PARIS – “How many divisions does the Pope have?” Joseph Stalin famously quipped when told to be mindful of the Vatican. In an updated lesson in realpolitik, Russian President Vladimir Putin recently was happy to count Pope Francis as an ally in opposing American military intervention in Syria. Presenting himself as the last pillar of respect for international law, Putin offered ethics lessons to the United States – and specifically to President Barack Obama.
With the US-Russian agreement, signed in Geneva on September 14, to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, Russia has returned to the global scene – and not only because of its nuisance value. Could Putin one day receive, like Obama before him, a Nobel Peace Prize? Has not Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who proposed the deal, already entered the pantheon of great Russian diplomats, as the successor of Karl Nesselrode, the Russian envoy to the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna and to the Congress of Paris in 1856?
Of course, Russian diplomacy has performed extremely well recently, but it does not stand on its own merits alone. Russia’s diplomats would have gained little without America’s foreign-policy malaise – a victim of Obama’s vacillation and of Americans’ hostility to any new military adventure, however limited its scope – and Europe’s deep internal divisions.
Yes, Russia is emerging from its humiliation following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Heir to an imperial tradition that has shaped its national identity, Russia is resuming in the Middle East a role and status more in tune with the one it had from the Czarist era to Soviet times.
But Russia is no match for the US militarily and no match for China economically, and its soft power is virtually non-existent. If Russia can provoke America – whether by granting political asylum to the “traitor” Edward Snowden, for example, or by resisting Western diplomacy in the Middle East – it is not because it has become a great power once again, but simply because America is no longer the great power that it once was.
The Syrian crisis has made that plain. Recent US diplomacy has seemed amateurish and naive. Obama’s handling of the Syrian crisis increasingly evokes Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis 33 years ago, particularly the failed operation in 1980 to rescue the Americans abducted following the takeover of the US embassy in November 1979. Then, too, hesitation seemed to prevail over determination, contributing to the failure of the mission.
Carter was a somewhat bland engineer, whereas Obama is a charismatic lawyer. Yet they seem to share a fundamental indecisiveness in their approach to world affairs. Carter had difficulty choosing between the muscular line of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the more moderate approach of his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance.
By contrast, there are no fundamental disagreements among Obama’s closest foreign-policy advisers – Susan Rice, the national security adviser, Samantha Power, who succeeded Rice as US Ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of State John Kerry. Instead, it is Obama himself who seems to be constantly hesitating. The divisions are not among his advisers, but within his own mind.
As a good lawyer, Obama weighs the pros and cons, aware that it is impossible to do nothing in the Syrian crisis but remaining viscerally disinclined to leap into any foreign entanglement that would distract attention from his agenda of domestic reform. More important, he seems to lack a coherent long-term strategic vision of America’s role in the world. Neither the currently fashionable “Asian pivot” nor the “Russian reset” four years ago constitute the beginning of a grand plan.
In such a context, the return of global realpolitik can only benefit Russia and harm the US, despite America’s many advantages in terms of hard and soft power. The agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons struck by Russia and the US could one day be remembered as a spectacular breakthrough in the field of arms control. But it is more likely to be perceived as a grand deception – remembered not for helping Syria’s people, but mainly as a sign of America’s growing international weakness.
In that case, the agreement will not only damage America’s reputation, but will also undermine global stability. Weakness is weakness, whether one is in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, or Pyongyang.