President Obama has canceled a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Russia’s decision to give temporary asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden has exacerbated tensions with the United States over a number of issues:
“Following a careful review begun in July, we have reached the conclusion that there is not enough recent progress in our bilateral agenda with Russia to hold a U.S.-Russia Summit in early September,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.
Carney cited a “lack of progress” with Russia over the past 12 months on a broad range of issues including missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security and human rights and civil society issues. Carney added that Russia’s “disappointing decision” last week to grant Snowden temporary asylum, allowing him to live and work in Russia for up to a year, was also a factor.
“We have informed the Russian Government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit until we have more results from our shared agenda,” Carney said.
On Friday, Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet with their Russian counterparts in Washington to discuss how to make progress, Carney said. . . .
The cancellation of the Obama-Putin meeting appeared unlikely to provoke an outsize reaction in Russia. Although Putin clearly wanted the prestige of an at-home summit with his U.S. counterpart, he was apparently unwilling to offer much in exchange for it.
Russia has shown no signs of changing its stance on Syria, missile defense or other issues important to the United States.
Putin’s foreign affairs adviser told reporters that the Kremlin was disappointed with the decision and blamed it on the Snowden affair, which he said was not Russia’s fault.
Obama also criticized Russia’s laws discriminating against gays last night on “The Tonight Show.” Because of the law, some have advocated a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi in February:
Saying that he had “no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them,” Obama criticized a law, enacted in June, that prohibits public events promoting gay rights and public displays of affection by same-sex couples. A Russian official has promised that the law will be enforced during next February’s Sochi Games despite the International Olympic Committee’s contrary stance.
“One of the things I think is very important for me to speak out on is making sure that people are treated fairly and justly because that’s what we stand for, and I believe that that’s a precept that’s not unique to America,” Obama said. “That’s just something that should apply everywhere.”
Politics often intrudes on the Olympics, but open intolerance at a time when the whole world is watching would leave a staggeringly negative impression.
Max Fisher argues that the deterioration in the relationship between the two countries is largely due to the fact that neither has much to gain from cooperation:
The disputes between the U.S. and China have been far more severe and over much more substantive issues. Chinese hackers have stolen sensitive U.S. military technological secrets, broken into Google servers to undermine U.S. counterespionage efforts, infiltrated just about every major institution in Washington and stolen so much U.S. intellectual property that it’s been called “the greatest transfer of wealth in history.” Chinese human rights abuses are, by most standards, significantly worse than Russia’s. The U.S. and China have widely divergent interests on issues from Syria to North Korea to Iran to trade rules to currency standards. U.S.-China meetings can get, I’m told, plenty “blunt” and “animated.” These are problems that make the latest U.S.-Russia disputes, over Snowden and anti-gay rights legislation, look pretty mild by comparison. . . .
President Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously declared, “We will bury you.” And yet, for decades, U.S. and Soviet leaders held one summit meeting after another, even though the tensions were so high – and so personal – that they sometimes ended with, for example, a May 1960 Paris summit where Khrushchev dressed down President Eisenhower for U2 spy plane flights, one or the other storming out in outrage.
So how is it that U.S. and Soviet leaders went ahead with decades of summits despite disagreements so severe they implied a threat of World War III, while today a summit falls apart over a single NSA contractor and the slow progress in some minor security and trade cooperation measures?
It may actually be the case that the reset was doomed not by high tensions but by low stakes. Obama and Xi feel compelled to force a smile for the camera at Sunnylands in large part because the U.S. and China have arguably the most important bilateral relationship in the world; neither can afford to let it fall apart. The same was true of Washington-Moscow summits during the Cold War, when leaders who might despise one another would meet not despite but because of the very real threat of mutual nuclear annihilation.
Though the decision to cancel the meeting put the Obama administration in an awkward position, opinion writer Ed Rogers argues that it was the right choice:
Sometimes being president is all about making the least worst decision. Sometimes for President Obama, being president means making the least embarrassing decision. The White House has announced that Obama has canceled his planned “Moscow summit” with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 economic summit. Well, the only thing more embarrassing than canceling the meeting with Putin would be to have the meeting with Putin. When cameras are rolling, the Russian president, who won’t even return Obama’s phone calls, can be expected to look bored, indifferent and bothered by the presence of the president of the United States.
But let’s face it, even if there ever was an Obama-Putin relationship, it’s over for the rest of the Obama presidency. Neither side has to pretend anymore. . . .
Obama has taken his relationship-building skills, which we have seen up close in his work with Congress, to the international stage with similar results. What world leaders follow Obama’s lead? Who really considers him to be their leader? I know this sounds harsh, but I fear it is true.
Who knows what the consequences will be? In American domestic politics, it won’t matter much, unless you consider the opportunity cost or if, heaven forbid, there is a crisis in the next two and a half years and we actually need the president to assemble an international coalition in furtherance of an American interest.
The non-meeting with Putin is undoubtedly better for Obama than is it for Putin. Obama would probably get dissed, and the rest of the world, while not particularly admiring Putin, might fear him a little more when they see how dismissive he can be of the president of the United States.
For past coverage of Edward Snowden and the NSA, continue reading here.