September was a fascinating month for international politics played out on a media stage. In particular, three influential politicians published op-eds in newspapers: Russian President Vladimir Putin in the New York Times on September 11; US Senator John McCain in Pravda.ru on September 19, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in The Washington Post on September 20. While many experts analyzed and attempted to explain these editorials, I was particularly struck by the tensions between the motivations and content of these editorials and the importance of the messages they present.
First, the motivations of the writers stood in tension with the importance of their message. Both President Putin’s and President Rouhani’s editorials were clearly motivated by the desire to influence the American public and the hope that this appeal might oblige President Obama to engage their governments. This motivation is quite ironic because both leaders represent countries that only superficially acknowledge their publics. While leaders in the United States are bound to public opinion through regularly occurring elections, Russia and Iran both have a history of limiting voters’ choices and manipulating elections. As a result, in Russia and Iran, public opinion only has a superficial influence on policy choices. Yet, public opinion is precisely the tool these leaders are attempting to activate to influence US policymakers’ choices. These leaders’ motivation stands in sharp contrast with how they rule in their own countries.
McCain’s editorial, which presents a nefarious picture of the Russian government to the Russian public, was motivated primarily by the need to demonstrate the hypocrisy in Putin’s editorial. McCain’s editorial identified well-known problems in Russia—problems that clearly undermine the message of Putin’s editorial. But unlike the other two, McCain didn’t clearly connect his criticisms with policy objectives or any items that the Russian public can change. This lack of focus undermined his effectiveness.
There was also tension between the content of the articles and the importance of the message. To varying degrees, all three editorials displayed a lack of sincerity. For example, Putin’s appeal to the rule of law was absurd considering the dictatorship of law in the Russian system. Since Putin came to power in 2000, scholars have consistently demonstrated that his administration uses the law as a tool to selectively punish his enemies and benefit his personal interests. Thus, Putin’s claim that “the law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not,” was quite preposterous considering his own administration’s lack of respect for the rule of law.
McCain’s editorial similarly displayed a lack of sincerity. It was written in the tone of a politician trying to pit his campaign against the campaign of a rival politician. For example, in his closing remarks, McCain claimed, “President Putin doesn’t believe in these values [democratic values for example] because he doesn’t believe in you…I do believe in you.” Even if these claims are a sincere effort to appeal to the Russian public, they are misplaced. It is arguably just as inappropriate for McCain to write an editorial to the Russian public that places him on moral high-ground compared to the Russian president as it was for the Russian president to write an editorial appealing to the American public when he does not consider the voice of his own public.
President Rouhani is new to Iran’s presidency and has presented himself as an advocate for change both within Iran and concerning Iran’s relationship to other countries. Rouhani has a well-established track record both within Iran and as a player in Iranian foreign policy initiatives as the lead negotiator on nuclear issues from 2003-2005. The two-pronged approach he highlighted in the editorial, which emphasized both constructive dialogue and addressed overarching injustices, ignored Iran’s history of financially and logistically supported organizations that undermine constructive and effective negotiations with the United States. It also masked the fact that Rouhani, while the face of Iranian foreign policy, does not have the autonomy to negotiate with the United States without ongoing guidance from religious authorities in the Iranian government.
Despite these inconsistencies, we can learn a lot from the messages in these editorials. Putin rightly highlighted that with US foreign policy initiatives, sometimes those who are harmed are the very people the US government desires to protect. In fact, Putin accurately described the primary tension in the US government’s internal negotiations over what to do about the Syrian government’s crimes: how do we punish and prevent crimes without further perpetuating the atrocities? Military action taken to punish the Syrian government would almost certainly also hurt the citizens of Syria. This is a vital tension that we must acknowledge, and attempt to negotiate as we move forward in any action against Syria.
McCain clearly laid out the ongoing problem in the Russian Federation—a lack of support for basic political processes that are foundational to a democratic government. These political processes are the key building blocks of the system that Putin claims to espouse. Putin’s third term as president, while constitutional, demonstrated the fragile nature of Russia’s political institutions and their susceptibility to manipulation by those in power. Our leaders must continue to hold him accountable to transparency in his political system when negotiating with him over international issues.
Finally, Rouhani highlighted an inherent difficulty in foreign policy creation—the tendency to put out fires instead of building a strong foundation for the future. US foreign policy initiatives have often been criticized as being knee-jerk reactions that respond instead of initiate change. It is vital that those of us with influence in the political process think of ways to bring this long-term vision into policy debates.
It is easy to get distracted by the multiple levels of hypocrisy represented in the high-level op-ed traffic last month. But it is worthwhile to consider the message in these editorials, even if the authors do not practice their own words. The authors demonstrate a tension that should matter to Christians—the tension between good intentions and unintended consequences. Or stated differently, the tension between national interest and the mandate to care for others. It is not enough to demand that the US government is responsible for alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people; we also must recognize the potential that intervention could have prohibitively high costs for the Syrian people instead of ending the conflict. Though these tensions make us uncomfortable and even ashamed at our inability to adequately solve problems, they are also important avenues for discussion, influence, and reconciliation. These tensions are springboards for action, advocacy, and change.
-Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption. She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.