In Memoir, Obama Calls Putin a ‘Ward Boss, Except With Nukes’

The former U.S. president frankly assesses foreign leaders he met—and many fail to earn his esteem.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-U.S. President Barack Obama
Russian President Vladimir Putin and then-U.S. President Barack Obama shake hands before a meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 28, 2015. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In A Promised Land, the first volume of a planned two-part memoir, former U.S. President Barack Obama comes across as fairly dismissive about many world leaders he met, likening Russian President Vladimir Putin to a Tammany Hall hack, deriding former French President Nicolas Sarkozy as full of “overblown rhetoric,” and saying the Chinese “were in no hurry to seize the reins of the international world order.”

Obama is also frank about his initial insecurities emerging on the world stage for the first time. “Was I prepared to be a world leader? Did I have the diplomatic skills, the knowledge and stamina, the authority to command?” he writes. He describes a trip to the Middle East during the 2008 presidential campaign, when he pushed a private prayer into the Western Wall that read in part, “Lord, protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair.”

A Promised Land, Barack Obama, Crown Publishing Group, 768 pp., , Nov. 17, 2020

A Promised Land, Barack Obama, Crown Publishing Group, 768 pp., $45, Nov. 17, 2020

He adds that someone then dug out the paper, and next thing he knew it was world news. “I had assumed those words were between me and God. But the next day they showed up in an Israeli newspaper before achieving eternal life on the internet. … The line between my private and public lives was dissolving; each thought and gesture was now a matter of global interest.”

Few passages are as revealing as when Obama realizes that his early hopes for a “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations with then-President Dmitry Medvedev were doomed the moment he met with the Kremlin’s real power, Putin, who was only biding his time before he took over from Medvedev again.

Obama had been previously warned by Bill Burns, one of the State Department’s senior Russia specialists, that Putin had to “get a few things off his chest,” and the former president writes: “Burns hadn’t been kidding. … Putin launched into an animated and seemingly endless monologue chronicling every perceived injustice, betrayal, and slight that he and the Russian people had suffered at the hands of the Americans.” Putin said he’d offered President George W. Bush all sorts of help in sharing intelligence against al Qaeda and handling Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, “and where had it gotten him?” Obama recounts. “Rather than heed his warnings, he said, Bush had gone ahead and invaded Iraq, destabilizing the entire Middle East.” Then the Russian leader continued his harangue about how NATO had steadily encroached on Russia’s sphere of influence and promoted democracy recklessly—all issues that continue to bedevil U.S.-Russia relations a decade later. 

In an acute observation that perhaps could have only come from someone who began as a city organizer, as Obama had, the president writes that when his aide David Axelrod asked him his impression of Putin, he responded that he “found him strangely familiar, ‘like a ward boss, except with nukes and a U.N. Security Council veto.’ This prompted a laugh, but I hadn’t meant it as a joke. Putin did, in fact, remind me of the sorts of men who had once run the Chicago machine or Tammany Hall—tough, street smart, unsentimental characters who knew what they knew, who never moved outside their narrow experiences, and who viewed patronage, bribery, shakedowns, fraud, and occasional violence as legitimate tools of the trade.” And in the end, he writes, “you couldn’t trust them.”

Obama makes similar observations about Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and some Eastern Europe leaders such as then-Czech President Vaclav Klaus, divining that their commitment to democracy was flimsy as right-wing forces congealed in the face of economic upheaval. He said he found Erdogan to be “cordial and generally responsive to my requests. But whenever I listened to him speak, his tall frame slightly stooped, his voice a forceful staccato that rose an octave in response to various grievances or perceived slights, I got the strong impression that his commitment to democracy and the rule of law might last only as long as it preserved his own power.”

As for Klaus, Obama writes, he came to fear that the Czech leader was a harbinger of the rise of the far-right across Europe and embodied “how the economic crisis [of 2008-9] was causing an uptick in nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and skepticism about [European] integration.”

Again drawing from his earliest experiences in the divisive city politics of Chicago, Obama writes that he perceived that “the hopeful tide of democratization, liberalization, and integration that had swept the globe after the end of the Cold War was beginning to recede.” 

“In fact, what was striking was how easily Klaus would have fit in with the Republican Senate caucus back home, just as I could readily picture Erdogan as a local power broker on the Chicago City Council,” the former president writes. “Whether this was a source of comfort or concern, I couldn’t decide.” 

Obama comes to mistrust the European allies as well, especially after the Greek debt crisis snowballed in 2011. 

“We couldn’t afford to be passive observers in all this,” he writes. After pushing European countries such as Germany and France with stronger balance sheets to initiate stimulus policies, “[W]e got exactly nowhere,” he writes. He liked and admired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, finding her “steady, honest, intellectually rigorous, and instinctually kind,” but he came to realize she was too conservative to escape the constraints of German politics.

As for the president of the second most powerful European country, Sarkozy—another center-right leader—Obama writes that the French president proved to be duplicitous and thoroughly unreliable. “‘Don’t worry, Barack … I’m working on Angela, you’ll see,’” Obama recounts him saying. But “as far as I could tell, he wasn’t organized enough to come up with a clear plan for his own country, much less for all of Europe.”

Obama also delves deeply into his manifold problems in forcing the Chinese to stop cheating on trade and revalue their currency—and his dismissive views of their readiness for world leadership.

“If any country was likely to challenge U.S. preeminence on the world stage, it was China,” Obama writes. “And yet watching the Chinese delegation operate at the G20, I was convinced that any such challenge was still decades away—and that if and when it came, it would most likely happen as a result of America’s strategic mistakes.”

Obama concludes: “That was the thing that would strike me … at every international forum I attended while president: Even those who complained about America’s role in the world still relied on us to keep the system afloat.” 

Many countries were willing to pitch in to varying degrees, he writes, “But otherwise, few nations felt obliged to act beyond narrow self-interest; and those that shared America’s basic commitment to the principles upon which a liberal, market-based system depended—individual freedom, the rule of law, strong enforcement of property rights and neutral arbitration of disputes, plus baseline levels of governmental accountability and competence—lacked the economic and political heft, not to mention the army of diplomats and policy experts, to promote those principles on a global scale.” 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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