When President Obama made an appearance on "The Tonight Show" Tuesday, he had plenty to say to Jay Leno about the United States' relationship with Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. “There are times when they slip back into Cold War thinking and Cold War mentality," the president said. "What I continually say to them and to President Putin -- that’s the past.” He told the late-night host he would be attending the G-20 summit in St. Petersburg in September, and that the two countries must work together.
But what he didn't say Tuesday night was that he would be canceling a stop in Moscow in September, when he would have had a one-on-one meeting with Putin. The rare diplomatic rebuke--the first time an American president has canceled a publicly announced visit in Russia since the Cold War's end, reports say--was first reported by the Associated Press. In a statement, the White House said "there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia summit," citing issues ranging from missile defense and arms control to human rights and yes, Edward Snowden, as reasons for canceling the meeting.
The snub did not come as a complete surprise. Reports say pressure had been building for the president to make a choice about the summit, which was under review. And these two world leaders certainly never looked like they enjoyed being around each other very much anyway.
Still, reactions were divided. Was this an example of the president making a principled stand against Putin's decision to grant Snowden asylum, as well as his policies in other areas, such as human rights and Syria? Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) thinks so. In a statement, he said the president was doing the right thing, and that Putin is "acting like a school-yard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him." Others saw the move as childish. The National Interest's Jacob Heilbrunn calls it "wholly unproductive," a "petulant snub" that belies the president's usually cool and collected behavior and instead suggests he is "succumbing to peevishness."
What everyone should agree on is that the president didn't have a simple choice here. Agree to hold the meeting, and the optics aren't good--he risks being seen as cooperative with someone who has a horrible record on human rights and who just granted asylum to a person of particular interest to American security. Cancel it, and he gets accused of throwing a hissy fit and putting an even colder chill on the two countries' relationship.
Maybe the question isn't whether or not the president should have had the high-level summit with Putin, but what more he could have done to prove he's the one with the upper hand. There are limits to diplomacy, and we may be seeing it here. One option would have been to cancel the high-profile summit, depriving Putin of his apparent interest in validating Russian prestige, but to make a public offer to meet briefly at the G-20 summit in a fashion that wouldn't give Putin as much attention. Or, as Nicholas Wapshott wrote in Reuters, he could have kept their date but turned it to his advantage, giving a keynote speech about human rights in Putin's very backyard or publicly meeting with Russian dissidents--creating his own "tear down this wall" moment.
Putin's Russia may be increasingly irrelevant, as some have said. But that could have given Obama the freedom to risk being bold in his relationship with Putin and still engage himself in resolving the problem. Great leaders find a way to do both.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.