This article was originally written for Global Chaos
Putin’s NYT op-ed was clearly a public diplomacy failure. But there is much more to criticize than just the author.
The proverbial has hit the fan over Syria these couple of weeks. Everyone involved — directly and indirectly — is deep down in it, yet very few — if any — can really provide any accurate assessment as to what’s going on there, on the ground, despite what they’d have you believe. So instead, the focus is on haughty politics, war mongering, theatrical diplomacy, and well… (let’s call things what they really are) political score-keeping within the US.
In the midst of all this, Putin came up with yet another idea of giving a piece of his mind to the American public. Directly. This time, in a form of a New York Times op-ed. “Sovereign” public diplomacy, if you will. Nonetheless, it was a deliberate attempt at trying to make the Russian case to the American public, and weigh in on what seems to be an increasingly sloppy debate in this country.
As an attempt at public diplomacy, the op-ed did very little. If anything, it did the exact opposite. The op-ed managed to succeed in getting intense coverage and scrutiny by Americans of every creed and political conviction, most of it — even when justified — simply hateful. And perhaps for a good reason.
Some suggest that he has no moral authority or credibility to be lecturing the US on matters of human rights, given his own record on the matter. Others point out that he’s being hypocritical, when talking about the need to stick with the UN, criticizing his administration’s obstructionist stance on many of the issues that actually do get to the UNSC. Some laugh at his insistence on non-interference and the principle of “sovereignty,” reminding each other of “Georgia 2008” or even his current support of the Assad regime. While others call him an outright liar for claiming that poison gas “was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces” (while, we’re all still waiting for actual evidence that counters his claim to materialize).
Most of those are great objections. If you’re looking at it from the American/Western perspective, that is.
Which brings me to the central point here: “exceptionalism.” That final paragraph - Putin’s punch line - clearly didn’t go down well. He touched something sacrosanct, something no foreigner has the ability to grasp or the legitimacy to criticize. Especially not when you’re the leader of a country which has served as a contrast point to American identity for almost a century now. And yes, a lot of the hysteria — when you boil it down to its essence — is precisely over this.
It’s amusing to watch. But given the nature of the issue, it’s also a matter of major concern. Public diplomacy-wise, this was a major blunder, not only because Putin effectively lost all credibility over the issue (whatever there was of it, that is), but also because the entire country is going to take its dance around the flag even further to the right.
Amidst all the commentary, two interesting points regarding public diplomacy stood out to me, and they merit attention here. Julia Ioffe started her ardent critique in the New Republic with the following paragraph:
Putin addresses the American people over the head of their president, which is fine except for that time when it infuriated him when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a similar initiative, encouraging American diplomats to engage Russians on social media, and over the head of Putin.
Well, first and foremost, this is inaccurate at best. Yes, Putin does not like any of the American public diplomacy initiatives - especially the information-heavy ones - within Russia. But the major point of “conflict” in this regard was over covert initiatives undertaken within Russia with the clear objective of government (regime) change. He, on the other hand — at least in this case (since we’re talking about this instance) — utilized the pages of the most influential newspaper in the US (the world?) in a sloppy attempt to communicate with the American public over a foreign policy issue. I mean, come on — you can’t just “miss” this difference for the sake of an argument, can you?
The other point came from Matthew Wallin of the American Security Project, who, despite echoing many of the criticism I was referring to above, writes the following:
As many scholars and practitioners of public diplomacy contend, listening is key. Putin’s tone, style, and arguments demonstrates a fundamental failure to listen to the full discourse of the American public. He fails to understand American criticism of the international community, and how Americans see their role and the role of Russia in the world.
Yes, I whole-heartedly agree that this was a failure. A failure to listen. A failure to communicate. A failure to understand, in the first place, perhaps. However, I will go beyond that and suggest that Wallin’s point itself is indicative of the problematic exceptionalist stance that Americans hold on to so dearly: the invincible, messianic attitude towards the world, and political affairs especially.
Criticizing Americans for this is a plain bad move in terms of public diplomacy (whether you look at it in mere propaganda terms, or in terms of actual persuasion and appeal); yet it is a valid one. After all, the US does not exist in a vacuum and the “rest” (including the aspiring rest) are increasingly making their presence known, too. The fact that Putin states this so bluntly only demonstrates his perception of power: how he sees Russia, Russia’s role in the world, as well as that of the US and others.
Whether one agrees with him or not is a different question, but the reality remains that within the rapidly changing circumstances of global affairs, the US simply cannot afford going it alone (or with France; or with Israel; or whoever else…).
I started teaching this semester and going over some of the basic foundations of IR theory with my incoming freshmen has helped us do a lot of thinking on this subject. Exceptionalism can only be harmful because it gives a false sense of invincibility and omnipotence, at the expense of trust, international cooperation, and (often forgotten, when Americans are not involved) people’s lives. [To put it in academic-speak: trying to achieve hard-core realist objectives while sugar coating them with fake liberalism and constructivism will, eventually, undermine your very objectives…]
More importantly, though, having one’s own public convinced cannot and should not suffice. Which part of deciding whether to bomb a country simply based on a promise that “there will be no troops on the ground” reflects humanitarian concern? Sometimes it’s all too easy to make life-and-death decisions about some abstract people (and countries) that live half-way across the world, on the other side of an ocean (plus a major sea), especially when you promise a “clean operation.”
It’s disgusting to hear the arguments against intervention based on US domestic concerns (economic, war-weariness, political popularity, etc., etc.) with not a single reference to the many more Syrian (and other, non-American) lives to be lost in the process. Even more disgusting is the claim that “punishment” is the only goal, and not ending the horrendous bloodshed for which all (not one, not two, not three… many) sides are to blame for.
If anything, such an exceptionalist approach to foreign affairs will only undercut American power and influence in the medium-to-long term, because — sure — the short-term objectives might be easily achievable, but the worms coming out of that can (that’s already open) will haunt the US (and Russia and others too, for that matter) for decades to come. After all, the whole essence of American public diplomacy and soft power is being eroded as we speak.
At a talk Dr. Charles Kupchan of Georgetown University gave at AU yesterday, he suggested that Americans should start getting used to the idea that not everything is going to be the way just they want, and that the US will have to share power - as well as responsibility and accountability - with others, too. Syria (and Putin) can, perhaps, provide a good starting point to this process. But I do realize that this is merely wishful thinking…
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands are dead. And more a dying. Every day.
Just by the way…
P.S. - Oh, and I’m not at all saying that I agree with Putin. Or his suggestions. Or his stance. Or that the US is a bad place with an evil global mission. But observing the mass blindness and the total absence of critical thinking is, as clear from the above, quite disconcerting.
photo credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vladimir_Putin-6.jpg