Saturday, October 13, 2007

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A possible utility of being rude

Earlier this month I argued in Newsweek that rising powers were hurting themselves by acting rudely on the global stage.

It's worth pointing out possible contradictory data on this point, however, so let's turn to Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker's story in the New York Times on a possible counterexample:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia sharply upbraided the visiting American secretaries of state and defense on Friday as highly anticipated negotiations produced no specific accords to resolve growing disagreements over missile defense and other security issues.

Mr. Putin followed a pattern of recent criticisms of American policy, whether speaking in Moscow, Munich or even Maine, and he shaped the initial public tone on Friday when he greeted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at his residence outside Moscow with a derisive lecture in front of the television cameras.

Mr. Putin dismissed with sarcasm the American plan to build components of a missile defense system in formerly Communist nations of Central Europe as a reaction to a threat that had not yet materialized.

“Of course, we can some time in the future decide that some antimissile defense should be established somewhere on the moon,” Mr. Putin said, “but before we reach such an arrangement we will lose an opportunity of fixing some particular arrangements between us.”

However, American officials said things had been different behind the scenes, a view not completely contradicted by Russian negotiators....

Mr. Putin often veers from the diplomatic language typical of such high-level meetings. On Friday, meeting with the Americans at his residence in Novo-Ogaryovo, outside of Moscow, the outwardly warm interactions that once marked relations, at least between the countries’ two leaders, had clearly chilled in public.

Mr. Putin seemed to catch Mr. Gates and Ms. Rice off guard with his remarks, since no public statements were planned in advance.

Mr. Putin, though, arrived with notes and spent eight minutes welcoming the opportunity to talk about where Russia strongly disagreed with the Bush administration.

His remarks seemed to anger Ms. Rice, though Mr. Gates reacted impassively.

Mr. Putin kept the Americans waiting 40 minutes before he appeared. But Mr. Putin hardly rushed his guests away, as the private meeting went far longer than scheduled.

The implication in the story is that maybe -- maybe -- Putin is acting rudely in public because that gives him the leeway to be serious in private negotiations.

In the long run, however, this can only work if Putin can frame the outcome of the negotiations as representing a victory for Russia. So I'm not really convinced about the long-term viability of being obnoxious in a public forum. But this possibility is certainly worth a blog post.

posted by Dan on 10.13.07 at 09:37 AM


First off, Putin is totally correct when he attacks this project. Not only are the locations of the rocket launchers 100% political, the entire project itself is a completely useless waste of american tax payer money (there is no real threat that it will defend against, and it doesn't even work if there was a threat). So I think it is perfectly fair for him point those things out in public, and harshly (as the USA is threatening Russia traditional role in the region too).

Behind the scenes the discussions are more nuanced probably because the USA has more power 1 on 1. In public Putin has the favor of world opinion on his side, while in private the Americans can use their power to their advantage (as doing so in public would be bad for their image).

In Putin's case, his arguments against the plan will not work no matter the strategy he decides to use because USA doesn't care much about his view. But at least he can make public that he is not a puppet state, which almost every one of the world's non-American people appreciate.

posted by: Joe M. on 10.13.07 at 09:37 AM [permalink]

Shouldn't we differentiate between being rude and being sarcastic? Otherwise I've been terribly rude for a long time.

posted by: Greg Weeks on 10.13.07 at 09:37 AM [permalink]

Vladimir Putin is hardly the first Russian to take a different tone in public than in private, or to keep foreign diplomatic interlocutors waiting without explanation, or to extend negotiating sessions without notice. Brehznev, for example, did these things all the time.

The nostalgia for the Soviet past that is such a large part of Putin's contribution to the Russian present makes the assumption that his behavior and tactics will necessarily differ much from those of Soviet leaders highly questionable.

posted by: Zathras on 10.13.07 at 09:37 AM [permalink]

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