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Obama-era U.S. relations to other countries worse than in the Bush era

George W. Bush was hated by many Americans during his reign. While it's true that my perspective from People's Republic of Cambridge isn't representative of the U.S. and Bush's position was particularly tense in the city of Harvard and MIT, I think that to a lesser extent, it is true that many people have believed that Bush was doing everything he could to turn the rest of the world into the haters of the U.S. In particular, it was believed that the Iraq war would permanently strain the U.S. relationships with the Middle East and with countries like France, and so on.

Barack Obama's program was to turn the U.S. into a friendly country loved in the rest of the world. He has even won a Peace Nobel Prize – in 2009 – for this image of his. It has never gone beyond the image and this Peace Nobel Prize has a "chance" to become a principal player in the ignition of the Third World War. I think that Barack Obama and some people in his team want others to be doing well. Unfortunately, this desire sometimes reaches Messianic dimensions and those are very dangerous. You know, the road to hell is paved by good intentions.

When we look at the relationships between the U.S. and other countries and blocs, most of them have gotten worse.

These weeks, we obviously consider the Russia-U.S. relationships to be the worse example of the deterioration. Recall that Obama and Hillary wanted to "reset" the relationships with Russia since 2009. To be really cool, Hillary donated Lavrov a "reset button" with the description written in Russian. That was supposed to show the respect towards the Russians including their language.

Well, there was a problem. The description said "peregruzka", meant to be "reset". However, the correct Russian word for "reset" is "perezagruzka" (quite a long word, indeed). To make things worse, "peregruzka" sort of exists as well and it means "overcharge". Some of the intelligent media would point out that Hillary has pressed a wrong button. And indeed, just like Hillary's pressing ordered, the relationships between the U.S. and Russia have gone to "overcharge". The main message of this funny story is that you shouldn't pretend to be a Russian expert if you are not one. Unfortunately, neither Obama nor his collaborators have learned this message.

The Obama administration is still intervening in other countries and the frequency hasn't decreased but I do think that Obama has been trying hard to restrict the interventions, especially the military ones. However, in the real world, it is not quite possible. He has inherited lots of security threats he still has to deal with and he has inherited the military and its leadership that hasn't really changed. Maybe he has added some unnecessary interventions taking the form of clandestine weapon shipments and drone attacks (Libya, Syria, perhaps Ukraine; Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen...).

The U.S.-government-sponsored NGO-style interventions into other countries have arguably risen. Ukraine was the most visible example of that kind of meddling (Victoria Nuland has claimed that U.S. has paid a staggering $5 billion just to destabilize the democratically elected government of Yanukovytch) and the situation that the policy has produced isn't pretty.

Some of this mess was created domestically, in Ukraine, some of it must be blamed to some Western politicians' nonsensical messages to the Ukrainian people that they may move their country into a different part of the world if they wish. Well, they cannot. Even America – which is much richer than Ukraine – cannot move countries. Right now, it cannot even move an astronaut to a high orbit. In particular, the Ukrainians cannot freeze their relationships with Russia. Tons of Ukraine-Russia economic links – that result from centuries of life in the same country – are essential for the survival of the Ukrainian nation. Moreover, good Ukraine-Russia relationships are wanted – and sometimes considered essential – by lots of people in Russia and lots of people in Ukraine. You just can't or shouldn't encourage a part of the Ukrainian population to think that these relationships may be frozen without consequences. An attempt to develop Ukraine's exclusive relationships with the West that would mean that the Ukraine-Russia ties would suffer is a mild declaration of war to Russia as well as tens of millions of Ukrainians who think that Ukraine should have close relationships to Russia.

I think that previous U.S. presidents – and secretaries of state – would have much more understanding of these geopolitical issues. They would understand that Ukraine enjoys some independence in day-to-day business as well as year-to-year political process but there exists a longer timescale and a longer length scale at which Ukraine's sovereignty isn't complete and it has never been complete. Quite generally, smaller countries have to rely on greater ones to guarantee their happy, independent enough life. Geopolitically, Ukraine has continued to belong to the Russian sphere of interest even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This was the situation understood by everyone who follows politics. It was the situation assumed by Russian strategists. You just can't and shouldn't assume that fundamental things like that may be changed peacefully.

And of course that they can't really be changed peacefully. The backlash in the wake of the coup in Kiev was guaranteed and unavoidable. The situation calmed down yesterday but this evolution isn't guaranteed to be permanent and when things deteriorate again, a full-fledged Russian invasion to Ukraine and perhaps a broader war between Russia and someone else may arrive. I hope it won't.

