Russia and the Perils of Personal Diplomacy


Jul 6, 2009

This commentary originally appeared on on July 6, 2009.

National Interests First

As President Obama takes part in his first U.S.-Russian summit, a good deal of media attention has focused on whether he will be able to establish good personal relations with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. The preoccupation with personal relations between these two countries has a long tradition. But it has rarely proved successful.

Franklin D. Roosevelt hoped that his personal relationship with "Uncle Joe" — as he referred privately to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin — would enable him to establish a new postwar political order based on the United Nations and U.S.-Soviet co-operation. However, these hopes quickly began to dissipate as Stalin ruthlessly sought to establish pro-Soviet puppet governments throughout Eastern Europe in violation of the agreements reached at Yalta in February 1945.

Similarly, John F. Kennedy found that the boyish good looks and personal charm that helped him capture the 1960 presidential election were of little consequence in dealing with Nikita Khrushchev. At the first summit meeting in Vienna in 1961, Kennedy was subjected to a tongue-lashing by Khrushchev that left the young, inexperienced U.S. president reeling and set the stage for the outbreak of crises over Berlin and Cuba.

Bill Clinton sought to develop a close personal relationship with Boris Yeltsin in an attempt to wheedle important concessions, particularly regarding NATO enlargement. The Clinton charm offensive was largely successful — as long as Yeltsin remained in the United States. However, as soon as he returned to Moscow, Yeltsin began to backtrack on many agreements made in the United States, leaving American officials angry and frustrated.

George W. Bush announced after his first summit with Vladimir Putin in Slovenia that he had looked into Putin's soul and had concluded that Putin could be trusted. The cozy personal relationship, however, did not deter Putin from reversing many of Yeltsin's most important democratic reforms and invading Georgia. Indeed, by the end of the Bush administration U.S.-Russian relations had reached their lowest point in decades.

In short, Russian policy is driven by national interests, not personal relations. Close personal ties are useful. But they cannot overcome deep-seated political and strategic differences. Obama would do well to remember this in Moscow.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation. He served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration.

This op-ed was part of The New York Times "Room for Debate" commentary.

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