The US is often accused of arrogance in international affairs and it's not hard to see why. US officials frequently speak of behavior that is "not acceptable" from other nations. Or they tell other countries and leaders what they "must" do. Or, if they're feeling a little more accommodating, they merely "urge" other countries "to do the right thing" in their best disappointed parent voice.
But the matter of Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who stole a trove of NSA secrets, leaked some of them to The Guardian, and now appears to have fled to the international terminal at Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport, helps bring to the surface how weak such rhetoric makes the US look, particularly when it's either unwilling or incapable of imposing its will.
There are a great many things that the US would like to see happen in the world, but standing on the sidelines while "demanding" this or that only serves to make you look like an adolescent, incapable of seeing the wants and needs of others. While sometimes such rhetoric is designed to fool a domestic audience that the government is "doing something," even worse is how often US officials seem to believe that tough talk alone can achieve results.
Fairly typical was Secretary of State John Kerry's comment yesterday, when it still wasn't 100 percent clear that Snowden had fled from Hong Kong to Russia. "It would be very disappointing if he was willfully allowed to board an airplane" to Russia, Kerry said. He also said the US would be "deeply troubled” if that had happened "and there would be, without any question, some effect and impact on the relationship and consequences... I’d urge them to live within the law. It’s in the interest of everyone.”
He directed those comments at both China, Hong Kong (a special administrative region of China) and Russia. The net effect of them? A red rag to Putin, some minor laughter in Beijing.
And, "law"? Whose law? "Everyone's interests?" Neither China or Russia view their interests as tied at the hip to America's, and the reluctance of two countries who are constantly beaten up by the State Department over poor free speech and human rights records have frankly been enjoying the spectacle of America chasing after a so-called whistleblower. Russia said the rock band Pussy Riot violated its blasphemy laws, appealed for understanding, and sentenced its members to prison. The State Department tsk-tsked:
The United States is concerned about both the verdict and the disproportionate sentences handed down by a Moscow court in the case against the members of the band Pussy Riot and the negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia. We urge Russian authorities to review this case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld.
A false equivalency? Perhaps. But that's not how Moscow sees it. Sovereignty is sovereignty, local laws are local laws, and we don't appreciate the yankees telling us how to run our own affairs.
What's it all about?
Far more than Snowden.
For over a year now, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her successor Secretary of State Kerry, and President Obama have insisted that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad "must go," notwithstanding that Russia, a key backer of the Syrian government, disagrees strongly.
In May Secretary Kerry said "we've made it crystal clear that we would prefer that Russia was not supplying assistance" to Syria while at the same time the White House spokesman said: "Our position is that Syria's future cannot include Bashar al-Assad."
That's all very interesting. But it has made Russia, if anything, less-inclined to agree with the US than before. Russia doesn't want to lose its naval base in Syria. It is more frightened of jihadis taking over the country than even the US, because of concerns of destabilization in the Caucasus. Russia doesn't like the precedent of the US determining which global governments survive. Flush with oil and gas wealth and an aggressive nationalism under Putin, Russia wants to be an equal, not a subordinate.
Putin and Russia were particularly stung by their decision to abstain from the UN Security Council vote on a no-fly zone for Libya in 2011 (just as Russia was stung years ago by the US decision to back eastward expansion of NATO). The US had promised that air-power would be used for defensive purposes only, the UN resolution spelled this out and yet the air campaign that was carried out was an offensive one designed to help the rebellion prevail over Muammar Qaddafi.
Better to stay mum
Russia, not surprisingly, is unlikely to take the US on its word in the near future and has also felt insulted by the lecturing it frequently hears from Washington. While it might feel good to talk tough sometimes, it's generally better to stay mum unless you're willing to go the whole way.
Yet in the US, most of the political criticism of the Obama folks is not the failure to find creative diplomatic solutions or build bridges but they don't talk tough enough.
Sen. John McCain is rather typical of this "lead by leading" school of criticism.
"For nearly five years now we have sent a signal to the world that we're leading from behind, that we are impotent, that we don't act when we say that we're going to... we need to show more leadership," Senator McCain told CNBC. He told CNN that Putin is an "old KGB colonel apparatchik that dreams of the days of the Russian empire" and "when you withdraw to fortress America, when you believe in light footprints, when you show the world you're leading from behind, these are the consequences of American leadership."
Perhaps that makes for a good soundbite, but as policy advice, it's incoherent. Putin and other country leaders don't do things they don't want to do because the US refuses to show "leadership" or because of their fundamentally nefarious nature. They generally don't like to do things precisely because they don't see them as in their interests, and either need convincing that America's estimation of their interests is better than their own, or at least be offered a reasonable compromise in return for holding their noses and doing us a favor.
In the case of Snowden, they've gotten mostly bluster from the Obama administration as they have in the case of Syria (a subtext to McCain's comments today; the senator is a leading hawk on the country and supporter of its rebellion).
Today Snowden is in Moscow (more or less. He's reported to be holed up in the airport). And it's a moment that Putin is likely savoring, while playing up a rule of law argument of his own: "We can hand over foreign citizens to countries with which we have an appropriate international agreement on the extradition of criminals," Putin told reporters today. "We don't have such an agreement with the United States ... Thank God, Mr. Snowden committed no crimes on the territory of the Russian Federation."
There have been some signs of dawning awareness that public comments haven't been helping. Mr. Kerry said today about Russia: "We are not looking for a confrontation. We are not ordering anybody," though he followed it up with a sentence that surely made Putin smile: "We are simply requesting under a very normal procedure for the transfer of somebody."
If Snowden is to be believed, he is carrying a trove of information on the NSA's abilities, programs, and targets. Moscow's intelligence agents currently have a whale of a potential source just on the outskirts of town. And that makes it likely the US is desperate to get him back. He may fly on soon. But it's not hard to imagine what Putin thinks when he hears of a "routine" extradition request from a country with which Russia does not have an extradition treaty. Something along the lines of: "If I give up this man that could undermine your spying operations against me, what of greater value will you give me in return?" What indeed?