Everyone’s giving President Obama advice about how to handle Vladimir Putin’s adventure into the Crimea. But I want to issue a broader critique, because there’s something that he and his people will need to do to be more effective in this case and in future foreign policy crises: They’ll need to change their rhetoric.
In talking about Putin, as when trying to express disapproval towards other world leaders in the past, administration officials have resorted to language that comes across as either patronizing or out of touch. Let’s examine a couple of the administration’s favorite rhetorical tropes.
1. They are not acting in their own interest. They are only harming themselves.
Secretary of State John Kerry was all over the airwaves this weekend with versions of this line. “He is not going to gain by this,” Kerry told David Gregory on “Meet the Press.” “Russia is going to lose. The Russian people are going to lose.”
Over the years, Obama and his aides have offered similar versions of this line in talking about other foreign leaders who had done or were about to do something of which the administration disapproved: in Syria, for example, or Egypt or Qaddafi’s Libya. And guess what? It’s a useless line of attack. Putin makes his own calculations of what is in his interest. If he believed that sending troops onto Ukrainian soil was a bad idea, he wouldn’t have done it. Bashar al-Assad also makes his own calculations. He’s worried that if he loses to the rebels, he and many of the people around him will be killed. It’s enough of a full-time responsibility for Obama and Kerry to define what’s in America’s own interests without making grand proclamations of what’s in the best interest of other countries or their leaders.
2. They’re displaying nineteenth century behavior. They need to join the twenty-first century.
The administration loves to brand actions it doesn’t like as relics of the past. “It’s really nineteenth century behavior in the twenty-first century,” Kerry said of Putin’s Crimean gambit. A senior administration official who sounded like either National Security Advisor Susan Rice or Ben Rhodes told reporters on background, “What we see here are distinctly nineteenth- and twenty-first century decisions made by President Putin to address problems.”
Well, to start with, by definition Putin’s decisions are taking place in the twenty-first century. The administration here seems to be using the centuries like a teacher handing out a grade: twenty-first century is an A, twentieth century is a C, nineteenth century is an F. More importantly, talking this way raises an uncomfortable question: Does the reality of the twenty-first century conform to what Obama administration officials think it is? China, for example, is undeniably a force in the twenty-first century—yet its power-oriented approach to the Asia-Pacific region is of the sort that the Obama administration would mistakenly pigeonhole as “nineteenth century” behavior. Really, the Obama team is using “nineteenth-century” as an empty epithet to talk about modern-day behaviors it doesn’t like. And that logically brings us to:
3. They need to understand ideas like interdependence and win-win solutions. This is not a zero-sum game.
The same senior official told reporters that Putin “needs to understand that, in terms of his economy, he lives in … an interdependent world.” This is one of the core concepts in the worldview of the Obamians, dating back to the earliest days of the 2008 presidential campaign, when Rice and Rhodes were trying to put words on what Obama believed as opposed to, say, Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush or John McCain. Then and ever since, the Obama team has repeatedly invoked the concept of interdependence – and, in a related fashion, has claimed that it is outmoded to believe that in modern-day foreign policy conflicts, there can be winners and losers.
The main problem is that “interdependence” is just a buzzword, not a prescription for policy. Putin understands the concept of interdependence as well as anyone in Washington—he’s just applying the facts in a different way. He knows, for example, that Ukraine and much of Western Europe are dependent on natural gas from Russia, and that this fact impinges on their calculations.
It would much be so much better for the Obama administration to leave the grand rhetoric aside. Instead, it should invoke democratic ideals, condemn what Putin has done, then shut up. Silence has its own strategic power, and the actions of America and its allies can speak for themselves.
James Mann is a resident fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies. His most recent book is The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power.