Lessons Not Learned

Vladimir Putin, according to his own Foreign Ministry, is a politician of such immense stature that none in the contemporary Western firmament can compare. Pity the man in the Kremlin, up late at nights, bereft of his ex-wife and the company of his peers, the de Gaulles, Thatchers and Reagans of the world long since having departed the scene. (Never mind that Putin has had no one to talk to since Gandhi.)

Pity the rest of us, too, for had Putin been in more regular contact with great statesmen he might have learned a thing or two. Instead, he is repeating the West’s own mistakes.

Remember when Thatcher told Reagan that Gorbachev was a man we can “do business” with? Remember Clinton’s embrace of Yeltsin? Or Bush’s intraocular glimpse into the Putin’s soul? No? How about a more recent occurrence: Obama’s “reset”, predicated on the idea that Medvedev presented an opportunity. Or Merkel’s recent realization that Putin is not, after all, a man she can work with.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll repeat a familiar refrain: situational relationships between leaders do not translate into durable relationships between countries. Leaders play two-level games, leveraging their domestic and foreign interests against each other for maximum political advantage. The result is that, after a while, everyone ends up feeling jilted, and the ill-will lands on the shoulders of whoever comes next. That’s why Kissinger set about building a China policy for Nixon, not a Mao policy. And the failure to build a real relationship with Russia is down, in large measure, to the West’s inability to look past the Kremlin.

But Putin is supposed to be smarter than that, at least according to his own advisers. The evidence tells another story, though. Rather than build relationships with his key partners, he built pipelines. And when the pipelines didn’t keep his romances with Germany and Italy from going sour, he made it personal: cozying up to Orban and Nikolic, or more recently to Erdogan. Easy to do, I suppose, making nice with people who don’t have a lot of friends. And it brings some real dividends, too, at least in the short run: the little dictators get some pipelines and nuclear reactors, and the big dictator gets to feel powerful.

But while he’s busy building pipelines and reactors, Putin’s not building relationships. If he’s lucky, Putin’s mooted deal to redirect South-Stream gas to Turkey will buy him Ankara’s goodwill for as long as Erdogan’s in power. If Orban is any indicator, though, authoritarian BFFs are a fickle bunch. Likewise, none of the money Moscow poured into Bulgaria stopped Sofia from blocking South Stream.

Why did Bulgaria betray Putin? Not, as Putin suggested, because Sofia lacks sovereignty. Rather, Bulgaria’s ties with Europe are, quite simply, deeper than with Russia. They’re deeper because European integration means that regardless of who is in charge in Brussels or in Sofia, Europe has a relationship with each and every Bulgarian citizen. And every Hungarian. And even a fair number of Ukrainians, evidently.

So, of course, Putin’s acolytes are right: Cameron is no Thatcher, Merkel no Adenauer and Hollande no Mitterand (much to the delight of most of their constituents, I imagine), but it is no matter, because Europe is Europe.

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