By Patricia H. Kushlis
In a recent post on the Snowden Case, Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie’s Moscow Institute asks why US relations with China – America’s real rival – are so much less contentious than they are with Russia. It’s a good question. Is it the differences in political cultures as Trenin posits? Or something else in terms of Snowden? Did, in this case, the Chinese just outsmart the Russians by getting what they wanted from Snowden and then passing that hot potato over to Moscow leaving the Russians holding the bag?
Former CIA officer Milt Bearden chalks up the Snowden affair to a win for China and something of a tie between Russia and the US. He also points out that the US does not return defectors – and for that matter neither do the Russians. Bearden should know. So, he argues that even if the Russians had been willing to hand Snowden over to US authorities, something he thinks would have been highly unlikely, the US would not have had someone handy to trade in the tit-for-tat games the two intelligence services have played with each other for decades.
On the rocks
In fact, US-Russian relations have been rocky for some time – Putin was never America’s favorite regardless of president in the White House. His cold and clammy KGB personality was itself a turn off – George W Bush never understood the man despite his empty gestures to the contrary; Obama was clearly more comfortable dealing with Dmitri Medvedev when he was president. Like it or not, personal relations between leaders are important to good relations between countries.
It’s been clear since before his arrival, that Michael McFaul, Obama’s choice for Ambassador to Moscow, would not have an easy time of it even though the negotiation of a new START treaty had originally cleared the air in the latest reset game. One can argue that this is because of McFaul’s contacts with opposition leaders – people he had known before setting foot in Spaso House – but such contacts have been the norm for American Embassy officials for years including during the Cold War.
Is Putin really so unsure of his grasp on power that he fears America’s Ambassador meeting with political rivals? That is paranoid; if true.
Why the US bluster?
But then why the noisy US public relations bluster surrounding the Snowden fiasco? Is it really aimed at the Russians – and getting Snowden back? Or is it more for US domestic consumption to out right-wing the right wing which has thus far tried unsuccessfully to paint the Obama administration as weak on national security since before his election in 2008?
Is Putin’s public response designed to bolster his weakening
standing at home? But if the US boycotts the Olympics or cancels a Summit will Putin look stronger or not? Will he be seen as today’s Peter the Great seated on his
horse like the bronze statue in St. Petersburg? (photo by PHKushlis April 1990.
Here’s the current dilemma: the US has threatened to cancel a presidential summit scheduled for Moscow in September and some in Congress call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics (presumably along the lines of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan).
Boycotting a Summit that’s not likely to produce much, however, is a political gesture that in the end is not all that important. But what needs to be weighed now is who it costs more in terms of public image at home and abroad: Obama or Putin.
Yet look at Ambassador Gary Locke in China – and before him Ambassador John Huntsman. Their relations with their Chinese counterparts are and were far less rocky.
So why do US-Chinese relations tend to operate on a more even keel - or perhaps a different plane - even though major human rights differences are frequent irritants, spy scandals continue and US official contacts with Chinese dissidents are not what the CCP approves? Is it because China owns a chunk of our treasury? Will it change as China flexes its muscles in its surrounding seas and “near abroad”?
Or is it something about differences in personalities – I don’t think it can just be chalked up to political cultures but certainly individual behavior with its deep cultural roots is a part of it. In many ways Americans are often more like Asians – and less like Russians - than many care to admit.
Furthermore, the Chinese know they need to maintain a good relationship with the US to maintain their share of our lucrative market – just as the US knows that it needs to pay attention to China and its rising position in Asia. But is this equally true for America's relationship with Russia?
This may intrude on Russian vanity and self-image, but I'm not so sure.