Once upon a time, the news that a planned summit between Washington and Moscow had been called off would have sent a small shudder of anxiety through the world’s chancelleries. No longer. President Barack Obama’s decision not to hold talks with Vladimir Putin next month was both inevitable and eminently sensible.
The White House, of course, has not escaped criticism from some quarters at home. The US and the Soviet Union managed to hold summits even during the depths of the Cold War, it has been noted, when the divide separating the rival superpowers was even greater. So why could not Mr Obama, who used to set such store by a “reset” in relations with Russia, have gone through with the September summit, notwithstanding current problems?
But that historical comparison is false. The Cold War ended almost 22 years ago, and the Soviet Union lost. But as Mr Obama pointed out this week, Mr Putin acts as if it continues, almost reflexively taking the opposite point of view to Washington on every problem of the moment. Such a nationalistic approach may play well to a domestic audience. The Russian President, however, appears not to have noticed how much the world has changed since 25 December 1991, when the red flag with the hammer and sickle was hauled down from the Kremlin towers for the last time.
Today, military might and the size of a country’s nuclear arsenal count far less than its economic prowess, its entrepreneurialism, competitiveness and centrality to the global trading system. America has remained the lone military superpower largely by default. Neither the EU nor China has the desire to be able to send fleets and armies to the opposite ends of the earth. Putin’s Russia would like to, but no longer has the capacity.
Economically, it is a mid-sized power, no higher than eighth on most ranking lists, with a GDP that is barely a 10th of that of the US. In Cold War times, the discrepancy between the dismal consumer economy and the vast military budget saw the Soviet Union described as “Upper Volta [now Burkina Faso] with missiles”. The fashionable jibe these days involves another West African nation. “Nigeria with snow” Russia has been called, a reference to its corruption, its scant respect for the rule of law and its dependence on raw materials, above all oil and gas.
With the Cold War over, Russia retains its ability to obstruct, but simply doesn’t matter as it did before. Had the summit gone ahead, Mr Obama would have been on a hiding to nothing. Such meetings are not spontaneous, ad hoc occasions. They are carefully choreographed and prepared; usually communiqués are worked out well in advance. But right now, apart from the evident personal dislike between the two men, the differences appear unbridgeable – on Syria, missile defence and Mr Putin’s internal repression, to name but three issues. Moscow’s granting of asylum to the NSA leaker Edward Snowden was merely the last straw. Had the US President gone to Moscow and returned empty-handed, as was all but certain, he would have been pilloried at home by Republicans as weak and over-trusting.
As it is, high-level contacts continue, as shown by yesterday’s talks in Washington DC between the foreign and defence ministers of both countries. The atmosphere is likely to have been chilly, but Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, has rarely been an easy bedfellow. Over the past 70 years, bilateral relations have hit equal lows, and at moments when the stakes were much higher. This low too will pass, but perhaps not until Mr Putin departs the stage.