President Without a Purpose

A few years ago, I gave lectures on the history of the US presidency. Back in those days, George W. Bush was the resident of the White House and was not a favorite among my students. At one point, I reminded the group that each of the 43 men who embodied the Executive Branch of the American government during their mandate needed special virtues to be elected.

George W. Bush was not very popular – mainly because of the military intervention in Iraq – but he had distinctive qualities of loyalty and determination, which, coupled with his principles and visible kindness, made him a great president (in my humble opinion). Never did I think I would be hard-pressed to find a notable quality to a sitting President. But that time has come.

I was impatient to put my hand on Rage by Bob Woodard. The legendary Washington Post journalist did not disappoint. His last book is one of his best, exposing a president that will certainly go down in history as one of the most polarizing.

When you think of the president of the United States, you do not necessarily expect an Ivy League scholar. But you can certainly hope the person will manifest some sort of intellectual curiosity and will be able to grasp essential nuances. Rage plainly demonstrates this is not the case with Donald Trump.

Among the many episodes evoked by the author, the following one is quite evocative of the man who is “impervious to facts”:

“Coats’s [Trump’s intelligence czar] relations with Trump soured quickly as the president persisted in asking Coats to stop or get control of the FBI’s Russian investigation. Trump wanted Coats to say there was no evidence of coordination or conspiracy with Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign.

Coats repeatedly tried to point out that the FBI had a criminal side and an intelligence side. He had oversight and a role in the intelligence side. But he has no role, zero, in the criminal investigations – including the Mueller probe of Russian interference.

Trump disagreed, or did not understand, and acted as if Coats was insubordinate.”

Bob Woodward paints the portrait of a small man who doesn’t like to read, takes credit for the work and ideas of others, lets himself be flattered by a murderous dictatorial madman who panders to his Himalayan ego by calling him “Your Excellency”, claims to never be in the wrong, has no idea of what a policy process is all about, needed his chief of staff [retired U.S. Marine Corps John Kelly] to brief him about what happened at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and thinks that he genetically understands atomic weapons because his uncle taught “[…] at MIT for 42 years or something.” I have to admit I guffawed at that last one.

On COVID-19 specifically, Trump feels it’s unfair he has to deal with it – as if FDR was pleased to enter World War II, or GWB was content to respond to 9/11. Perhaps reading a few books on political history would have helped Kim Jong-un’s friend to understand that becoming president means sailing troubled waters.

The author confirms what many believe. It takes a certain ethos to become president of the United States, an ethos Donald Trump does not possess. Nor was he intellectually of emotionally fit either for office. In a passage, he quotes the president telling him: “Can you believe I’m here, president of the United States, and you’re here? Can you believe this shit? Isn’t it the greatest thing in the world?” This childish excitement could be forgiven if it was not accompanied by another psychological penchant that leads him to have disparaging comments regarding others. In the eyes of the New York real estate mogul, Barack Obama is not smart, George W. Bush is a moron (which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test) and members of the Intelligence establishment “should go back to school” – which is rich, coming from a man who allegedly paid someone else to take his SAT test.

Decency is a word that never found its way in Donald Trump’s persona and US politics is poorer because of it. After all, what would you make of a candidate who asks his campaign manager not to stand besides him on Election night because he is taller than him? Or when the same person who, upon becoming president, is not man enough to fire members of his team face to face, relying on Twitter to do so? I have never read such stories about Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barack Obama. Because these three commanders in chief were emotionally stable. They acted like grown and mature men who did not need to trample on others to shine.

Truthfully, I never expected Bob Woodward to portray a likable, knowledgeable, intellectual and inspiring leader. After all, we’re talking of a president who thrives on hate and ignorance. Even though I thoroughly enjoy the “fly on Pence’s hair the wall” point of view – like future Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wearing tennis shoes when he met with future Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for dinner at the Jefferson Hotel – I did not expect to witness such chaos at the highest level of the American political life either.

