The Remarkable Similarity of Putin’s and Obama’s Speeches at the U.N.
When the same words mean very different things.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin took the rostrum at the United Nations Monday morning, many noted the oblique shots that he traded with President Barack Obama, who spoke from the same podium before him. What struck me, however, was how similar the two men sounded and how they used many of the same words and concepts to accuse each other of undermining the very same words and concepts.
“The United Nations is a structure that has no equal when it comes to legitimacy, representation, and universality,” Putin told delegates. It was, surely, a statement Obama could agree with. The U.N., Putin argued, was still relevant despite the changing times. “There is talk now that the organization, in the form in which it was created, is outdated and that it has fulfilled its historical mission,” Putin said. But meddling with its structures, Putin warned, “could lead to the collapse of the entire architecture of international relations. Then we really won’t have any rules left, except the rule of the strongest.”
Not only is this also something Obama would agree with, it’s something he had said to the same gathering just a half-hour beforehand. “There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the U.N. charter are unachievable or out of date,” Obama intoned. “Effectively, they argue for a return to the rules that applied for most of human history and that pre-date this institution: the belief that power is a zero-sum game; that might makes right; that strong states must impose their will on weaker ones; that the rights of individuals don’t matter; and that in a time of rapid change, order must be imposed by force.”
That, in turn, is something Putin would have agreed with — what he said was, after all, basically the same thing — if only the two men weren’t using the very same words to talk about very different things: To anyone who has followed the news in the last year-and-a-half, Obama was talking, quite obviously, about Putin’s annexation of Crimea and his invasion of eastern Ukraine. Without naming names, he was accusing Putin of going back to the pre-U.N. order, which was in effect a blow at the organization’s very foundation.
Putin, on the other hand, spoke in veiled terms about the U.N. playing referee, of not allowing, in Obama’s words, might to make right. “We all know that after the end of the Cold War — everybody knows this — the world was left with only one center of dominance,” he said. “And then those who found themselves at the top of this pyramid were tempted to think that if they’re so strong and exceptional, then they know best. And that, in turn, they don’t need to consult the U.N., which, instead of automatically sanctioning and legalizing the necessary decision, is often simply in the way.” This was, of course, a swipe at the United States for invading Iraq in 2003 without the U.N.’s approval, though Putin seemed to forget the U.N. condemning his adventure in Ukraine.
There were many such strangely opposing overlaps: Both Obama and Putin talked about the rule of law and the importance of international institutions in maintaining whatever fragile peace exists in the world. They both invoked history as warning: Doom befalls those who contravene the established world order.
It’s easy to dismiss these linguistic symmetries, to write them off as the blandishments befitting the 70th anniversary of a controversial institution or as mere cynicism. But I would argue that the two men used these words genuinely, that they believe in their meanings, and that the fact that they define those same words and concepts in such drastically different ways offers us a very important window not only into why Obama and Putin don’t get along, but why Russia and the United States so often and so fundamentally misunderstand each other.
For Barack Obama, like for many of his predecessors, the ideal of the United Nations was about bringing the concept of the rule of law — the idea that laws, not individual whims, should govern a country — to the international arena, to regulate a historically chaotic and bloody playing field and to make it more like a parliament than a coliseum. That, at least, is the idea. Regardless of how the United States has used or misused the organization in the past, the hope that the U.N. can impose order on the gruesome entropy of international affairs is why someone like Obama believes the U.N. is sacrosanct.
Putin also treasures the U.N. He wasn’t lying when he said that. He said much the same the last time he addressed the body, at its 60th anniversary, in a speech that was remarkably similar to Monday’s. “It was in these walls,” he said in 2005, “that [the world] worked out a fundamentally new, non-confrontational world order.” Putin wants to see the U.N. live another 10, 20 years — but not because he wants to apply one set of rules to all nations. The U.N. is important to him because it enshrines the outsize projection of Russia’s geopolitical power through the country’s permanent seat at the Security Council — and, with it, the veto.
In his speech today, Putin spoke of the vital importance of other international bodies, like the G-20 and the World Trade Organization. But their significance lies in the same basic fact: These bodies allow Russia to use its historic and unparalleled talent at bureaucratic maneuvering to punch above its weight. Putin cares about the WTO, but it’s not because he’s a free marketer — just look at the oligarchy he has set up at home — but because it could undermine Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership at a time when Russia, stung by U.S. and EU sanctions, is trying to pivot to the Asian market, too.
