This week has seen President Obama and President Putin make major speeches to the United Nations General Assembly on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the organization in 1945. Let’s compare and contrast.
First, length. President Putin wins convincingly, with a speech of 3000 words (in English) compared to 4700 words from President Obama. The Putin speech comes over as sharp, substantive and business-like (by UN standards). The Obama speech is almost rambling at times, with dim mixed metaphors and tendentious assertions:
Today, we see the collapse of strongmen and fragile states breeding conflict, and driving innocent men, women and children across borders on an epic scale…
A “collapse of strongmen” and “fragile states breed”! And “drive”!
The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow.
What? Strongmen suffer spontaneous combustion?
Indeed, I believe that in today’s world, the measure of strength is no longer defined by the control of territory
Huh? What does ‘no longer’ mean here? It is clear that a measure of a state’s weakness is its inability to control its territory. See EU members grappling with refugees and ‘migrants’.
As always President Obama tiptoes around violent contradictions in today’s Islam:
Unless we work together to defeat the ideas that drive different communities in a country like Iraq into conflict, any order that our militaries can impose will be temporary … I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed … You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas.
Make your mind up! If you can defeat ideas, why can’t you imprison them? And which ‘ideas’ are causing different Islamic sects to massacre each other now, as they have done for centuries? How exactly to ‘defeat’ them?
Vladimir Putin sharply criticised Western ‘interventions’ in the Middle East, jeering at unhappy US experiences including bad results from arming the opposition to Assad:
Instead of bringing about reforms, aggressive intervention rashly destroyed government institutions and the local way of life. 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? … I’d like to tell those who engage in this: Gentlemen, the people you are dealing with are cruel but they are not dumb. They are as smart as you are. So, it’s a big question: who’s playing who here?
Ah! Who whom? Kто кого? Lenin’s cunning question that goes right to the heart of diplomacy itself.
This Putin speech of course ignores the fact that many of the worst problems in the Middle East and North Africa have emerged from decades of incompetent, corrupt ‘Arab socialism’ rotten with KGB penetration. President Putin may fairly argue that various Western interventions across the Middle East have not been wise or efficient. But Moscow’s cynical non-intervention in favour of odious dictatorships in turn has had horrible human costs.
The main interest in these two speeches lies in what they each said about Syria. Here’s President Obama stressing what he calls ‘realism’:
The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict. But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo …
Yes, realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL. But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government that recognizes there must be an end to this chaos so that the Syrian people can begin to rebuild.
He proclaims his readiness to work with Iran, even though in the same speech he says that Iran is deploying violent proxies that “fuel sectarian conflict that endangers the entire region, and isolate Iran from the promise of trade and commerce”. Hardly a credible partner for Syria.
One way or the other, President Obama has said on numerous occasions that ‘Assad must go’. Is he now trailing a new policy: Assad must go eventually, as part of a managed process?
That approach offers room for a dirty new deal with Moscow. Thus President Putin:
We must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.
Of course, any assistance to sovereign nations can, and should, be offered rather than imposed, in strict compliance with the UN Charter … Above all, I believe it is of utmost importance to help restore government institutions in Libya, support the new government of Iraq, and provide comprehensive assistance to the legitimate government of Syria.
In other words, if we all want to crush ISIL we have to work (a) together, and (b) with Assad. But on Moscow’s terms. His not-so-subtle real message here is clear:
Listen, West. Enough is enough! Stop dithering with ISIS and wider Islamist terrorism. You’ve shown yourselves to be blundering blockheads, making everything worse.
Let’s wipe out extremists together. But that means identifying key partners for future stability. Such as, say, Mr Assad! And working via the UN so that Russia keeps a tight grip on both process and outcomes. You want ‘realism’, Mr Obama? This is realistic!
This deal has its attractions. The prospect of Russia fighter jets and special forces setting about ISIL with gusto and no mercy whatsoever warms the cockles of Western leaders’ hearts. And maybe some grimy deal that keeps Assad afloat for the time being is better than Syria collapsing completely and all those refugees banging on the door. Plus shared progress here might lead to shared progress over Ukraine.
These two UN speeches look to be cautious maneuvers towards a significant rebooting of US/Russia relations, after wasted years of cold recriminations. Vladimir Putin sees President Obama entering the final stretch of his presidency and offers a Deal that has echoes of what Yeltsin offered when the USSR collapsed:
Cut Russia fully and fairly into the process, and we’ll work fully and fairly with you on reasonable outcomes.
The difference now is that the West looks weaker and Russia feels stronger.
So, this brings up an essential question: Can President Obama and European governments now trust President Putin to work nicely to deliver on reasonable outcomes in (say) Syria and Ukraine, even if they manage to agree with Moscow on what those outcomes are?
Probably not. But do they have any better options? Realism?
Charles Crawford is a British former career diplomat turned writer, public speaking specialist and mediator. His work for HM Diplomatic Service featured postings in communist Yugoslavia, South Africa as apartheid ended and Russia after the USSR collapsed, then three ambassadorships: in Sarajevo after the conflict (1996-98); in Belgrade after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic (2001-03); and in Warsaw when Poland joined the European Union (2003-07). He also served as FCO Speechwriter in the 1980s and has drafted or contributed to speeches by members of the British Royal Family, Prime Ministers and different Foreign Ministers and other senior figures.
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