Cliff May

Diplomacy is not a science but sometimes diplomatic theories can be tested. As a presidential candidate, Barrack Obama hypothesized that relations with both Iran and Russia could be much improved. The key was offering respect and demonstrating a commitment to engagement and compromise.

So on January 28, 2009, Obama gave his first sit-down interview as President of the United States to Al Arabiya, the pan-Arab satellite network. He said he thought it important “to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. …[I]f countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."

A few days later, on February 7, Vice President Joseph Biden addressed the 45th Munich Conference on Security Policy on behalf of “an administration that's determined to set a new tone not only in Washington, but in America's relations around the world.” He repeated Obama’s offer to Iran, proposing, even more ambitiously, that the U.S. and Iran undertake “a shared struggle against extremism.”

Biden then reached out in another direction, saying it was “time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia.” The following month, in Geneva, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with a red button on which the Russian word for reset was written. Or so she thought: The correct term would have been perezagruzka. Instead, the word used was peregruzka – which means “overload” or “overcharged.” The Russian daily newspaper Kommersant ran on its front page a picture of the button and the caption: "Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button."

The results since then: continuing manipulation, intimidation and censorship of the Russian press; continuing bullying of and aggression against former Soviet states; support for Iran’s nuclear weapons program; multiple murders in Chechnya (not a cause of significant outrage in the Muslim world); cronyism, corruption and the oppression of dissidents and political opponents including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the once-prominent industrialist who dared challenge the political order. Tuesday marked the 8th anniversary of his incarceration.

And this month, Russia, along with China, vetoed what Ambassador Susan Rice called a “vastly watered down” Security Council resolution criticizing the “violence, torture, and persecution” being inflicted on peaceful protestors by the Assad regime in Syria, Iran’s most important Arab client.

Rice appeared shocked. She declared the United States “outraged” that Russia and China had “utterly failed to address an urgent moral challenge and a growing threat to regional peace and security.” She dismissed Russian and Chinese explanations for their position as “a cheap ruse by those who would rather sell arms to the Syrian regime than stand with the Syrian people.”

Yes, but that’s not the half of it. In Russia under Vladimir Putin, who has wielded power since December 1999, communism has been succeeded not by liberal democracy but by autocracy at home and what might be called neo-Sovietism abroad. Putin believes Russia has a right to again be a "great power" and that most Russians support that goal.

This has been apparent for some time. Robert Kagan, in “The Return of History,” his brief but insightful 2008 book, concluded that, “Great power nationalism has returned to Russia and with it traditional power calculations and ambitions.”

Kagan puts this into historical context, noting that there is no international consensus on the optimal form of governance. On the contrary, “the struggle between liberalism and autocracy has endured since the Enlightenment.” It was not settled by World War I or World War II or by the Cold War. Those who rule Russia, as well as those who rule China, Iran, Syria and many other nations are committed to maintaining strong central governments, “managing” their populations through coercion, harassment, imprisonment and when necessary -- or even just convenient -- murder, as well as maximizing power on the world stage through whatever means are available.

“The modern liberal mind,” Kagan argues, “may not appreciate the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world.” But autocrats, he adds, really do “believe in autocracy. They see it as a superior form of government. As have rulers and prominent political thinkers going back to Plato and Aristotle, they regard democracy as the rule of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob” which renders it inherently weak, unstable and chaotic. Recent events, not only in modern Greece, no doubt reinforce this view.

Much as we might wish otherwise, the ideal of an “international community” that embraces peace, freedom, human and civil rights, tolerance, democracy and the rule of law as universal values is a fiction, a fantasy, a pipe dream.

The autocrats’ foreign policy priority: to make the world safe for themselves. Had Ambassador Rice understood that, she would have expected the Russian and Chinese vetoes. If President Obama and Secretary Clinton grasped that they’d recognize that Putin will agree to no resets of the relationship that do not benefit Russia and disadvantage the United States.

For example, in the missile defense negotiations now under way, led by Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher, the Russians are seeking legally binding assurances that no American missile defense system will be effective against Russian missiles. In other words: Putin wants us to agree to remain vulnerable to his nuclear weapons. That we are even considering this demand is astonishing and appalling.

It should by now be apparent: The 21st century has ushered in an era of competition among three divergent visions of how mankind should be governed. Liberal democracy is one. Autocracy is a second. The third is Islamism – which it would not be inaccurate to describe as theocratic autocracy. In any case, more and more, the autocrats and Islamists have been finding common ground and making common cause against their common enemy: liberal democracies.

Putin supports the regimes that rule Syria and Iran not least because their aim is to diminish the United States -- which Putin sees as consistent with Russia’s national interest and the interest of what might be called the United Autocratic Nations.

Putin has made very clear that he is a committed autocrat, not an aspiring democrat. The Age of Obama has changed neither his policies nor his personality. A Machiavellian if ever there was one, he would rather be feared than loved. Similarly, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei does not crave the respect and friendship of Western infidels. He holds President Obama in no higher esteem than he held President Bush. Those who rule Syria, China, Venezuela and other autocratic countries are not interested in what we call “reform.” They are not seeking membership in the liberal democratic country club.

President Obama has conducted a meaningful experiment. But now the data are in: They indicate that American policies require readjustment – they need to be reset – in line with what we should by now have learned.


Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.