In domestic disputes with Republicans, President Obama mostly frames the debate as a clash of values. He tries to win contests of ideas. He’d be wise to stick to that higher-level framing in explaining why he canceled a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Putin often acts as if Russia is in a competition of geopolitical interests rather than values. When Edward Snowden sought asylum after stealing official American secrets, the Kremlin – which has few compunctions about domestic surveillance – treated the fugitive as merely a pawn in a global power play. In Syria, Putin sees little value in ending the mass slaughter if it means giving up a key naval port or Russian influence in the Middle East. Power almost always trumps principles. National interest comes before universal ideals.
Mr. Obama canceled the September summit for reasons other than the fact that Putin would not hand over Mr. Snowden for trial in the United States. On a host of values important to the US and indeed much of the world – nuclear nonproliferation, human rights in Russia, and adherence to free-trade pacts – the White House is so disappointed that it is “assessing the current state of our bilateral relationship.”
Obama’s cold shoulder is no return to a cold war. But it is a big shift for a president who entered office with a policy of trying to talk to foes, such as Iran’s supreme leader. The onetime professor hoped to bring the art of persuasion to bear on intractable differences. He’s been disappointed in that approach, such as his frustration with Chinese leaders in negotiations over global warming.
American presidents have long granted summits – or blocked them – to send a signal on what the US values. Dictators with blood on their hands rarely get an audience in the Oval Office. Allies who defend freedom are welcomed.
Yet a president also walks a fine line between acting as a symbol of American ideals and his role as chief diplomat in cutting deals with foreign leaders. Richard Nixon met with Mao Zedong, despite atrocities in China, as a tactical move to weaken the Soviet threat and avoid global nuclear war.
Obama is not shy about scolding a leader at summits. Authoritarian leaders like Putin try to avoid such public reprimands and never fail to point out America’s many faults. But putting Snowden on trial in the US for leaking secrets about a surveillance program – one that Congress endorses – is not one of those faults. A trial is a way to prevent future leaks that might tip off terrorists on US methods used to spy on them. It will likely save lives, which is a goal that the three branches of government carefully balanced against possible intrusion on American privacy.
What is odd about Putin’s regular nose-thumbing of the US on global values is that it clearly hurts Russia’s interests. The country is rich in resources but poor in foreign investment. Its credibility in rule of law and honoring contracts is low. Harboring an American lawbreaker hardly helps gain business confidence. Eventually, Russians will tire of their economy’s backwardness – and of Putin.
The US wants an open, vibrant, and democratic Russia, not a global competitor ruled by an autocrat in a slow-growth economy. Obama must make sure his summit cancellation comes with a message of goodwill toward Russia. Its people might eventually see the US move as gentle persuasion, not coercive pressure, or one of universal values more than national interests.