Obama's Russia blunders on gay rights, Snowden

Obama's language of "disappointment" and "impatience" on both gay rights and Snowden will be received in Russia with amused contempt. He will look and sound oddly desperate

Obama doesn't know how to talk to Russia
Charles Crawford
On 8 August 2013 16:48

Not long ago I wrote about the odd language of American official ‘diplomatic disappointment’ in the context of US/China relations and the Edward Snowden business: "There is something subtly paternalistic or patronising about the language of disappointment …

"It’s not the way two equal grown-ups talk to each other. It somehow conveys the impression that the nature of the relationship and its expectations is defined solely by the side expressing the disappointment, not by both parties acting together."

Now President Obama has called off his scheduled bilateral meeting with President Putin in Moscow before the G20 gathering in St. Petersburg. He has publicly expressed his own ‘disappointment’ that Russia gave Snowden temporary asylum.

“There have been times where they flip back in the Cold War thinking and in a Cold War mentality,” Obama said on NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “What I consistently say to them, and what I say to President (Vladimir) Putin, is that’s the past, and we have to think about the future. And there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to co-operate more effectively than we do.”

Hmm. Really? President Obama with some directness also has had something to say about Russia’s internal policies:

“I have 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 said, noting Russia “is not unique” in passing such laws.

To add to the fun, Russia in turn is now disappointed in America:

“We are disappointed by the U.S. administration’s decision to cancel the visit of President Obama to Moscow planned in early September,” Putin’s foreign policy aide, Yuri Ushakov, told reporters.

“It is clear that the decision is due to the situation around the former U.S. special services employee Snowden, which we did not create,” he added.

What is going on in this publicly escalating mutual disappointment?

First and foremost, hard-headed US/Russia diplomatic business is trudging along as best it can, despite the Snowden episode. US and Russian foreign and defence minister-equivalents are meeting as planned on Friday. And President Obama will attend the G20 event in Russia. A quiet informal word with President Putin choreographed in the margins?

Yet the public mood between national leaders sets the tone for what happens down the policy chain. If Presidents Obama and Putin are not in the mood for engaging, that limits the willingness of their respective teams to push hard or take any risks.

As a speechwriter, I don’t like bringing the language of ‘disappointment’ publicly into such things. It betrays a curious self-absorbed weakness; an inability to make shrewd professional judgements: “I thought that you would be nicer to me than you are!”

However, I like even less the language of ‘impatience’ as now used by President Obama. Such a way of framing the issues sounds superficially tough, but not too tough. It has a world-weary, pragmatic feel to it. No doubt it goes down well enough with Obama’s domestic supporters, and for all I know US opinion more generally.

Yet it is dismissive and openly condescending: “Oh, you silly people are simply impossible to deal with! Please go away and shape up, so that we can continue properly.” Worse, it somehow makes the problem seem less about the substance and more about the flickering dial of the Obama private patience-o-meter.

This language will be received in Russia with amused contempt. President Putin must be privately delighted that he has elicited such a strange reaction from President Obama on the gay rights issue, a subject where Russian opinion is overwhelmingly on Putin’s side. Chto? [What?] Dark-skinned Obama attacks Putin on gay rights? Otlichno! [Excellent!] Putin’s poll numbers jump!

In President Putin’s eyes the way the Americans have handled the whole Snowden problem likewise has made them look ridiculous. For the first time anyone can remember, an American has asked for political asylum in Russia.

And to add to the glory of this situation from a Russian point of view, that someone is a naïve ninny IT expert with all sorts of amazing US secrets that can quietly be sucked out of his laptop when he’s not looking. Hand him back? No thanks.

All this trails back to the original 2009 unwise Obama/Clinton gimmick of producing a shiny new ‘re-set’ button to symbolise a post-Bush new start in US/Russia relations. Not only did they get the word wrong in Russian, a bewildering blunder. The very psychological sense of the gesture was all wrong: “Hullo! Here we are! Your new best friend! Whether you want a new best friend or not!” Russia just does not think like that. Or respect anyone who does.

The point of diplomacy is to listen carefully to the other side, then work out skillfully where there is common ground and how to expand it. Once you start emoting on your own state of mind, or start defining in public how you expect the other side to behave and what the relationship is all about, you ipso facto lose credibility. You look and sound oddly desperate.

My own speaking notes for President Obama in answering these questions? Thus:

On Snowden: It goes without saying that this episode has damaged our bilateral relationship, and is making it a lot harder for business to proceed as usual. We are going to continue to keep talking, of course. But not as closely as previously.

On gay rights: Russia has a quite different tradition and attitude than us on this subject. So do other countries. Many commentators and experts are saying that Russia is breaching various European and other international norms here. The Russians clearly now have an awkward problem over the Sochi Winter Olympics. We’ll be making our position very clear to the Russian side.

Simple. Firm. Cast in ‘neutral’ language. You want to sound tough? Push the issue back. Make it all about their problems, not yours.

This article was first published on Pundit Wire. Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @charlescrawford

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