The Kremlin influenced news outlet Russia Today this week compared Obama's foreign policy stature to Vladimir Putin's using a sports metaphor from European soccer (Barcelona versus Wigan Athletic.) It was somewhat kinder that one published earlier here, which compared Putin to the Harlem Globetrotters and Obama to the perpetually fated square losers, the Washington Generals. The Globetrotters simile is more apt. They dominate with panache and style while their ill matched competitors always seem confused and, well, square.
Putin, like the Globetrotters, plays a different game that Obama and those around him cannot comprehend. This is understandable. Putin once worked in the KGB, responsible for some of the most successful psychological operations ever seen. His worldview developed in the context of a global conflict of perceptions with the United States.
Obama's vision has never really transcended Chicago. His politics are Chicago. He surrounds himself with bit machine politicians. Secretary of State, for Obama, is a box to keep one quiet or a reward for prior support. Imagine if Harry Truman appointed Sam Rayburn as secretary of state and only listened to the advice of Tom Pendergast. How many rings would Stalin have run around the Man from Missouri?
Democrats love to accuse Republicans of knee jerking back to Cold War archetypes. And Obama has gotten sucked into the old mano y mano competitions that Nikita Khrushchev employed successfully at times against John Kennedy and unsuccessfully against Vice President Richard Nixon.
That does not mean, however, that Russia aspires to global revolution. Putin, instead, conducts himself internally and externally much in the same way as the old czars of the imperial age.
Russia, since Peter the Great in the early 1700s, has swung back and forth like a pendulum. Peter the Great imposed Westernization onto Russia in the same way that an abusive parent would force a child to eat broccoli. Westernization was good for Russia, but it never fully developed a taste for strong relations with the West. Out of necessity, or the affinity of the leadership, Russia does "swing" towards the West occasionally. Catherine the Great established intellectual contacts with Voltaire and Jefferson. Boris Yeltsin worked closely with Bill Clinton and Western experts to construct a free market Russia among the shambles of the dead Communist Soviet Union.
On the other hand, Nicholas I cut off all contact with the West and Joseph Stalin initiated the Cold War.
The anti-Western turn is a combination of a reaction against the West and a reaffirmation of traditional Russian identity. Russia suffers from an inferiority complex that has led it in the past to assert that most of the world's great inventions, such as radio and telephones, actually came from there. With inferiority comes a craving for respect. And Russia perceives that Western respect only comes from a show of power and force.
Russia also craves security. And why not, after all, it experienced devastating invasions by Charles XII of Sweden, Napoleon, and Hitler. They prefer to have their enemies far afield and rarely trust professed friends. Russia puts its trust in territory. Keep unfriendly states and alliances as far away as possible while dominating one's neighbors. The Republic of Georgia a few years ago skirmished with Russia. Now they have developed ever closer ties. Belarus seceded from the Soviet Union to escape Great Russia dominance. Now it has devolved into a near protectorate.
Security also comes from international stabilization. The czars despised the idea of any revolution or upheaval against established governments. For example, they warmly supported the United States government in its struggle against the Confederate States, even to the point of deploying warships for a visit to New York harbor. They "helped" Austria in the 1800s by sending in troops to quell a revolt, without that country's invitation. Russia's Syria position reflects this old commitment to what it has always seen as "legitimacy."
Russian foreign relations operate almost entirely on the basis of self-interest. What enhances the prestige and the security of Russia will be pursued. It serves Putin's goals that the United States be raised to the position of antagonist, regardless of what America does or does not do.
Of course the US sometimes plays into anti-Westerners' hands. Criticizing the Chechen War in the 1990s was a terrible misstep. Scolding Russia for its internal developments, negative as they may be, does not advance the US position. Putin's consolidation of power does not threaten the United States, it is not entirely unpopular, and there is little that America can do about it.
Scolding Russia over gay rights and voicing threats about the Olympics does not hurt Putin. It actually reinforces his anti-American message about international meddling. What would really hurt the master of a nation strongly dependent on natural gas revenues is to lift all export controls and turn on as many drills as possible in the US. When the international price of natural gas drops, Russia will be hit. They will also understand that the US can hurt a country without bombing it.
That builds respect. That increases credibility.
Also, make no more mention of anti-gay laws in Russia. Instead, let the gay athletes who will represent the United States compete with class. Jesse Owens and America's Jewish athletes struck a blow against National Socialist doctrines on race and religion by winning events and conducting themselves with honor in Berlin in 1936. They can do the same in Sochi.
No more "resets" can happen under Obama. He has no respect or credibility in the Kremlin. The next president needs to bring people aboard who understand Russia. Then the US can craft a position vis a vis that country that is productive without being subservient.