Many of these problems reflect good intentions of some people in the U.S. – combined with their amazing naivety. George W. Bush spends his time by paintings – including those of Vladimir Putin – and he is not trying to say anything about politics. But I think he would have much more understanding for Putin and his task and decisions. An U.S. attempt to transform Ukraine into a country hostile to Russia is analogous to the Russian attempt to transform Puerto Rico (or any other region that "almost" belongs to the U.S.) into a place with a dominant influence of Russia. A place where Russian military may have bases and so on. Of course that the U.S. wouldn't like that. America would probably react much more violently than Putin has – and Putin has done virtually nothing.

Other Western politicians from the Bush-Putin era do think that Putin's behavior is understandable. That includes the former chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

So I am the last one who would count himself as someone considering America "intrinsically evil". I think it's all bullshit. Most of the interventions are due to the Americans' good intents combined with their being educated by black-and-white Hollywood movies. Americans like to see things in black and white and Hollywood movies choose Russians as the villains so all Russians must be villains, an American viewer thinks! But with the excessive self-confidence, the paternalistically imposed rules to "live well" simply create problems. Even if the overall quality of life in the U.S. is probably better than in all the countries that the U.S. wants to "teach" and "reshape", countries and people just don't like to be taught – if it involves being presented as inferior ones. It's understandable. Moreover, the teaching doesn't really work in most cases. Most nations just can't switch to a life that resembles the American ones because their individual and collective "DNA" isn't ready for these things. Afghanistan is the same drug-producing mess as it was before the U.S. began to intervene and invest billions to improve the situation. Democracy can't be exported everywhere and the detailed ideas about democracy including the decisions that the majority or representatives make can't be exported at all. It wouldn't be a democracy, anyway, because democracy allows the local people to decide. And different nations – and different groups of people – just think differently and have different skills, priorities, and interests even if this self-evident fact is considered heretical by politically correct ideologues run amok.

And the countries' sovereignty on the paper isn't the whole story. Of course that there are some extra expectations about "who is in charge of what in one country or another". Alliances that introduce a structure to the world. A good politician should learn these "not quite official" things and be a realist. The Obama administration fails in all these things so the deterioration of the relations with Russia is probably a consequence of "good intentions that have gone awry".

We could talk about these U.S.-Russian relationships for hours but let me switch to other countries.

Iran and the Muslim world including the Arabs. Well, the relations have probably not changed much. The U.S. has idealized and supported various fighters on the streets who aren't really good people or who don't enjoy the support of the bulk of their nations. Or both. They made it to the "heroes" of the Hollywood movies. The process just hasn't led to anything good – unless you are happy about hundreds of politically motivated executions in Egypt, for example. In many countries, the hyped "Arab spring" became an Arab hell. U.S. diplomats are still being attacked. I think that there are both positive and negative developments. Iran got much more freedom to develop its nuclear program but that doesn't mean that the U.S.-Iranian hatred has significantly decreased. The U.S. stopped regulating several dangerous processes where its role was actually important but this lowered influence hasn't led to any new warmth in the relationships.

Israel. The deterioration of the U.S.-Israeli ties is as bad as in the case of the U.S.-Russian ties. The American officials began to act as if Israel were no ally at all. After all, it's how they feel privately, too. The Israeli government was de facto treated on par with the leaders of various Palestinian terrorist and semi-terrorist organizations. A staggering recent example of this cooling are John Kerry's remarks that Israel may probably be becoming an apartheid state.

Needless to say, the Israeli politicians are the most sensible ones in the region and a lasting peaceful setup would probably be led by them. So as long as they enjoyed the U.S. support, they had a chance to normalize the situation in the region in some way. America is no longer supporting Israel – America has largely betrayed Israel – but that hasn't brought and couldn't have brought any peace to the region. The tension between Israel and the Arabs on the territory of Greater Israel boils down to some real differences in the values, religions, interests, and plans of the nations and political groups over there. One may imagine a compromise that will lead to a lasting piece. But such a compromise may only be reached by sensible people who are able to appreciate that there is some legitimate other side that may need something. The Arabs don't fulfill this condition.

Ironically enough, Russia has better relationships both with Israel and Iran than the U.S. has. The same could arguably be said about India and China. These are examples showing how silly it is for people in America to claim that Russia is an isolated villain. Its symbiosis with the rest of the world actually seems more problem–free than the symbiosis of the U.S. with the rest of the world.

