By: Kylie Mason
“A Plea for Caution From Russia” is the Op-Ed that Russian President Vladimir Putin published in the New York Times. This was not an article or memo to President Obama or the American diplomatic community, but a direct communication channel to the American public. Without delving too deep into history, it is simple to discern that the nature of the relationship between the former Cold War rivals is currently one of a special situation that is the product of a strategic friendship now between the presidents. The article from President Putin is opening up the relationship from between himself and President Obama to include the American people. Is Putin trying to change the way diplomatic decisions and procedures are carried out, or is he just exciting the American public opinion on their leadership?
The relationship between President Obama and President Putin is one of publicity smiles. Yet as articles and legislation can show, there is an undercurrent of tension that has been growing stronger in recent years. With the introduction of a greater degree of tension in Syria, Edward Snowden taking refuge in Moscow, and other antagonistic legislation between the U.S. and Russia, the question of whether or not to change the essence of the American friendship with the Russian Federation has become more and more of an international question. With President Obama’s speech on Syria, he called for the American people to get behind his choice to deter the Syrian government’s use of chemical weapons. With Russia’s close ties to the Syrian government, Obama’s call to action was a possible move that would be implicitly anti-Russian. With tensions running high, Putin published an Op-Ed in the New York Times (on a day that the US is reminded of the 9/11 terrorist attacks) calling for non-violent problem-solving. Instead of a diplomatic conference with President Obama, Putin decided to place his—and effectively Russia’s—argument to the American public and the world on how to differently conceptualize the Syrian case.
Since most Americans felt that the U.S. should not intervene in Syria, Putin’s case might have seemed more a confirmation of public opinion rather than a major variable in changing it. The true question lies in if leaders are able to influence the public opinion of a foreign country enough to force the domestic government of a said country to act differently. Diplomacy might be a sport only played by the diplomatic community, yet Putin’s article is a move to change the rules by bringing in a public audience.
World leaders using popular newspapers to speak directly to foreign populations indicates that the nature of discourse in the international community is changing. The question we must ask ourselves is: Did the article written by Putin change the way that the U.S. citizens think about their own leaders or the international actions? Ultimately, the answer is no. There was some speculation that Putin was trying to take the opportunity to use the American public to advance Russian interests in the world, and yet even in the same publications about the motivation behind Putin’s article, the authors are skeptical of the agency given to the public that would affect the diplomatic community. Little has proven the actual manifestation of public action upon American governmental policy. President Obama ceded his plan for intervention to the processes of government; the American government secured a deal with the Russian government through diplomacy meaning that the normal pathways to international action were respected. This was not a change of policy because of public outcry.
By going around the American diplomatic community, Putin tried to incorporate the American public into the special relationship between the two countries. Effectively, this was an attempt to make the friendship between himself and President Obama now an open relationship with the American people. But though Putin seeks to change public opinion enough to sway the American diplomatic actors, the American people as of now have yet to be a pivotal actor in that relationship.
The availability of information to the public in this digital age may increase public awareness of world events, perhaps in the near future allowing citizens’ understandings to affect how their leader will act. Public opinion could have a far more profound effect upon leaders’ actions on the international stage, leading it to become an agent of action itself. For now though, American public opinion merely passes judgment without truly shaping policy. President Obama and Russian President Putin remain the true actors on the international stage as the rest of the public watches benignly in the audience.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Global Politics Student Organization.