Terms of Engagement

Squeal Like a Pig

Why Putin actually loves tweaking the United States over Edward Snowden, and why China’s too smart to bother.


There must be a Mandarin equivalent to the Russian adage President Vladimir Putin used to explain why keeping Edward Snowden wasn’t worth the cost to Russia’s relations with the United States — "it’s like shearing a pig: there’s lots of squealing and little fleece." (How about: "It’s like deep-frying a cricket: a nice snack, but you can’t feed your family"?) Still, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the Chinese leadership, stayed mum when Snowden passed through their hands. The Chinese, unlike the Russians, do not like to give the impression that they take pleasure in watching America squeal.

The Snowden affair has offered a strange experiment in which a U.S. hostage to fortune has been delivered, first to China, and then to Russia. Each has the United States over a barrel. Or rather, each has had a pig to shear, if they cared to. And what they do with that pig tells you something about how they think about their relationship with Washington. It hasn’t been pretty, of course, and the White House has gotten very hot under the collar. But they’ve behaved better than they could have, and better than they would have a generation ago.

First, a caveat: Snowden passed through the hands of Hong Kong, not Chinese authorities. This may be one and the same thing. Last Sunday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the Obama administration was "just not buying" that the decision to let Snowden travel onwards, rather than to turn him over to American authorities, was made by local officials rather than by Beijing. When I asked National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden if the White House had specific evidence of a backstage Chinese role, she responded that Carney "was referencing China’s traditional role in Hong Kong’s foreign affairs." Snowden’s Hong Kong lawyer has said that a Chinese "intermediary" visited Snowden and told him that he was not welcome to stay. But Beijing has denied playing a role, and at least claims to resent the White House tongue-lashing.

China’s call, if it was China’s call, was unambiguous: Get rid of him. "What was clear," a State Department official told me, "was that both China and Hong Kong, but especially China, wanted to have done with this." Turning Snowden over to the United States, as an ally would have done, was unthinkable: Imagine the United States doing the same with a Chinese fugitive. At the same time, granting Snowden the asylum he sought in Hong Kong — and which both local and Chinese public opinion seemed to favor — would have been the overtly hostile act of an adversary. Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert at the Brookings Institution, points out that Xi had just conducted his confab with Barack Obama at Sunnylands, which in turn teed up the upcoming U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. This was, Lieberthal notes, "the last thing in the world they wanted in their lap." It also makes Lieberthal wonder why the White House was hurling rhetorical thunderbolts at Beijing.

Snowden apparently now dwells in the limbo of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport transit lounge. He has expressed no desire to stay in Russia; the era when "defectors" fled to the West’s ideological rivals is long gone, and of course you would have to be mighty fervid to trade Honolulu for Moscow. In any case, Putin, too, appears to want him gone. "The sooner he chooses his final destination," the Russian president said, "the better it is for him and Russia." Putin also has a relationship — albeit a tattered one — to protect. Having just held his extremely uncomfortable first bilateral with Obama, Putin "does not want to throw the relationship into the toilet," as Andrew Kuchins, a Russia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, puts it. Of course, the fact that Snowden hasn’t gone anywhere, yet, casts some doubt on Moscow’s eagerness to have him gone.

Critics on the right are forever urging policymakers to throw off the fiction of common interests. A recent piece about U.S.-China relations in The National Interest claims that, "Pretending to have a partnership and shared interests can only lead to growing frustration in the relationship." Well, no. Allies have a "partnership." But states that participate in the global commons of the market system do, indeed, have "shared interests." China may try to rig the system on its behalf, whether hacking the computers of foreign corporations or subsidizing domestic industries, but it must accept the fundamental rules of the game in order to win. China tried playing a different game for 40 years, and realized that it was losing. That’s why China now has too much fish to fry with the West to waste time shearing pigs.

The situation is different with Russia. Putin channels Russia’s sullen resentment at its second-class status. Maximizing Russia’s economic opportunities may matter less to him than catering to, and exploiting, the national sense of wounded pride. And since Russia has so little trade with the United States, poking Washington carries only modest economic risks. Not for nothing has he made Secretary of State John Kerry wait for three hours, and Obama for 30 minutes. More important, Putin has backed Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to the hilt, though doing so has wrecked Russia’s reputation in much of the Arab world; he wants to hold on to an important client, but he is also determined to make the United States and the West pay the highest possible price for meddling with that relationship.

Russia, for all its weakness, seems more dangerous than China, precisely because Putin has turned the zero-sum calculus into a matter of supreme national interest. He doesn’t need the fleece, but he clearly does enjoy making the pig squeal. And as a European diplomat said to me the other day, Russia loves a self-destructive hero. Putin may well be torn between disposing of Snowden as swiftly as possible and milking, or shearing, the situation for all it’s worth. He has to continue delivering prosperity, or at least security, and he has good reason to worry that falling oil prices, dismal productivity, and non-existent innovation threaten his popularity, and his legacy.

Who wants to take Snowden? Cuba, Venezuela, maybe Ecuador — or maybe not. Insignificant countries may reasonably calculate that they get more mileage from defying Washington than they do from cooperating, since the currency of anti-Americanism glitters more brightly for them than does actual currency. (And Venezuela has the oil wealth to underwrite its gestures.) But Washington can live with enemies like that. And it’s reasonable to hope that such self-defeating states will eventually come to their senses.

The United States does have a formidable enemy — but we can see it in the mirror. China’s aggression toward its neighbors in the South China Sea, or its assault on the computers of U.S. companies, poses less of a threat to U.S. interests than does America’s own failure to educate its citizens or build and repair vital infrastructure — both of which China is doing, legally and openly, at an astonishingly rapid clip. The United States doesn’t really have enemies any more. It has rivals — lots and lots of rivals. And right now, it’s defeating itself.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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