So the question of "why bother" was already hanging in the Beltway's sweltering summer air before Snowden decided that Moscow would be good spot to cool his heels. Russia's decision to grant him temporary asylum was just the final nail in the coffin. But the Snowden episode is perhaps more important because it throws into relief the deep-seated pathologies of U.S.-Russia relations. His extended stay in Russia was an outcome that neither government wanted -- whatever dividends Snowden's laptops provided Russian intelligence services aside -- but both governments took steps that made it inevitable. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.
The Snowden affair confirmed that both Moscow and Washington are incapable of genuine partnership on politically charged matters. That would require taking into account the peculiarities of the other's circumstances, accommodating those when possible, and seeking common ground -- rather than making demands and expecting concessions. Although the Obama administration's private communications with the Russian government were likely much more nuanced, Washington's collective response to Snowden's initial appearance in Sheremetyevo was heard in Moscow as a petulant ultimatum. The more that voices from inside the Beltway made demands on the Kremlin, the harder it became for Moscow to do anything but flip Washington the bird. Doing otherwise would have been tantamount to caving in to the United States -- as politically damaging in Moscow as the reverse would be in Washington.
The irony was that Putin believed he had found a way out -- conditioning Snowden's stay on a pledge not to harm U.S. interests. From his perspective, this was a real concession, even though it seemed ludicrous in Washington. So there was genuine surprise in Moscow when Washington did what anyone here could have told the Russians that it would: ridicule, reject, or ignore the move. Indeed, some saw the offer as Putin having a laugh at Obama's expense. This mutual tone-deafness might seem like material for study in cross-cultural communication -- if only the consequences weren't so serious.
The Snowden affair also exposes the mutual hostility of large swaths of the national security establishment in both countries. Published accounts have alleged that it was the Russian intelligence services' instinct to reject any and all U.S. requests -- in this case, to block the former NSA contractor from boarding flights, an entreaty allegedly made of all countries to which Snowden could have flown directly from Hong Kong -- that explains why Snowden ended up in Moscow. The underlying mutual suspicion was demonstrated again in the early July grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales's plane: Clearly, the United States believed that Russian intelligence services could have surreptitiously ferreted Snowden onto the plane in the first place.
Finally, Washington's snickering about the irony of Snowden's "choice" of Russia demonstrates the way in which perceptions about Russia's troubled post-Soviet political transition often hamper bilateral ties. Yes, the Russian government, especially in the last two years, has often cracked down on freedom of expression and imposed limits on civil society. But Russia does not espouse an ideology that is inimical to U.S. civic values in the way that the Soviet Union did. Russian politics and society are still in a state of transformation after 75 years of Soviet communism. The end point remains unknown, and the path has not been linear. But ridicule and finger wagging from Washington are unlikely to nudge it in the right direction.
On the Jay Leno show on August 6, Obama hinted at the next day's news: "There have been times where [the Russians] slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality," he said. "And what I consistently say to them, and what I say to President Putin, is: That's the past and we've got to think about the future, and there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to cooperate more effectively than we do." Obama is certainly right that the two countries should be thinking about the future. But there are reasons -- rooted in the past, for sure, but real reasons nonetheless -- why the U.S. and Russia do not cooperate more effectively. Until and unless both sides make a serious joint effort to address the underlying pathologies in the relationship -- something way beyond Obama's reset -- setbacks like the summit cancellation will be inevitable.