Jared Kushner, the son-in-law who serves as a valued advisor in his father-in-law administration is probably right on the mark when he recommends Alice in Wonderland to those who seek to better understand the current president. Paraphrasing the Cheshire Cat who says: “If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.”

This is probably the best way to summarize the mandate of this president without a purpose.

Reading a new book by Bob Woodward is always a real treat. But I pray to God his next one will be about the 46th president that will move into the White House next January.

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Bob Woodward, Rage, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2020, 480 pages.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Athena Reekers, from Simon & Schuster Canada, who kindly provided me with a review copy of Rage and for her continued precious and generous assistance.

“Hunkering down and waiting until Russia melts down is not a policy.” – Exclusive interview with Pr. Sergey Radchenko

Former Ambassador of the Russian Federation in Canada, Mr. Georgii Mamadov (Source: The Globe and Mail)

(version française)

After the publication of my post about his recent and excellent article about the relationship between Russia and the West in the immediate aftermath of Cold War, Professor Sergey Radchenko (University of Cardiff) kindly accepted to answer few questions to examine the matter further. Here is the content of our exchange.

Having met with former Deputy Foreign Minister Georgii Mamedov when he served as Ambassador of the Federation of Russia in Canada, I am wondering if you might have more information about his role during this pivotal period in the relations between Washington and Moscow?

Mamedov is a mystery to me. He seems to have played a crucial role in the relationship, and one that was very constructive. If I were to guess at his political orientation, I would say that comes across as someone who valued Russia’s cooperation with the West and worked to bring Moscow into a closer alignment with the West. On the other hand, unlike other key figures on both sides of Russia-US relations (e.g. Talbott, Albright, Kozyrev, Primakov and others), Mamedov has not been willing to go on record with his version of events. I hope he will change his mind and we’ll get to hear his side of the story.

In your article, you oftentimes refer to the Russian elites and their impact on the policymaking about the relationship with the West. What about the American and Western elites? Did their influence play a role in the attitude towards Moscow?

The article talks a lot about the “elites,” which I guess is the same thing as what is often referred to as the “foreign policy blob” in the American context. There has recently been much discussion in the US about the role of the “blob,” as well as its vested interests (for example, in the question of US global leadership). This discussion is immediately applicable to the Russian context (and vice versa), since foreign policy of a country is really what the elites (or the “blob”) make of it. I am not being critical of the “blob” here; I just argue that there are certain narratives that are shared by the elite. In Russia’s case, it’s the narrative of their country’s international “greatness.” In the US case, it’s a question of America’s global leadership. In both Russia and the US these narratives cut across partisan lines.

The Russians have always tended to overstate the Americans’ willingness to participate in some kind of a condominium with Moscow.

The Clinton administration clearly did not seem keen on engaging Russia in the perspective of offering that country a seat at the table. Your article depicts Anthony Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher as being in the opposing camp of such an outcome. But were there senior officials who diverged with that assessment and who might have been more inclined to convey Russia to a greater role?

Mary Sarotte has done much more work than I have on the US side; her research shows that, indeed, there were people in the Pentagon, for instance, who were abhorred by the idea of rapid NATO enlargement. They were worried about Russia’s negative reaction and were more interested in the strategic arms control dialogue with the Russia or in Ukraine’s denuclearization. Whether this means that they were willing to give Russia a seat at the table is another matter. The Russians have always tended to overstate the Americans’ willingness to participate in some kind of a condominium with Moscow.The resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.

On the Western side, you refer to Americans – of course – and to a certain extent to the Germans. I was also very interested in reading your reference to a memorandum from British Ambassador Rodric Braithwaite to Anthony Lake. How would you resume the British attitude in regards with NATO enlargement and potential Russia membership?

I have spoken to Malcolm Rifkind who was the Defense Secretary and the Foreign Secretary in the UK while this debate was going on. His position then (and now) is that Russia could never be a part of NATO, as this would undermine the very purpose of the alliance. This of course suggests that the purpose of the alliance is to keep Russia at bay, and perhaps this is how the British policy-makers viewed the problem at the time. More often, they expressed their opposition with reference to practical concerns, e.g.: how could Russia be integrated in military terms? Would this not make the alliance into another version of the OSCE?

