Introduction and rankings
No relationship of world leaders of the 21st century reaches the sheer scale of the animosity and importance between President Vladimir Putin and President Barack Obama. The reasons are vast, Putin has cultivated a cult of personality over the last 18 years and used religion to cement his power, Obama on the other hand was raised Unitarian Universalist and goes to a liberal Christian church, mentioning God in his speeches from time to time, but keeps his faith very personal. Putin has overseen a gross reduction of rights for LGBT people in Russia while Obama decided to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act in court and overturned Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The Supreme Court Justices he appointed decided that gay marriage would be the law of the land.
Russia and the United States are very different political cultures. My favorite index for ranking democracies is the Democracy Index because it has the most variables which are calculated from a wide variety of experts around the world. When it comes to the Democracy Index, America under Obama started at 8.22/10, and ended in 2016 with a score of 7.98/10. The main reason for this decline is Functioning of Government and Political Participation. I suspect this mostly has to do with Congress who refused to work with Obama on even the most fundamental and basic of all duties such as passing a budget. The image this sent the American people hurt our nation dearly, and the Republicans will hopefully pay this year for their behavior. Russia on the other hand has a score of 3.17/10, scoring poorly on every metric. America is ranked as a flawed democracy (which is from 6-8) and Russia is ranked as Authoritarian. We can get back up to a full democracy, but is going to take hard work.
Political experts in the United States are generally fairly certain that our votes are counted accurately. Political experts in Russia know the system is rigged. This is reflected in our Democracy Index scores.
Importance compared to other major International Relations
The relationship between the United States and Russia matters a lot, America has the second largest economy in the world (behind China due to the growth of their economy), and Russia has the 6th largest. The three between us are India, Japan, and Germany. China is our 3rd largest trading partner, India is a military ally of the United States, a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Japan is a Major Non-NATO ally, and Germany is a member of NATO.
During the Obama administration, both China and the United States worked hard to keep our relationship friendly despite major disputes and ideological differences. China has even cooperated with the United States some on North Korea, though not as much as we would like. Despite the United States officially once recognizing the Republic of China as the rightful government of all of China the People’s Republic of China and the United States are as friendly as possible. This is while China has an authoritarian rating with the Democracy Index and is ranked 176/180 on the Freedom of the Press Index, which keeps us from being closer. China also maintains fairly friendly relations with Russia. The American-Chinese relationship is exceedingly complex, and deserves an article of its own.
Russia is the largest country the United States has major diplomatic challenges with.
Differences in human rights in detail
When it comes to human rights this is where the differences between the United States come into full focus. The United States has some real challenges with the spying on Americans and our allies without their knowledge under the PATRIOT ACT, police brutality, and racism, which Russia has as well. But still, when a journalist is arrested in America it makes headlines, and in Russia it is practically normal. America is ranked as a satisfactory situation under the Press Freedom Index, Russia is ranked as a difficult situation. I can write publicly on Twitter that I think Trump is a total traitor who deserves to be arrested. His own staff while being in court can openly say that Trump told them to do illegal things, and that is not why they will be in jail for the rest of their lives, it will be because they actually did such things. It also significantly degrades Trump’s legitimacy and political power. This never happens in Russia. The case of Edward Snowden is unusual, particularly that he fled the country. Chelsea Manning was pardoned for a crime of releasing classified documents by the same administration which prosecuted her. America is very different from Russia. Obama is the polar opposite of Putin.
When it comes to gay rights, America’s highest court legalized gay marriage nationwide while gay men in Chechnya are being slaughtered.
There are prison camps in Russia where North Koreans are held, and the United States has the largest prison population in the world. This is probably the biggest similarity between the United States and Russia. This is however differs wildly state by state, ranging from less than 200 per 100,000 inhabitants in Maine to over 900 per 100,000 in Louisiana. This is partly due to Federalism. This again deserves a series of articles by itself, it is a huge, wildly complex, and important topic.
There is one other index which I find comes close to the diversity of the Democracy Index, and that is the Social Progress Index. This also measures across a wide variety of factors and then averages them all together (with weighting) to get a clearer picture of how every country in the world is doing compared to every other. The USA does fairly well as the 18th country in the world with a score of 86.43 out of 100. We fall the most when it comes to the Tolerance and Inclusion dimension (which should surprise no one), and our Health and Wellness score is 75/100 (which again, should surprise no one). Russia is ranked 67th in the world, with a score of 67.17 out of 100. They are worst at personal rights and tolerance and inclusion. Both the USA and Russia do best at nutrition and access to basic medical care. This also is not surprising given the massive food surplus in the world today.
The important difference between the Social Progress Index and Democracy Index is that they are focusing on measuring different things. The Democracy Index is focused only on the freedom of the people, it is not based on economic data at all. Social Progress Index takes into account freedom, but also general material well being.
With such large differences between our human rights across most metrics it is no wonder the United States and Russia have a strained relationship.
