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Putin's vision of equality

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits with U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi (C) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (L) sits with U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi (C) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

By John Lloyd

The light on the discussions on Syria in Geneva between the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers is dim and flickering and may well be snuffed out. But at least there's a light.

For the light to become brighter, world powers must declare war not on each other, but on noxious geopolitics. It is time to end the zero-sum game. World leaders are magnetized to its bare calculus: if you're up, I'm down. It's not a pleasant equation, but it's terribly hard to give up.

Vladimir Putin is a great aficionado of the game, partly because he was trained to be, as a KGB officer. All secret service people think that way. In their often brutal world, when your enemy wins, you are pretty sure to have lost. It's likely that Putin enjoys his success in delaying the U.S.-led putative strike against President Assad of Syria as a move that establishes himself as a world figure with the future of Syria in his hands, while President Obama flails about, seeking to keep the military option on the table while constrained to follow Putin's way. The Russian autocrat has put himself in tune with public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and put a shine both on himself and on autocracy.

The op-ed he wrote this week, published in the New York Times, and placed there by the PR company Ketchum, was artfully crafted for Western popular assent — right down to the final sentence, an injunction that "we must not forget that God created us equal."

Putin's proposing himself as an angel of peace is rich. The last Times op-ed he published, in 1999, justified his flattening of much of Chechnya in pursuit of peace — which was indeed largely achieved — in the rebel Russian province. But the pleasures of cynicism are shallow. In the zero-sum game he has improved his position — and Obama is left with wails of anguish over his "weakness" and "indecision" from every quarter, liberal and conservative, domestic and foreign.

The pursuit of a paradigm other than the "zero-sum game" goes beyond Russia. At the meeting in June between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both sides pledged themselves to find a "new type of great power relationship." Like Putin, the Chinese want this to be a relationship between equals — even if they don't invoke God to make sure it is. Equality is a fine goal; it absolutely negates playing zero-sum games; and it's one of the sine qua nons of keeping the light above Geneva from going out.

A theme of Obama's presidency has been the proposed deceleration of America's global policeman role. Obama has sought an accord that both respects other major powers but also safeguards America and its allies' interests, and asserts his values of democratic rule and concern for human rights. It's hard to do that with empires — even when, as in the American case, it isn't an empire in the classic, British/French/Austro-Hungarian/Russian models. Imperial power can keep the peace, but it also creates many enemies inside its boundaries and out, and stirs vast resentments in other would-be powerful states, which may harbor imperial ambitions of their own.

As Reuters columnist Zachary Karabell noted about Obama recently, the gradual reduction of U.S. dominance may "prove to be one of his greatest legacies," adding later, "even though the diminution of presidential power is not the kind of thing that makes for compelling historical narrative." It certainly doesn't: more, it frightens allies and encourages opponents.

What a real, active relationship among equals could do is extraordinary, because the threats are so huge. Iran's nuclear program, among many other threats, have highlighted the need for a nuclear-free world. The U.S. cannot — never really could — contain these trends, or any others. It takes a global accord, and global action.

That kind of vision has in the past seemed utopian, and has been the preserve of idealistic liberals and people of faith, whom men and women of power could sometimes indulge, but dismiss as dreamers. Power was the world currency, and those who held it must keep or expand it, else they would in time cease to be masters and become victims.

That has been and is still the malign calculus of nation states. It is the way an imperial presidency that is also a democracy works: weakness empowers the opposition, which promises a return of strength. It is also the need of autocrats: Russian and Chinese leaders need to show strength abroad as well as at home, or the basis of their rule trembles.

But the slim promise of Geneva, a process that may indeed be the product of clever chess moves by Grandmaster Vladimir, is that another calculus begins to enter into the equation. It cannot be achieved by unilateral renunciation of force, or by grand gestures. It must be achieved by painstaking, lengthy and determined negotiation — infused by the realization that the old game of zero-sum is played out. Nobody is winning.

(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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