Fundamentally, of course it was not in the immediate British interest to dilute NATO by inviting a country like Russia into the alliance, especially that the Russians claimed at the time that they have a special kind of relationship with the United States (as a key partner). This would just diminish Great Britain’s status as a key player in the West. It is interesting that in the early 1990s, the British were trying to redefine Britain’s post-Cold War role. In one of the seminars that was convened by the Prime Minister to do that, it was proposed to strive towards maintaining Britain’s status as one of the three key European powers (the others being… Germany and France). Russia was not even on the radar.

The resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.

After he arrived at the Kremlin in 2000, President Putin sent signals that he was well-disposed towards the West (notably his relationship with President Bush and a visit to the Bush family summer home in Kennebunkport) – a disposition that changed over time. In your opinion, could more have been accomplished at the beginning of the Putin reign to engage further Russia with the West?

It seems clear that Putin was inclined to build closer relations with the West early on in his tenure. Like Yeltsin, he expressed interest in joining NATO. I do think that an opportunity was missed to tie Russia institutionally to the West. It does not mean that Putin can evade his share of responsibility for the worsening of the relationship. It just means  that, just as the article argues, the resurgence of the adversarial narrative, which legitimizes Putin as protector of Russia’s ‘national interests’ (defined in adversarial terms) was something that both sides contributed to.

The notion that Russia is part of the West is still a mainstream political view.

Are there still pro-Western advocates in the entourage of President Putin?

Yes, the two narratives that were present in the 1990s are still present, although the narrative of engagement is much less pronounced now. Putin is deeply invested in the adversarial narrative and won’t easily shift back. But were he to step down, the elites can easily shift in the other direction. No one hold deeply ideological views about Europe; if anything, the notion that Russia is part of the West is still a mainstream political view.

What would it take for Russia and the West (NATO) to get back on a more cooperative trajectory? Would it even be beneficial?

It’s tricky now because there are structural impediments (primarily, Crimea). It would be completely unrealistic to imagine that Russia will return Crimea even after Putin is gone. Re-establishing good relations between Russia and the West would thus require the West to find a viable position for itself in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Perhaps this would mean offering incentives to both in the context of eventual membership in both NATO and the EU. This is a far-fetched idea at the moment but the alternative to creative thinking is to simply hunker down and wait until Russia melts down. This is not a policy.  

Are you currently working on a book and, if so, would you agree to lees us know what it will be about?

The book is a history of Soviet/Russian foreign policy since 1945 to the present. It’s been years in writing, and I can’t wait to finally present it to the readers! I hope it will appear in print next year.

Many sincere thanks Professor!

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(version française)

« Attendre que la Russie disparaisse n’est pas une option. » – Entrevue exclusive avec le Professeur Sergey Radchenko

Dans la foulée du billet que j’ai publié à propos de votre article très perspicace sur la relation entre la Russie et l’occident immédiatement après la fin de la Guerre froide, le Professeur Sergey Radchenko (Université de Cardiff) a généreusement accepté de répondre à mes questions pour approfondir le sujet.

Ayant rencontré l’ancien sous-ministre des Affaires étrangères Georgii Mamedov lorsqu’il était ambassadeur de la Fédération de Russie au Canada, je me demande si vous pourriez nous en dire plus à propos de son rôle au cours de cette période charnière dans les relations entre Washington et Moscou.

Mamedov est un mystère pour moi. Il semble avoir joué un rôle crucial dans la relation, et un rôle très constructif. Si je devais deviner son orientation politique, je dirais qu’il s’agit d’une personne pour qui la coopération de la Russie et l’Occident était importante et qui a déployé des efforts pour rapprocher Moscou de l’Occident. D’un autre côté et contrairement à d’autres personnalités clés des deux côtés des relations russo-américaines (par exemple Talbott, Albright, Kozyrev, Primakov et autres), Mamedov n’a pas été disposé à donner officiellement sa version des événements. J’espère qu’il changera d’avis et que nous aurons accès à sa version de l’histoire.

