NEW YORK — This week’s summit of the major Group of Eight nations will probably be the last such meeting for U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Seven years ago, at their first meeting in Ljubljana, Slovenia, Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and somehow spotted the soul of a Christian gentleman, not that of a secret policeman. This week they shouldn’t be surprised if they see a mirror of each other, because both men have exemplified the arrogance of power. Bush and Putin both came to power in 2000, a year when their countries were scrambling to regain international respect — Russia from the chaos of the Yeltsin years, and the United States from the failed impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Each country thought it was becoming an unthreatening mediocrity. But both men, on finding themselves in positions of authority, ruled from default positions — Bush as an evangelical convinced that God was on America’s side, and Putin as a KGB graduate convinced that all power derives from intimidation and threats.
And what was the result? Convinced that he is right, and hardly curious about hearing contrary arguments, Bush felt free to undermine the rule of law in America with warrantless domestic surveillance, erosion of due process and defense of torture, in addition to misleading the public and refusing to heed expert advice or recognize facts on the ground. From the tax cuts in 2001 to the war in Iraq, Bush’s self-righteous certitude led him to believe that he could say and do anything to get his way.
The damage that Bush’s self-confidence and self-delusion has inflicted was magnified by his gross overestimation of America’s power. Quite simply, he thought that America could go it alone in pursuing his foreign policy because no one could stop him.
While his father lined up world support, and troops from over a dozen countries, for the first Persian Gulf War, the son thought that allies — except British Prime Minister Tony Blair — were more hindrance than help and did not care to have them. Four years later, Bush’s arrogance and mendacity have been exposed to the entire world, including the American public, to see.
Putin also succumbed to the same arrogance of power. Buoyed by high oil prices, he now seeks to stand over the world as if the social calamities that bedevil Russia — a collapsing population, a spiraling AIDS and tuberculosis crisis, corruption mushrooming to levels unimagined under Yeltsin — did not matter.
At a high-level security meeting in Munich in February, Putin, who usually draws on the secretive, manipulative and confrontational Cold War paradigm of what constitutes Russian diplomatic behavior, lashed out at the U.S. with the sort of language unheard of since former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s “We will bury you.” American actions were “unilateral” and “illegitimate,” and had forged a “hotbed of further conflicts.”
Putin’s assessment of U.S. unilateralism (if stripped of its overheated rhetoric) may be correct; the trouble is that he lacks credibility to extol moderation in foreign policy. High oil prices have helped him rebuild and centralize a “strong state,” his goal from the outset of his presidency. But his recent attempts to use Russia’s energy resources for political coercion in Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and elsewhere have exposed Russia as an unreliable partner, unnerving even the Chinese, who do not wish to see a reconstituted Russian empire on their border.
The Russian public, habituated to authoritarianism, wants Russia’s rulers to be firm. Yet the true test of a ruler is not how well he panders to his people’s expectations, but whether he match the country’s aspirations with its future needs and capacities. In this, Putin’s arrogance is failing Russia miserably. His monomaniacal drive to centralize power is driving out the very expertise that the country needs to flourish.
Shell and BP are being expelled from the oil industry at the very moment that Russian oil production is declining dramatically. His embittered attempts to counter American power are equally shortsighted; helping Iran develop its nuclear program and selling high-tech weapons to China are hardly in Russia’s long-term strategic interest.
As usual, history is set on fast-forward in America. Everyone can now see the gross and historic failures of the Bush presidency. Indeed, the American people have preempted the historians, rebuking Bush by electing a Democratic Congress in November 2006. Meanwhile, Russia’s troubles remain hidden behind the strong-arm tactics and oil-bloated coffers of Putin’s autocratic bureaucracy. The fact that Russia’s social and economic diseases are going unaddressed has consigned the country to a long-term decline that his presidency was supposed to reverse.
In the 20th century, the Cold War parity between Russia and America was apparent. For Russians, America was an evil empire, the world of capitalist exploitation and a nuclear superpower as well as a cradle of economic prosperity and individual freedom. For America, Russia, too, was an evil empire, the world of communist expansionism and a nuclear superpower as well as a cradle of science, spirit, and soul.
A similar parity characterized the Bush-Putin era. Unlike Americans, however, Russia’s people have not yet understood the price of arrogant power run amok.