Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin took the virtually unprecedented step of directly addressing the U.S. public — and much of the world — by writing an op-ed piece in the New York Times. In it, he called for a moderate, negotiated response to the crisis in Syria, and thankfully that call seems to have been heeded.
Nonetheless, important longer-term concerns remain. The Russian leader went on to take aim at the American tendency to see their country as special, and therefore exempt from the norms and laws of the international community.
In Putin’s words: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Though most of us in the West hold considerably justified distrust of the Russian president, his warning should not be ignored.
Those who question Putin’s credibility in making such judgments have ample reason to do so. He has frequently been criticized not only for dictatorial and anti-free speech policies in Russia, but also as an obstacle to resolving the situation in Syria. Differences over Iran’s nuclear program, Russia’s relations with its post-Soviet neighbours and the recent granting of asylum to the American whistleblower Edward Snowden seem to echo not-forgotten Cold War tensions.
The cynical reasons for Putin’s apparent desire to preserve the Assad regime are also clear. Aside from Syria being a major purchaser of Russian exports, including weapons, Russia continues to maintain a naval base near the Syrian port of Tartus, the only Russian base outside of the former Soviet Union and a strategically valuable foothold in the eastern Mediterranean.
Furthermore, the economic collapse and simultaneous loss of superpower status in the 1990s still rankles many among the Russian government and public. These humiliations, coupled with a history of devastating foreign invasions, including the loss of 20 million to 30 million Soviet citizens during the Second World War, push Putin to assert Russian geopolitical interests boldly, regardless of American or other international criticism.
Nonetheless, Putin’s jab at America’s willingness to act unilaterally is well placed. In his television address of Sept. 10, U.S. President Barack Obama called the U.S. “different” and “exceptional,” and strongly implied that American policy should not be influenced by the views of the international community. In his New York Times rebuttal, Putin pointed out that under international law, except in cases of self-defence, the use of force can only be justified by a decision of the UN Security Council.
Whatever issues there may be with that heavily bureaucratized institution, the UN’s founders, led by U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, recognized the importance of consensus among the great powers. In today’s world, it seems strange to imagine that during the creation of the UN, one of the key American negotiators, Leo Pasvolsky, said: “If the United States were ever to conclude that it was not willing to listen to the [UN Security] Council in the event of a dispute in which it might be involved, such a conclusion would be practically tantamount to a decision that the United States was ready to go to war with all the rest of the world.”
This recognized that any country regarding itself as justified in acting without support from the international community would become far more likely to exacerbate international problems than solve them.
Recalling the American folly in Vietnam still serves as a lesson against U.S. unilateralism. Robert S. McNamara, the American secretary of defence during much of that conflict, acknowledged in 2003 that “if we [the U.S.] cannot persuade other nations with similar interests and similar values of the merits of the proposed use of [American] power, we should not proceed unilaterally.”
It seems doubtful that ignoring this hard-earned lesson would benefit the U.S., the Syrian people or the international community.
The idealism that motivated the American government’s impulse to undermine the corrupt and brutal Assad regime, and draw a “line in the sand” regarding the use of chemical weapons, is far from ignoble. However, Putin’s piece, appropriately titled A Plea for Caution from Russia, bears much wisdom and deserves careful consideration.
While the immediate danger of a U.S. military strike on Syria seems to have passed, attempts to seek effective resolutions to complex international problems will continue to be undermined as long as U.S. policy-makers continue to behave as if their country is exceptional.
David Dolff, PhD, is a lecturer in the University of Victoria history department, primarily teaching courses in Russian history and history of international relations.