28 September 2015

The Obama-Putin Debate

It's that time again when heads of government come to New York to represent their nations at the United Nations General Assembly. The highlight of the event for most observers was hearing Presidents Obama and Putin give their nation's -- or if you prefer, their own -- interpretation of the crises in Syria, Ukraine, etc. Predictably, they differed on several points. On Syria, Putin called for a coalition comparable to the anti-Hitler alliance of World War II -- several leaders noted the 70th anniversary of the end of that war and the forming of the UN -- against the self-styled Islamic State, but insisted that President Assad was a necessary part of such a coalition and any ultimate settlement of Syria's future. Obama still insisted that Assad ultimately had to go, arguing that there could be no peace in Syria so long as Assad wielded power repressively. It's interesting to see a Russian leader sound a conservative note in global affairs, though it would be less surprising to a time-traveler from 200 years ago than to one from 50 or 75 years ago. Putin has virtually appropriated the anti-communist, anti-liberal rhetoric of the American right wing. He accuses the west of  reckless "social experimentation" in the Middle East. Whatever he said in Russian could probably be translated just as well as "social engineering," long the bugaboo of Republicans. However self-interested Russia may be in propping up Assad, who is perhaps the sole reliable guarantor of their Syrian naval base, he is still articulating an authentic conservative principle: be careful of unintended consequences -- among which, in Syria and Iraq, is ISIS. Obama's rhetoric was just as predictable: self-critical in historical context, which will win him no extra love at home, but adamantly intolerant of the idea, advanced implicitly by Putin and others, that national differences in culture or historical development legitimize different degrees of civil liberty in different places. For Obama, "human rights" remain unconditional and are not determined by culture or history. True stability depends on governments recognizing these inalienable rights, as Assad, presumably, mostly does not.

Reading the transcripts of the Obama and Putin speeches reveals what we should describe as two conflicting theories of destabilization. According to Obama, "repressive" regimes like Assad's effectively destabilize their countries before anyone takes up arms against them.  The American President extends a presumption of legitimacy to uprisings against repressive regimes, so long as the insurgents respect human rights and civil liberty, that Putin most likely does not. The Russian President is more likely to attribute uprisings to meddling from the outside, particularly in Ukraine, whose Maidan uprising he described as a "military coup," but also in Syria, where American "social experimentation" and Sunni extremism actively destabilized a situation Putin presumably presumed stable.  

Obama summarized his position best here:

Just as force alone cannot impose order internationally, I believe in my core that repression cannot forge the social cohesion for nations to succeed. The history of the last two decades proves that in today’s world, dictatorships are unstable. The strongmen of today become the spark of revolution tomorrow. You can jail your opponents, but you can’t imprison ideas. You can try to control access to information, but you cannot turn a lie into truth. It is not a conspiracy of U.S.-backed NGOs that expose corruption and raise the expectations of people around the globe; it’s technology, social media, and the irreducible desire of people everywhere to make their own choices about how they are governed.

Putin might question whether "dictatorships are unstable," but he might also question the pejorative "dictatorship" label, both for Assad and especially for himself. I've questioned whether Putin really has a theory of government, as those suspicious of his "authoritarianism" suspect, but it might be helpful if he would articulate one. When we in the west hear "dictatorship," "authoritarian," etc., we presume that leaders like Putin or Assad are asserting an unconditional duty of citizens to obey the leader, but I doubt that's what they actually mean. They are most likely less interested in theorizing the citizen's duty to the state than they are in constructing effective governments. They may not demand unconditional obedience, much less unconditional praise, but they can't abide obstruction, which by now is probably the defining element in foreign eyes of the American theory of government, or its opposite. What this means practically is that "free speech" can cross a line that will provoke a reaction. That's not necessarily a good thing, but neither is the opposite, where dissent is empowered to obstruct effective, necessary government in the name of abstract principles or plain old prejudice. As I've written before, liberals should be more willing to accept a degree of risk that comes with the benefits of effective government, the price of which for them is vigilance against abuse of power. Does Assad abuse power? Probably -- and none of this paragraph is intended to legitimize or exonerate the Syrian leader. But the UN debate has provided another convenient occasion to remind readers that a more realistic view of politics, that takes into account needs as well as rights, not to mention responsibilities or duties, is necessary if the U.S. is to engage more equitably with the rest of the world, whether we like it or not, in the future.

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