President Obama acknowledged at a Friday press conference that the U.S.-Russia relationship has declined since Vladimir Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012 but played down the idea that they have a poor personal relationship. He said, "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."
Obama wasn't kidding about Putin's body language in press conferences and bilateral summits, the sort of events where heads of state usually try to project respect for their counterpart and audience. The above photo, from a G8 summit in Northern Ireland this June, is probably what Obama had in mind. It is not a flattering moment for Putin or for the U.S.-Russia "reset" that Obama championed earlier in his tenure and that did yield some very real gains, such as mutual nuclear weapons cuts and cooperation in Afghanistan.
But – and, bear with me, this has a point – Putin's slouch was not unique to this meeting or to this relationship. It's also not as much a politically irrelevant personal quirk as you might think. This below image is taken from an April meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Moscow, to discuss some islands that have been disputed between the two countries for decades. Not only is he slouching, he's openly fiddling with a pen as Abe speaks:
Obama concedes that his relationship with Putin is rocky, in part he says because of Putin's "rhetoric" and his government's "anti-Americanism" since he re-took office. But Obama seemed to argue that focusing on Putin's slouch doesn't actually tell you anything useful about the U.S.-Russia relationship. Is he right?
It's certainly true that it's always easy to over-state the role that individual leaders play in guiding their country's foreign policy or foreign relationships. As I've been arguing all week, the breakdown in U.S.-Russia relations is less a function of personal coolness between Putin and Obama or even their dispute over NSA leaker Edward Snowden than it is a product of the fact that the U.S. and Russia now have fewer points of mutual interest, such as Afghanistan or nuclear reductions, compelling their cooperation. This isn't primarily about Snowden's asylum or Putin's slouch driving the U.S. and Russia apart, so much as it is about losing the things that brought them together.
Still, Putin's slouch is significant – and so is his push for anti-Americanism domestic rhetoric – but it's not because they're driving the U.S.-Russia split, it's because they're reflective of a split that was probably already coming. Putin is just like any other head of state, including Obama, in that his foreign policy is driven by cost-benefit calculus, which includes domestic politics. His disputed reelection left him weakened domestically, so it's little surprise he'd want to gin up nationalism, which he quickly did in part by pushing a law banning American families from adopting Russian orphans, even if it meant harming the U.S.-Russia relationship. And that relationship was running out of mutual interests anyway, meaning that neither he nor Obama had as much reason to invest it with time and energy.
Think about it this way: Obama's decision to cancel his upcoming meeting with Putin probably looks, to Russians, a lot like Putin's slouch looks to us, as an unnecessary insult and a function of the president's aloof personality. But, within the U.S., we understand that Obama was making a cost-benefit calculation, not acting out of personality animosity for Putin or Russia. Yes, the decision to cancel is important, but as an indicator of how Obama sees the diplomatic relationship and where he sees his interests, not because it reveals that Obama desires to set back relations with Moscow or is deep-down Russophobic. We might say the same of Putin's slouch, which seems to magically straighten at events that he's determined are important for his interests as president.