Dans votre article, vous faites souvent référence aux élites russes et à leur impact sur l’élaboration des orientations politiques concernant les relations avec l’Occident. Qu’en est-il des élites américaines et occidentales? Leur influence a-t-elle joué un rôle dans l’attitude envers Moscou?

L’article parle beaucoup des « élites », ce qui, je suppose, est la même chose que ce que l’on appelle souvent le « blob » (la communauté washingtonienne d’experts en politique internationale selon Ben Rhodes, ancien conseiller du président Barack Obama)[1] dans le contexte américain. Il y a eu récemment beaucoup de discussions aux États-Unis sur le rôle du « blob », ainsi que sur ses intérêts particuliers (par exemple, dans la question du leadership mondial des États-Unis). Cette discussion est immédiatement applicable au contexte russe (et vice versa), puisque la politique étrangère d’un pays est vraiment ce que les élites (ou le blob) en font. Je ne critique pas ici le « blob »; Je soutiens simplement que certains discours sont partagés par l’élite. Dans le cas de la Russie, c’est celui de la « grandeur » internationale de leur pays. Dans le cas des États-Unis, il s’agit du leadership mondial. En Russie et aux États-Unis, ces discours transcendent les axes partisans.

Les Russes ont toujours eu tendance à exagérer la volonté des Américains de participer à une forme de direction à deux avec Moscou.

L’administration Clinton ne semblait manifestement pas désireuse d’engager la Russie dans la perspective d’offrir à ce pays un siège à la table. Votre article dépeint Anthony Lake et le Secrétaire d’État Warren Christopher comme étant dans le camp opposé à un tel scénario. Mais y avait-il des hauts fonctionnaires qui ont divergé de cette option et qui auraient pu être plus enclins à amener la Russie à jouer un plus grand rôle?

Mary Sarotte a travaillé le côté américain beaucoup plus que moi; ses recherches illustrent que, en effet, il se trouvait des gens au Pentagone, par exemple, qui avaient en horreur l’idée d’un élargissement rapide de l’OTAN. Ils étaient inquiets de la réaction négative de la Russie et étaient plus intéressés par le dialogue sur le contrôle des armements stratégiques avec la Russie ou par la dénucléarisation de l’Ukraine. Est-ce que cela signifie qu’ils étaient disposés à accorder une place à la Russie à la table est une autre question. Les Russes ont toujours eu tendance à exagérer la volonté des Américains de participer à une forme de direction à deux avec Moscou.

Du côté occidental, vous faites référence aux Américains – bien sûr – et, dans une certaine mesure, aux Allemands. J’ai également été très intéressé de lire votre référence à un mémorandum de l’ambassadeur britannique Rodric Braithwaite destiné à Anthony Lake. Comment résumeriez-vous l’attitude britannique en ce qui a trait à l’élargissement de l’OTAN et l’adhésion potentielle de la Russie?

Je me suis entretenu avec Malcolm Rifkind, qui était ministre la Défense et des Affaires étrangères de la Grande-Bretagne pendant que ce débat avait cours. Sa position à l’époque (et maintenant) est à l’effet que la Russie ne pourrait jamais faire partie de l’OTAN, car cela minerait la nature même de l’alliance. Cela suppose naturellement que le but de l’alliance est de tenir la Russie à distance, et c’est peut-être ainsi que les décideurs politiques britanniques percevaient la question à l’époque. Plus souvent, ils ont exprimé leur opposition relativement à des préoccupations pratiques, par exemple: comment la Russie pourrait-elle être intégrée sur le plan militaire? Est-ce que l’effet d’une telle mesure n’aurait pour effet de transformer l’alliance en une autre version de l’OSCE?

