For the past six years, President Barack Obama has dominated the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, his words and initiatives driving the agenda and media coverage. This year, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his first UN appearance in a decade, who stole the diplomatic show. Putin’s call for a “grand coalition” against the Islamic State, an idea backed by even some U.S. allies, has placed the Obama administration, which has long clung to an “Assad must go” position in Syria, on the defensive. Although it would require at least a partial U.S. climb-down, Putin’s initiative could help resolve a grinding conflict that has killed more than 200,000 people, facilitated the rise of the Islamic State, and generated a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and neighboring states and the worst migration crisis in the history of the European Union. At the same time, Putin’s address underscored how different the world looks from Moscow’s vantage point—and how inconsistent Russian authoritarianism and realpolitik is with President Obama’s dream of an open, rule-based international order.
Taking the podium as the morning’s second speaker (after Brazilian president Dilma Roussef), Barack Obama described a turbulent world, balanced precariously between stability and chaos. At this critical juncture, the nations of the world had a choice to make. Would they rededicate themselves to the principles upon which the United Nations was founded seventy years ago, seeking shared security, prosperity, and human dignity through international cooperation? Or would they follow the siren song of those who still believe that “might makes right,” both at home and abroad? Implicitly referring to Russia and China, the President Obama castigated oppressive regimes that seek the illusory order of tyranny, the “strongmen” who refuse to trust their people, who seek vainly to strangle the idea of freedom, and by their actions simply spark the “revolutions of tomorrow.” Abroad, those same governments too often abandon the international rule of law for the law of the jungle, ignoring that power politics inevitably backfires in an “integrated world.” Consider, for example, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, which had brought such economic pain (in the form of sanctions) to Russia itself. How much better would Russia have fared, the president asked, had it simply pursued its goals through diplomatic means? Not for the first time, Obama seemed genuinely perplexed that Putin—or any other world leader—would regard realpolitik as a legitimate form of statecraft, rather than an atavism no longer appropriate in a world of shared transnational threats like climate change, Ebola, and uncontrolled migration.
The problem, of course, is that Putin never got the memo that power politics is obsolete. In recent days the Obama administration has repeatedly warned that Russia’s use of the UN Security Council (UNSC) veto in Syria threatens the credibility of that body. In his own speech from the UN podium, Putin reminded listeners that the postwar international order agreed at Yalta was founded explicitly on big power privilege. Each of the five permanent members (the P5) was endowed with a veto precisely to prevent a subset of the P5 from using the UNSC’s enforcement power contrary to the will of one of its members. Putin also suggested that the United Nations should think long and hard before undermining or infringing upon state sovereignty through military interventions or the “export” of democratic revolutions. As evidence, one need look no further than the Middle East and North Africa. According to Putin, “instead of the triumph of democracy and progress we got violence, poverty and a social disaster,” as outside interventions in Iraq, Libya and Syria had created “power vacuums” filled by “extremists and terrorists,” most notably the Islamic State. Implicitly addressing the West, he asked: “Those who have caused this situation: Do you realize now what you have done?” Rather than continuing down this path, the time had come for the international community to form “a broad international coalition against terrorism,” akin to the one that defeated Hitler seventy years ago. The government of Syria, he insisted, must be part of this coalition against the Islamic State.
Putin’s realpolitik was also on display in his discussion of the Ukraine conflict (a topic that caused the Ukrainian delegation to the UN to walk out). It was NATO’s expansion into the post-Soviet space, he claimed, had created a “logic of confrontation” between “West” and “East.” Indeed, he implied, the West had engineered the coup against Yanukovich that set off Ukraine’s turmoil, seeking to force its exclusive alignment with the West. This was clearly too much for Moscow. As he made clear in his 60 minutes interview with Charlie Rose on Sunday evening, Putin is determined to protect the rights of the twenty-five million Russian compatriots that the collapse of the Soviet Union left outside of Russia’s borders. In sum, Russia will insist upon some degree of sphere of influence over its “near abroad.”
Despite their contrasting world views and testy personal relationship, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin may be forced to find some common ground on the way forward, at least when it comes to Syria. Russia’s military buildup in that country has given it some leverage in negotiations with the United States, which was also taken by surprise by yesterday’s agreement among Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria to share intelligence related to the Islamic State. Moreover, a slew of foreign governments—including not only big emerging countries like China and India but also close U.S. allies like Germany—are now convinced that Assad must be part of the solution in Syria. Given the apparently abject (and expensive) U.S. failure to train “moderate” Syrian forces, and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of failing to resolve the Syrian conflict, the Obama administration may have little choice but to reach tacit agreement with Russia that Assad’s government can play a part in the coalition against the Islamic State. The cost of that acquiescence should be some U.S. insistence on Assad’s eventual exit following a defined political transition, including the reconstitution of an eventual successor government in Syria.
Still, any U.S-Russian cooperation in Syria is unlikely to change facts on the ground in Ukraine. Russian cooperation in Syria may, in fact, further constrain U.S. desire and ability to counter Russian aggression in Ukraine. In the end, it appears Russia—not China—poses the greatest challenge to the rules-based international order on which the UN is based.