Obama is a pragmatic idealist (interview with Brian Whitmore)

Obama is a pragmatic idealist (interview with Brian Whitmore)

Brian Whitmore is a former correspondent for the Boston Globe and the Moscow Times. At the moment he is a senior correspondent for Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty. The following is an abridged translation of a Russian-language interview published by Prague Watchdog.

Prague Watchdog: Do you have any idea of the degree to which Obama or his entourage are interested in the Caucasus, in events in the North and South Caucasus?

B. W.: Well, of course Obama has made some important statements on the situation in Georgia. He has said that its independence and territorial integrity must be preserved. He has supported Georgia’s desire to join NATO. The people around him, especially Vice President-elect Biden, are familiar with the situation in the region. Biden has repeatedly stressed need for the observance of human rights in the Caucasus. Back at the start of the second Chechen war he cosponsored a draft resolution on that topic.

PW: That's interesting. Obama is expected to try to end the wars that the U.S. is currently engaged in. Isn’t it likely that political methods of settlement will replace coercive measures?

B. W.: I think that military means will only be used as a last resort. Obama has said on many occasions that he won’t rule out the possibility of using force, but will use it only when all other options have been exhausted. However, he has also said, somewhat controversially, that when we know Bin Laden’s whereabouts we’ll take him out. I don’t know why that statement caused such a stir. Any American president could have made it. But in general, his strategy will increasingly be based on soft power ...

PW: A more European approach?

B. W.: It’s similar to the European one, but with a strong American accent.

PW: The human rights situation in Russia isn’t getting any better. For quite a long time now the U.S. administration has taken a rather passive approach to developments in Chechnya. That was also the case during the Clinton administration. Are there grounds for hoping that this situation may somehow change?

B. W.: For a start, Chechnya is an integral part of Russia and Russia is responsible for everything that happens there. As regards the general policy towards Russia, as far as I can see Obama’s approach will resemble Reagan’s strategy during his second term. as president.

Let me explain what that means. Reagan was constantly signing treaties on nuclear weapons, the two countries organized summits on global issues, made big power deals with each other, so to speak. And Russia is really keen on that. Russia starts to feel that it’s indispensable, that it matters because it’s entering into a seemingly equal partnership with a superpower. It makes it feel that it’s a superpower, too.

When this process resumes, Obama will have a chance to play on Russia’s sense of pride and draw it into a discussion of issues that will include the problem of democracy and human rights violations.

What results have the last eight years produced? There have been personal contacts between Putin and Bush, there’s been a so-called “friendship”. But what did we get out of this – Russia and America? Nothing. As I understand it, the Obama team’s approach is going to be based on the principle that we’ll cooperate with Russia while at the same time defending our interests and values. Diplomacy is not the same as capitulation.

PW: Would it be right to say that the Bush administration has excluded the subject of human rights violations from its priorities?

B. W.: I don’t completely agree. Bush has also supported the Russian opposition, and by the way has been a very tough critic of Belarus and constantly raised the issue of political prisoners with it. With Russia that’s been much more difficult, as we’ve needed different things there: a certain amount of synchronized action on Iran, North Korea, at one time Iraq, Afghanistan, the Middle East.

PW: Well, that just means that pragmatic interests have gained the upper hand ...

B. W.: Unfortunately Russia has some strong positions in this world, it has power. It also has a certain amount of immunity.

PW: The USSR had a much greater immunity, and yet Carter didn’t hesitate to criticize the Soviet leaders precisely for human rights violations.

B. W.: That was a different era – the “cold war”. We criticized them, and they us. In fact, Carter became the first head of state to make "human rights" the axis of his foreign policy doctrine. And that tradition continues to this day. It’s a kind of inheritance that America received from him.

Every president since Carter has had to take advantage of this topic. Reagan used to talk about human rights simply in order to criticize the Soviet Union. After the end of the cold war, Clinton talked of the need to protect human rights around the world. At one time Carter spoke out very actively about human rights violations in the Soviet Union, but it didn’t always have much effect on our friends.

So today each new president is obliged to find some sort of compromise, a kind of consensus between the two strands of our foreign policy which have always existed and always will.

I would call Obama a pragmatic idealist. He has a pragmatic approach. He doesn’t like to stand with his arms folded, as if to say: "I’m not going to talk to you." That’s not really his style. He is always ready to talk, but talk doesn’t mean surrender. 

The photograph is borrowed from the website

(Translation by DM)


 · Realpolitik as the matrix of contemporary fascism (PW, 6.9.2008)
 · The Russian-Chechen conflict after September 11, 2001 (PW, 2.8.2002)



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