Rest of BRIC. I have already discussed Russia but the relationships with Brazil, India, and China have worsened, too. These countries are largely – but carefully – on Russia's side in the ongoing controversy about the events in Ukraine. But there have been lots of other events that have crippled these relationships, including the unnecessary stripping of the Indian diplomat by some Americans.

Western Europe. The hysteria of some Western European political forces concerning Bush's decision to invade Iraq has evaporated. It was just a fad. None of these things has created any permanent scars. But there are new problems. The Ukrainian crisis is showing a high degree of disharmony between America and Europe. Of course that most of the European nations don't want any full-fledged economic sanctions against Russia etc. We know that Russians are normal people, usually reliable (these days) business partners, and the source of 5%-10% of our GDP. America is forcing some of its Western European allies, including Germany (with very significant trade with Russia) and the U.K. (with the City of London that largely depends on the wealthy Russians), and I could speak about dozens of other examples and ties, to sacrifice a lot. It's not good for the relationships.

Post-socialist Europe. Some of the "proudly Eastern European", Russophobic countries in the post-socialist Europe – perhaps including Poland and the Baltic states – feel betrayed. Obama cancelled the missile defense system interceptors in Poland and the radars in Czechia, in the Brdy hills not far from Pilsen. The Czech part of the operation was a non-event for the relationships because most Czech citizens have opposed the radar, anyway (I was a clear supporter of the radar). But for the Poles, it was at least a very important symbolic project. And it was indeed just a sign of the coming cooling relationships.

Russia used to oppose the missile defense system from the beginning but it could have gotten through, unlike the membership of Ukraine in NATO. The missile defense system was presented as something not directed against Russia and even some people like your humble correspondent tended to believe it – not sure whether I still believe that the belief was sensible. The system could have done an actual thing that attaches the Euroatlantic civilization to firmer roots. This is the kind of a project that Obama canceled. On the other hand, when it comes to business-as-usual politics which more or less inevitably follows from the other events such as the annexation of Crimea – where he clearly can't do anything except for igniting a new world war – he and Kerry like to be hysterical. But this politics is completely ineffective. It only shows that they are inadequate candidates for a top political job in any country. Putin, on the other hand, knows what he is doing. He is not trying to create tension or hurt people and nations for no good reasons or chastise them. He is doing a generally peaceful and tolerant politics but uses the attempts to attack his country as an opportunity to improve the state of the affairs from the Russian viewpoint. I find this approach to politics sensible and sustainable. Countries should ultimately work on their own interests instead of trying to help others because countries – and people – know themselves and their interests more than they know others.

I have already written a lot and many readers won't care, anyway. So let me ask you what you think about the evolving U.S. relationships to various countries and parts of the world.

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snail feedback (9) :

reader Ann said...

I will share my thoughts. Didn't the Ukraine voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons some years ago with the promise from the West that the West would support/protect Ukraine, if needed? Do they feel betrayed now? I hope tensions will not continue to build, I have no confidence in Obama's administration to conduct foreign policy. I don't admire Putin, but I rhink he is both smarter and tougher than Obama, and Putin knows this. i doubt that Obama knows it. Obama botched his own stance on Syria and it's looking more and more as though Benghazi was an orchestrated coverup - people are calling it Watergate of 21st cwntury, but it's worse because people died in Benghazi. The Saudis didn't invite Obama for a dinner when he made a pointed trip to meet with them, a pretty big snub. The world seems to be getting more violent, now we have the atrocious, brazen kidnappings of school girls in Nigeria. And what is Obama focused on these days -- sexual assault on US college campuses and climate change. Did you hear about the latest 800+ page report from the US government on this topic? They have combined and averaged earlier computer models to create 'far more accurate localized' models that show the true danger of the coming catatrophic heat wave, flood and drought. Obama pointed to the late start to maple syrup season in Vermont as one more sign of worrisome climate change. Seriously. Obama, leading from behind (read: be poll-driven) refuses to have skin in the game, and other leaders in the world have figured this out. It makes things overall more dangerous, not safer. And, Lubos, I want Czechia to be safe and not a place where voices will be censored. The world needs your ideas and thoughts. May Europe remain peaceful and free, may all of us avoid a big war.

reader anna v said...

I agree with most of what you write on the US politic, but I wonder whether it is just naivete or maybe, as Cynthia believes, the army industrial complex is pulling some strings of naive functionaries. When one considers the world wide economic crisis and the statement that the two large wars were started after similar large crisis, one wonders whether it is just the random butterfly's wings or some intent behind the mess.