Fondamentalement, bien sûr, il n’était pas dans l’intérêt britannique immédiat de diluer l’OTAN en y invitant un pays comme la Russie, et ce, d’autant plus que les Russes affirmaient à l’époque qu’ils entretenaient un type particulier de relation avec les États-Unis (en tant que partenaire-clé). Cela ne ferait que diminuer le statut de la Grande-Bretagne en tant qu’acteur de premier plan en Occident. Il est intéressant de noter qu’au début des années 1990, les Britanniques tentaient de redéfinir le rôle de la Grande-Bretagne après la Guerre froide. Dans l’un des séminaires qui a été organisé par le Premier ministre à cette fin, il a été proposé de s’efforcer de maintenir le statut de la Grande-Bretagne en tant que l’une des trois principales puissances européennes (les autres étant… l’Allemagne et la France). La Russie n’était même pas sur les écrans radar.

La résurgence du discours antagoniste, qui légitime Poutine en tant que protecteur des « intérêts nationaux » de la Russie (définis en termes antagonistes), est un phénomène auquel les deux parties ont contribué.

Après son arrivée au Kremlin en 2000, le président Poutine a envoyé des signaux indiquant qu’il était bien disposé envers l’Occident (notamment sa relation avec le président Bush et une visite à la résidence d’été de la famille Bush à Kennebunkport) – une disposition qui a changé avec le temps. À votre avis, aurait-on pu faire plus au début du règne de Poutine pour renforcer les liens entre la Russie et l’Occident?

Il semble manifeste que Poutine était enclin à établir des relations plus étroites avec l’Occident au début de son mandat. À l’instar de Eltsine, il a manifesté son intérêt à joindre l’OTAN. Je pense qu’une occasion a été manquée de lier institutionnellement la Russie à l’Occident. Cela ne signifie pas que Poutine peut être dédouané de toute responsabilité dans l’aggravation de la relation. Cela signifie simplement que, comme l’indique l’article, la résurgence du discours antagoniste, qui légitime Poutine en tant que protecteur des « intérêts nationaux » de la Russie (définis en termes antagonistes), est un phénomène auquel les deux parties ont contribué.

L’idée selon laquelle la Russie fait partie de l’Occident est toujours une vision politique dominante.

Y a-t-il encore des partisans du discours pro-occidental dans l’entourage du président Poutine?

Oui, les deux discours qui étaient présents dans les années 1990 sont toujours présents, même si celui des tenants du rapprochement est beaucoup moins prononcé maintenant. Poutine est profondément investi dans le discours antagoniste et ne reviendra pas facilement en arrière. Mais s’il devait quitter ses fonctions, les élites peuvent facilement changer de direction. Personne n’a une vision profondément idéologique de l’Europe. Pour tout dire, l’idée selon laquelle la Russie fait partie de l’Occident est toujours une vision politique dominante.

Que faudrait-il pour que la Russie et l’Occident (OTAN) reviennent dans une trajectoire davantage axée sur la coopération? Serait-ce même bénéfique?

C’est délicat, car il y a maintenant des obstacles structurels (principalement la Crimée). Il serait totalement irréaliste d’imaginer que la Russie retournera la Crimée, même après le départ de Poutine. Le rétablissement de bonnes relations entre la Russie et l’Occident exigerait donc que l’Occident trouve une position avec laquelle elle serait à l’aise dans le conflit russo-ukrainien. Cela signifierait peut-être offrir des incitatifs aux deux dans le contexte d’une éventuelle adhésion à l’OTAN et à l’UE. C’est un scénario tiré par les cheveux pour le moment, mais l’alternative à la pensée créative est simplement de se recroqueviller et d’attendre que la Russie s’effondre. Il ne s’agit pas d’une politique viable.

Travaillez-vous actuellement sur un livre et, si oui, seriez-vous disposé à nous dire à quel sujet?

Ce livre sera une histoire de la politique étrangère soviétique / russe depuis 1945 jusqu’à maintenant. J’y travaille depuis des années et je suis impatient de l’offrir aux lecteurs! J’espère qu’il sera disponible l’année prochaine.

Merci beaucoup Professeur!