The same is true when the two men talk about a certain postwar world order. In Obama’s mouth, the phrase evokes certain American ideals, however patchily or hypocritically implemented: human rights, democracy, and the idea that governments serve their people, not the other way around. It is about the democratic peace theory — the idea that democracies don’t go to war with one another. It is a force of progress and, often, progressivism. In Putin’s understanding, however, it is the vessel of a certain brand of stand-patter conservatism and, most significantly, statism. Putin, at his core, is a gosudarstvennik, a believer in a strong unitary central government.
In fact, Putin used the term gosudarstvennost’ — the stability and strength of the state — and its linguistic derivatives no fewer than 10 times in his address. And he didn’t use it the way someone like Obama might. Libya’s gosudarstvennost’, Putin said, “was destroyed through the grave violations of U.N. Security Council Resolution No. 1973.” When he spoke about the refugee crisis engulfing the Middle East and Europe, he spoke not of the responsibility of governments to help those in need, he spoke of gosudarstvennost’. “Without a doubt, the refugees need sympathy and support,” Putin said. “But the only way to definitively solve this problem is to restore gosudarstvennost’ in the place where it was destroyed, by strengthening state institutions where they still exist or are being recreated.” That is, the reason for the refugee crisis, according to Putin, is that Bashar al-Assad lost his state, his gosudarstvennost’, and his state institutions — not the impartial bodies an American imagines when hearing the word — have fallen apart.
For Putin — and for most of his predecessors reaching back hundreds and hundreds of years — gosudarstvennost’ is both the alpha and the omega, the means and the end. The state must be preserved, and the institutions of the state must be used to preserve it. It is this idea that Putin is projecting onto the international stage: The point of the United Nations is not to advance individual liberties and rights but to maintain the gosudarstvennost’ of its constituent states. Thus Putin peppered his address with another word: sovereignty. This word, too, means something else to Putin and his compatriots; it means not self-governance but freedom from the moralizing interference of the West. (Ironically, Putin very clearly believes in the decidedly Anglo-Saxon idea of precedent: If America gets to invade Iraq or bomb Serbia, Russia can toss out certain international norms — another favorite term — provided he cites the American precedent as justification.)
Another point where the word collapses: chaos. Russia, like America, wants to prevent chaos in the world, but they define the term differently. For America, chaos is human suffering. For Russia, it is the destruction of another term he threw around in his speech today: legitimnye gosudarstva, or legitimate states. This is why, in Putin’s logic, it is providing weapons both to Ukrainian separatists and Assad’s army. The former are fighting for the cause of the legitimate Ukrainian government overthrown last February, in Putin’s view, by a CIA coup; the latter are fighting to hold on against a batch of terrorists sponsored, or at the least encouraged, by the United States.
When NATO acted to prevent chaos in Libya — “where,” in Obama’s words, “we joined an international coalition under a U.N. mandate to prevent a slaughter” — Putin saw it as the sowing chaos because it destroyed the legitimate state without replacing it with anything. This is why, back in 2005, Putin said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century,” and why he laughed on Sunday when Charlie Rose thought it meant that Putin wants to restore the USSR. He doesn’t really, but he genuinely believes that the collapse of the state was a tragedy and that it sowed chaos in the region — and he’s not totally wrong.
None of this is to say that there was no cynicism, no lies in Putin’s speech yesterday; of course there was. But to dismiss the speech out of hand as pure dishonesty is dishonest, too. Putin, in his own way, said what he means. And because he ascribes the same level of cynicism to Americans as Americans do of him — just listen to him tell Charlie Rose how he knows all the details of how Washington overthrew former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych — he thinks Obama is misusing the same words he, too, uttered.
In a way, Putin articulated best why he and Obama seem to talk past each other. “You cannot manipulate and play with words,” Putin told the General Assembly on Monday. “In international law, in international relations, each term must be clear, transparent, and must have a uniform definition and uniformly understood criteria.” Of course he was talking not about his own deft verbal gymnastics, but Obama’s — and there’s the rub.
Photo credit: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images