At the United Nations General Assembly last week US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin delivered two very similar addresses with two very different notions of what constitutes a desirable global order, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
As might have been expected, the speeches proved uninspiring and contained little new information. It was the disparity in the values set out by the two leaders that provided for the stark contrast.
President Obama sought to persuade the assembly that American values were good for all. He used the framework of these values to define and justify America’s mission in the world. This mission has led Mr Obama – who began his presidency with a solemn promise to end America’s foreign wars – to become a president engaging US forces in new conflicts in distant lands.
The main point Mr Obama wanted to drive home was this: the US is interested first and foremost in promoting stability – through democracy and other values, and through free trade. To prove his claim, the US president pointed out that his country has few economic interests in Ukraine, but was nevertheless committed to its freedom.
President Putin, in contrast, focused his speech on the issue of non-interference. He claimed that Washington’s values-based interference in other countries’ affairs has been nothing more than power politics in disguise. In a misplaced analogy the Russian president compared the West’s missionary approach to the global order with the Soviet Union’s attempts to spark a global Communist revolution. His point appeared to be that the American approach was doomed to fail, just as the Soviet strategy had.
Most tellingly, however, Mr Putin began with a remark that was enough to make one’s skin crawl. After pointing out that the basic framework for the UN was established at the 1944 Yalta conference between Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, the Russian leader praised the global order that resulted from that meeting as an example of a successful geopolitical framework.
The problem is, of course, that for millions of Europeans the Yalta deal invokes bitter memories. The agreement allowed the Soviet Union to draw its infamous Iron Curtain across the centre of Europe at the conclusion of World War II. The unfortunate nations that lay to the east of its barbed wire and minefields found themselves enslaved for the next 45 years under Kremlin-controlled regimes.
Mr Putin’s approving reference to the hideous Yalta deal goes a long way towards explaining the Kremlin’s resentment of Nato’s presence in Central Europe and its role in Ukraine.
To his credit, President Putin kept his speech shorter than President Obama’s. But the addresses were similar in that they set out the two leaders’ fundamental views of the world. The troubling part is that there is little common ground between these perspectives, which leave hardly any room for sustainable solutions – just as after Yalta.
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