. Still, these U.N. speeches do not fall from the sky. Others have argued that fundamentally clashing worldviews are partially responsible for the crises in the Ukraine and Syria, although some find that Obama is more of a realist than his rhetoric reveals. Understanding these different worldviews may also help us delineate which solutions are and are not possible. For example, a solution for Syria will undoubtedly involve some credible recognition of Russia’s continued influence in Syria combined with a realization that the U.S. cannot accept continued Assad involvement given his past human rights abuses. At the very least, the two speeches create a nice exercise for classes in international relations theory.