[1] Sylvie Kauffmann, « 2021, avec ou sans Donald Trump », Le Monde, jeudi 8 octobre 2020, p. 32.

The sources of Russian conduct

Russian President Boris Yeltsin and US President Bill Clinton (Source: The Telegraph)

Russia is fascinating, Russia is dangerous. It is nevertheless important to question ourselves as to the sources of its current pugilistic conduct. Was it predestined by its history, its political DNA or could this reality have been avoided by a more efficient engagement in the past?

Professor Sergey Rudchenko’s recent article “Nothing but humiliation for Russia’: Moscow and NATO’s eastern enlargement, 1993-1995”, published in the last issue of the Journal of Strategic Studies, offers many answers.

The Cardiff University Professor argues that in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the “adversarial relationship [between Washington and Moscow] was replaced with the idea of a partnership between Russia and the West but would that partnership carry enough weight to satisfy the Russian elites’ pretensions to global importance? The proof was in the pudding, and the baker was in Washington.”

In a nutshell, Russia wanted to be seated “[…] at the head of the table, right next to America’s” But Washington “[…] did not need Russia’s help in running the world, neither during the Cold War, nor, especially, in its aftermath.” After all, “[…] the world was a jungle, where the mightiest had the power of persuasion and no one listened to the counsel of the weak.”

Fast forward, Vladimir Putin has learnt that lesson and applies it in the implementation of his vision of international relations.

But let’s go back to Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton. There were talks about Moscow joining NATO, but no one in the West was much interested in that prospect, even though American officials dangled the possibility as bait. During that period, the embers of war inflamed former Yugoslavia and the world witnessed a vicious and murderous civil war begin in 1991. President Yeltsin “tried to make Bosnia a showcase of Russian-American cooperation.” But Washington was not interested, and Russia was “left on the sidelines”, the pride associated to her self-declared status humiliated. Much the same happened when Moscow sought to collaborate in the negotiations with North Korea’s nuclear program.  

In a word, Moscow was not to be seated at the head of the table with Washington.

But by embracing enlargement without finding an appropriate role for Russia, the same [Western] policy makers overlooked the possibility that it might actually contribute to the latter’s nationalistic resurgence or, indeed, externally legitimize it. This is exactly what happened.

Pr. Sergey Radchenko

At that stage, one can sympathize with Russia’s frustration and feeling of abandonment.

Since nature abhors vacuum, “Russia’s own ontological security as a part of the West depended in large part on whether it was being recognized as such. If it wasn’t – that, too, was legitimating, because it helped the Russian political elites find their ground in an uncertain world, if not as friends, then at least as adversaries of the West.”

Professor Radchenko brings some nuances to that point of view, when he writes that “[…] one can of course lament Russia’s exclusion from Europe as a deliberate act of policy but it is hard to deny that such exclusion was partly justifiable in view of Russia’s own policies [like, for example, the war in Chechnya] […].”

Russia sought “legitimation through an adversarial relationship”, while the United States refused to offer “[…] enough leeway for legitimation through a genuine and inclusive partnership.” The seeds of confrontation had been planted by efficient gardeners. “It is hard to blame the White House”, writes the author. “They were the realists. But by being too realistic and not sufficiently idealistic at a time when they could have made a difference, they helped make Russia’s imperialist resurgence a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

As a student of history, I would bet that a discreet apparatchik named Vladimir Putin took careful notes and vowed not to fall into the idealist trap if his time came. And it came.

Russia certainly is not faultless in the current international context. But one can wonder what could have happened if the Clinton administration had adopted a different posture. In the land of “what ifs”, anything is possible, and I am not fond of revisionism. But one can easily assume that humiliating someone is never a good insurance policy for future good relations.

You can’t change the past, but there is always hope for the future. Russia is not immune to good relations with the United States. Vladimir Putin was the first international leader to call and offer assistance to President George W. Bush after the horrendous terrorist attacks on 9/11 and he was among the first ones to wish a speedy recovery to Donald Trump after news broke that the US President had tested positive to Covid-19.