– On Syria, Putin is a modern Machiavelli – and that’s a good thing (Guardian, Sep 13, 2013):
The Russian president’s New York Times op-ed was a scathing indictment of Barack Obama’s morality-based foreign policy
This week, Vladimir Putin outflanked Barack Obama on his home turf. The Russian president’s scathing op-ed in the New York Times did more than simply leave the American president looking “rudderless and outplayed at every turn”, as Max Hastings wrote in the Daily Mail. What shot the piece to the top of the international conversation was its merciless inversion of a long-standing American truism: that the good guys can do no wrong.
Instead, here is our American hero – the compassionate, liberal former professor of constitutional law who once opposed the war in Iraq – now on the verge of bombing a sovereign country without UN approval while the wily old villain plays the part of peacemaker.
Reading Putin’s article was like having “someone whom you personally loathe call out all your personal flaws and be annoyingly accurate about it” confessed a frustrated Fox News reader in a comment on a story about Putin’s statement. “I can’t stand the guy. But nearly everything in it I agreed with”.
The Russian leader’s bold plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles under international control might not resolve the Syrian impasse or even prevent a US strike against Assad. But his provocative op-ed has already succeeded in forcing Americans to reconsider one of the key tenets of their country’s post-cold war identity: a values-based foreign policy.
America’s long tradition of morally guided politics was inherited from John Stuart Mill and finds its latest expression with Obama’s foreign policy adviser Samantha Power, an influential scholar of humanitarian intervention. In a recent speech, she warned that inaction over Syria would remain on our conscience.
Yet Putin’s article calmly laid out what many people – recent polls show fewer than half currently in favour of action – have begun finally to accept: that morality-led military action can all too often have the opposite effect. Even the kind of limited air strikes mooted by the White House could, declared the Russian president, result in “more innocent victims and escalation … increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism”. And that’s assuming it is still possible to accurately distinguish true innocents in a civil war where there are “few champions of democracy”.
Setting aside Putin’s self-serving assertions that the recent chemical attacks were carried out not by Assad’s forces but by rebels, the president’s essential call for Americans to finally separate morality from international relations was sound. It was a call to return to the principles long established by Niccolò Machiavelli, for whom it was both morally and tactically wrong to apply to political action the moral standards appropriate to private life and personal relations.
Contrary to common myth, the Florentine philosopher was far from an advocate of amoral treachery; rather, he feared that by setting up such unreachable standards in political affairs, a statesman would doom himself to become deluded and, ultimately, betray those values all the more gravely. It is better to remain realistic and clear-headed about the limits of human virtue on the world stage, to see the field as it is and not as it ought to be. Machiavelli seems to have served Putin well.
Just how little has changed over five centuries is evident in the ever-widening gulf between the effectiveness of Putin’s realpolitik and the dangerous dithering engendered by Obama’s insistence on morally anthropomorphising the Syrian conflict. And the popularity of the Russian president’s op-ed showed that the American public, if not its president, had finally absorbed the lessons of Iraq: that a pragmatic foreign policy can be more effective, and ultimately more “ethical” in terms of damage to human lives and international security, than one based on emotional calls to action. After all, correctly declared another commenter, as long as a potentially disastrous American military strike gets averted, it doesn’t matter if the credit goes to the untrustworthy Putin: diplomacy is about solving problems.
That it took an authoritarian strongman from the former “evil empire” to drive home that essential truth is a scathing indictment of America’s political establishment. As a New York Times reader put it: “What a crazy world we are living in when Russia sounds more sane and responsible than our own government on a serious international crisis. It’s as if I have blundered into some bizarre parallel universe.”