The recent speeches made by Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama at the 70th UN General Assembly clearly show that Russian and American leaders are once again locked in a global ideological confrontation of the type once witnessed during the Cold War.


U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin look towards one another during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York September 28, 2015. Photo: Reuters

The unusual excitement preceding Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to New York seemed fully understandable. This was the first time in ten years that the Russian leader had come to speak at the UN General Assembly and his first full-fledged meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis.

Moreover, there were hopes for overcoming the deadlock over Syria, as well as hopes for forming effective international mechanisms to confront the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) terrorists.

And yet, especially after all the scheduled meetings and performances had already taken place, it is hard to escape the feeling that most people are unwilling to believe that a pair of beautiful speeches and an hour and a half conversation behind closed doors can interrupt the course of history.

This indicates just how desperate the situation really is, and that there is an absence of any kind of real prospects for the normalization of international relations. All that is left is to hope for a miracle.

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Of course, in history, one can find examples of such “miracles.” Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his American counterpart Ronald Reagan began their dialogue in the mid-1980s, which quite quickly led to a significant reduction in international tensions.

However, the situation back then was quite different. The Soviet Union, clearly losing in its ideological and economic confrontation with the United States, was represented by a leader desiring to cut the Gordian knot of problems he had inherited from his predecessors.

In addition, both Gorbachev and Reagan were great idealists, who believed in the possibility of rapid change for the better, which enabled them to easily find a common language.

Obama and Putin, expounding at the UN General Assembly their views as to the main reasons behind current international problems and ways to solve them, are nothing like Reagan and Gorbachev. This also applies to the countries that they represent today – these are not the Soviet Union and the United States of the mid-1980s.

Russia, which Washington insists on classifying as a “regional power,” actually does lack the potential for “power projection,” which the U.S.S.R. possessed in its heyday. And bilateral agreements between the Russian and American presidents, on any issue whatsoever, will not be able to change overnight the vector of world development.

U.S. claims to world dominance, which current Russian propagandists are pointing to with even more fervor than their Soviet predecessors did, have been recently severely toned down as well. Obama’s foreign policy ideology and his approaches to solving the world’s problems have little to do with the political practices of previous American administrations.

Nevertheless, despite the obviousness of such an assertion, many people in Russia and abroad are still counting on a miracle, and are hoping that the challenges of the twenty-first century will be decided by politicians and great powers using old proven recipes.

In reality, we see that the U.S. and Russia are using the constantly growing pile of problems to support their own sense of righteousness, thus building a new ideological dualism, to replace the confrontation between communism and capitalism that perestroika swept away.

Obama vs. Putin

Mutual finger-pointing deepens ideological clash. Photo: AP / Reueters

Obama, in his speech, laid out the traditional American ideological postulates, and applied these to the current political situation. According to the U.S. president, the root of all evil is the absence of freedom and democracy, the seizing and holding of power by strong leaders who seek not only to suppress opposition within their own countries, but also to use the old proven ways of applying coercive pressure on their neighbors.

Among other things, Obama accused the “strong leaders” of undermining the ideals of the United Nations.

“There are those who argue that the ideals enshrined in the UN charter are unachievable or out of date – a legacy of a postwar era not suited to our own,” Obama said. “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.”

When one of the most famous of these “strong leaders” – Putin – came to the podium, he, also without naming names, immediately voiced the well-known thesis of “dominance by a single power and its disregard of UN institutions.”

This part of the speeches made by the Russian and the American presidents left everyone with an especially strong feeling of hopelessness: The two opponents accused each other of the same sins, and neither showed the slightest desire to repent for having committed them.

However, later on, Putin offered his own explanations for the Middle East and the Ukrainian crises, which had all the characteristics of a coherent ideological formulation. According to Putin, at issue here is not a lack of democracy, but the contempt of national sovereignty and legitimate authority. If not for outside interference, the legitimate governments (no matter if these were democratic or authoritarian) would have been able to carry out the necessary reforms, revolutions would not have occurred, and terrorists would not have filled the political vacuum.

Putin agreed that freedom is needed to achieve development – but, in his opinion, the source of this freedom does not come from the rights of the individual, but from state sovereignty. The Russian president has once again shown that he does not believe in the “universal values ​​of democracy,” which Obama called “self-evident”. For Putin, it is more important that each nation have the right to choose its own destiny.

“We are all different,” said Putin, as though directly objecting to Obama, when he said during his speech that, “The people of our United Nations are not as different as they are told.”

Such a sharp exchange of opinions between the Russian and American presidents has an entertaining component: In the end, it is a good thing, when a discussion is conducted at such a good intellectual level, and the parties seek weighty arguments, not lowering themselves to old propaganda clichés.

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Obama, as an experienced speaker with two presidential election campaigns under his belt, on the whole, managed in his speech to the General Assembly to present a more logically consistent and compelling ideological framework.

However, we can consider that Putin achieved success in the fact that he has managed, over the 15 years of his time in office, to move from “pinpoint” criticism of U.S. foreign policy, to a developed coherent ideological concept of “freedom, legitimacy and sovereignty.”

Implications of mutual finger-pointing

However, the trouble is that such an explicit postulation of ideological preferences by the leaders of the U.S. and Russia are not bringing us any closer to the normalization of Russian-American relations, or to resolving acute international crises.

In this new, more ideologically driven system of international relations, such figures as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the former president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, are being turned into highly symbolic figures. Their overthrow or preservation in power is not only an international political concern, but also an ideological issue.

Can we expect Putin to “surrender” Assad, or the United States to recognize the newly changed borders of Ukraine? Both of these are possible only if Russia and the United States turn down their ideological postulates, explicitly voiced at the UN General Assembly. However, to do this is much more difficult than simply taking a step back during backroom negotiations.

The results are disappointing: After the speeches were made at the General Assembly by the leaders of the U.S. and Russia, even though they emphatically sought to avoid making personal attacks, grounds for a compromise were not created, and the existing gap between them was only deepened, expanding the current political conflict by clearly expressing opposing ideological positions.

In such a situation, calls for the creation of a new anti-terrorist coalition, a diplomatic solution, as well as the assurances made by the parties as to the usefulness of negotiations – look like common “smokescreens” – created for public opinion, under the cover of which the White House and the Kremlin will continue to implement their former political strategies.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.