As violent mobs shouting Islamist slogans rampaged against U.S. diplomats across the Middle East and Southeast Asia in the weeks following the fatal Sept. 11, 2012 attack on U.S. officials in Libya, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw a chance to kick the United States when it was down. He did it by expelling the U.S. Agency for International Development, whose work -- advising private groups on democracy, as it has done since the 1990s -- he evidently resented. For good measure, he just cancelled the longstanding Nunn-Lugar program of cooperation on destroying and securing old Soviet weapons of mass destruction. His message: Russia doesn't need any help from the Americans.
These moves by Putin are just the latest in a long string of affronts and rebuffs mocking U.S. President Barack Obama's hope that he could "reset" U.S.-Russian relations. The policy's very name implied that the strains in the relationship were largely America's fault -- that Obama had to rectify U.S. policy. He expected to turn Russia into a cooperative partner by showing greater humility and by accommodating Putin's sensibilities on Iran, ballistic missile defense, nuclear arms treaties, and other matters.
This Russia policy aligned with Obama's general approach to national security. For years, Obama and his national security team argued that, by and large, America's problems in the world resulted not from aggression or the ideological extremism of hostile actors abroad, but were the bitter fruit of America's history of bullying, selfishness and militarism, especially during the George W. Bush administration. They complained that America had long been acting like a rogue nation, arrogant in defying the rights of others, self-serving in defining its interests in national rather than global terms, and unilateralist in refusing to constrain itself to actions approved by multilateral institutions or endorsed by progressive commentators (the latter often refer to themselves as "the international community"). They contended that the United States should be humble, out of a due sense of shame, and should adopt a "doctrine of mea culpa."
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served Obama as the head of Policy Planning at the State Department, wrote a February 2008 Commonweal article called "Good Reasons to be Humble" in which she said that the United States "should make clear that our hubris ... has diminished us and led to tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths." Current White House adviser Samantha Power, while a Harvard University lecturer, wrote in the New Republic's March 3, 2003 issue: "Instituting a doctrine of mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors."
The Obama administration has had plenty of time to test its diplomatic theories. It was back in July 2009 that the president told the New Economic School in Moscow that the U.S.-Russian relationship required a reset. "There is," he said, "the 20th-century view that the United States and Russia are destined to be antagonists, and that a strong Russia or a strong America can only assert themselves in opposition to one another. And there is a 19th-century view that we are destined to vie for spheres of influence, and that great powers must forge competing blocs to balance one another." Obama called these assumptions mistaken, and added: "In 2009, a great power does not show strength by dominating or demonizing other countries."
What are we to make of this idea that the Obama presidency is a new era, in which the great powers will no longer behave as they have for centuries? Was the president offering this up as an observation of fact? Was it an apology? A promise? A sermon?
Did Obama intend to imply that powerful nations will no longer act selfishly or aggressively? Was he suggesting that his accession to power has transformed international affairs, consigning to history's dustbin the writings of Thucydides, the venerable Athenian historian who, roughly 2,300 years ago, observed that nations, like men, pursue what they perceive as their interests -- sometimes with judgment, sometimes without, and occasionally with tragic results. If so, we can expect Thucydides to have the last laugh.
Obama first spoke of "reset" less than 12 months after Russia invaded Georgia, a U.S. friend and partner. Soon after that, the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran began operations. As rebels tried to bring down the government of Syria's Bashar al-Assad in early 2011, Russia supplied the Syrian dictator with military equipment by sea. Reuters reports that Moscow sold Damascus $1 billion dollars of military hardware since the uprising began. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Russia in June 2012 against sending helicopters to assist the Syrian regime in its attacks against civilians and rebels. In August 2011, Putin, then the prime minister, accused the United States of living "like a parasite" on the world economy. At a May 2012 international missile defense conference in Moscow, Russia's top military officer Gen. Nikolai Makarov denounced U.S-NATO plans to build defenses against ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East. Referring to potential Eastern European sites for such defenses, General Makarov made a remarkable threat: "A decision to use destructive force pre-emptively will be taken if the situation worsens."