At least the rabid Muslim nations are clear in what impels them to precipitous and foolhardy actions. We end up thinking that the ones in power in the west are fools/naive , but are they?

reader Luboš Motl said...

Dear Ann, nice comments and right, concerning the betrayal, a good point.

Of course that those who think that the Maidan government still represents the same "Ukraine" that signed the treaty may say that they have been betrayed.

An alternative interpretation is that the government - the country - that signed the 1994 ceased to exist after the coup. The coup liquidated the Yanukovitch government which was, by continuity, the "Ukraine" mentioned in that treaty.

reader Ann said...

I guess the coup does complicate the situation in terms of that 1994 treaty.

reader Shannon said...

The Obamaian US want Ukraine, Turkey, Albania etc to join the EU so that it will make more mess in Europe. The US love the mess far outside their borders. Europe is the stupid "friend" who can't even talk in one voice. Soon the (stupid) European Union will sign the Transatlantic Free Trade Area (TAFTA) which will allow all USian companies to buy ours (it has already started with Alstom in France, instead of Siemens it is General Electric who will get the deal). It will also allow them to impose their conditions like for OGM agriculture etc. Arggh.

reader Swine flu said...

"The Ukrainian crisis is showing a high degree of disharmony between America and Europe."

However the current situation came to be, one practical reason the US would want to send a strong warning to Putin at this point is out of fear that his appetites might grow beyond Ukraine. Should a Baltic state be attacked, NATO would have to come to its defense, which would invariably involve the US military.

Those kinds of possibilities is why I feel that NATO should have long been disbanded. There is no reason whatsoever why a block of 500 million people that includes major economic powers can't provide for its own defense against a country of 144 million, or for its own "sphere of influence" should it be inclined to have one.

reader anna v said...

You have set me thinking on the collective behavior of societies. Calling US policies "naive" did it. Naive follows the maxim "the road to hell is paved with good intentions", thus we do assign a motive: good intention. Then I question whether the collective behavior of a large ensemble of people can be assigned a spontaneous motive. After all people are quantized and in contrast to particles , not interchangeable.

Maybe some version of chaos theory could apply, with strange attractors etc. Then the question is : as people behavior is not deterministic in the chaos sense, can there be a motive , either collective or individual, that can influence the probability on falling in a strange attractor state?

To go away from world politics I thought of the global warming/climate change/ climate disruption collective manifestation of humans. The scientists I discuss with ( and I have given lectures to scientific audiences as a skeptic of AGW) who defend the anthropogenic part , yes , I would lable as "naive". The scientists like Mann , who became fat cats on the bandwagon I would call opportunist and having a motive direction, i.e. a self aggrandizing and enriching state of the AGW attractor. Gore I would label out for the money that can be gathered from the naive hoi polloi, as well all those companies gaining with the CO2 taxes and sequestration etc. The EU body en mass I would label as naive on the subject, but certainly, the money gatherers within the EU structure think of extra tax and salivate.

Here is a simpler example:
When I was young I used to observe ants, particularly in the hot summer months at camp at noon when everything is idling. It interested me to see them pulling a large piece of food , orders of magnitude than their size, to their ant hole. Watching each individual ant, it looked random, they were running around giving bites and shoves in my eyes in random directions. Nevertheless the glob of food slowly but inexorably ended up at the nest's mouth and disappeared. There must have been a motive there, communicated by pheromones? by motions? but a motive was there.

So I do not accept "naive" as the explanation of the bungling of the Ukraine mess.

reader Gene Day said...

Spinning the news in order to protect the White House is as old as the White House but your claim that Benghazi was worse than Watergate omits some relevant facts:

The Watergate scandal resulted in the indictment, trial, conviction, and incarceration of 43 people and the forced resignation of the President. Benghazi involved no criminality, no indictments, no trials, no convictions, no incarcerations and no Presidential resignation.

The GOP hopes to gain politically from Benghazi, and they may, but by the time of the next Presidential election it will be very old news. Hillary seems not to be worried.

reader Ann said...

Absolutely Watergate not same as Benghazi. Nixon was stupid and paranoid to do Watergate and he would have won that election without the break-in, he got his just reward. But no one died in that scandal and Benghazi IS a scandal, a different one and four people died, I find it morally spooky that the left/press response to current questions about it is simply 'that was soooo long ago'. That's not a responsible answer and there is new information that has come to light and there are unresolved questions.