When President Obama was in office, he had a foreign policy which was focused on expanding American influence in the world, building relationships with former adversaries, and building strong trading relationships to reduce the probability of war in the future. He and Secretary Clinton traveled to almost every country in the world.
|Secretary Clinton Travel Map|
|President Obama Travel Map|
War on Terror
Iraq was one of the most important relationships of his presidency since we were in a vicious war in the beginning of his term. He gave Iraq strict deadlines in which to get their country functional upon entering office, which allowed us to significantly draw down our presence there, and forcing the government to be more responsible than they were in the 2000s. It is still one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the rise of ISIS has put the country under an immense amount of pressure. We still have troops in Iraq and until there is significant nation building in the country that is unlikely to change.
In regards to Afghanistan, the war still has not ended as of 2018. President Obama significantly reduced the number of American troops in Afghanistan, but we have a continued presence. Afghanistan needs significant nation building, with institutions such as education since their literacy rate is only 38.2%, the government needs to make it easier to do business in the country, and the presence of Islamic radicals in Helmand province is an ongoing threat. Afghanistan has all of the factors to increase the probability of terrorism which need to be targeted. President Obama succeeded in taking out Osama bin Laden, but many pieces of nation building still need to occur.
The War on Terror is not going to end any time soon.
Middle East and Iran
The Middle East was a major source of tension between President Obama and Putin. With the growing Arab Spring, the possibility of Syria moving towards a democratic government would have removed Russia’s only Mediterranean military port, significantly reducing Russian influence in the region, leaving America with strong allies in practically every other country on the coast. This was unacceptable to Putin’s realpolitik policy, and instead of trying to keep Syria as an ally under a change of dictatorship made the decision to support Assad as much as possible for as long as possible. We ended up then with a proxy war against the three great powers of the Middle East. One is the United States of course, who supports the rebels, Putin of course supports Assad, and Saudi Arabian plutocrats support ISIS according to a memo sent by Secretary Clinton to President Obama. The war continue to move on, and this will be continued in the section on Trump’s Presidency.
Iran is the other major conflict between Putin and Obama in the Islamic World. After the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the United States had very poor relations with the Iranian government until the zenith of President Obama’s term. After years of economic isolation from two the of the world’s largest economies, the President and the European Union went to Iran to get them to accept international nuclear inspectors and stop building a nuclear bomb. This deal succeeded, Iran signed, and sanctions were lifted. This was a major blow to both Saudi Arabia and to Russia. Iran and Syria had been Russia’s two major allies in the region after the fall of Saddam Hussein (who had support of the Soviets for decades) and they had both been isolated from the United States. Bringing them both to a place where they can cooperate with both Russia and the United States would mean that Russia wouldn’t be their sole military partner.
Losing both allies in the Middle East would have made Russian military power in the region diminish significantly. While the United States has a mixed record on our alliances, we have major democracies like Canada, all of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Australia, etc. etc., we also have allies like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel, and more with problematic human rights accords, who maintain power through force.
Russia has no such allies. There is no country in the world which has a strong democracy and a strong economy which has a military alliance with Russia. In this way, the closest alliances of both countries mirror that of their closest partner. America’s most important alliances are all democracies, Russia’s are all dictatorships, and the list is short. The list of countries which have significantly closer relations to Russia than the United States are Belarus, Syria, Iran, Kazakhstan, North Korea, and Uzbekistan. None of these countries are full democracies, and are all seriously corrupt. They all maintain power by crushing all dissent with an iron fist. This strategy does work in the short term, because Russia has military alliances with all of them, but they survive by keeping the people down. As soon as the people of these countries have a voice, it usually ends up like a deja vu from 1989-1991 once again, and they choose to not be friendly with their former overlord.
For Putin this has a major historical and geographical dimension. Despite having a low GDP per capita, and no good port access, Russia was one of two dominant powers in the world for half of the 20th century. After the people got a voice across Eastern Europe that is no longer the case. The crash has been incredible, and Putin is seeing his iron fist policy merely push countries further into the European Union. Ironically, the growth of the European Union might not have been so fast in the 2000s if Putin hadn’t scared them all away. But Realpolitik is the only lens which he can see the world through. He fully believes there cannot be mutual gains. On top of this problem, Russia has a terrible economy based on natural resources despite having a highly educated population. Despite a literacy rate of almost 100%, Russia is a lower middle income country with their only good port being Vladivostok, a rather small city as far from the capital as possible on the Sea of Japan. Murmansk is iced in for half the year, ships from St. Petersburg has to go through Danish (NATO) waters to go anywhere, and Sochi is not very small and any ships have to go through the Strait of Hormuz (NATO) to get to the Mediterranean, where almost every country on the northern shore is once again a member of NATO. Watching the former colonies of his country ally themselves with the United States and choose to not be allied with Russia at all is a sign of the further fall of Russia into geopolitical obscurity.
Obama’s making peace with Iran, further projecting American geopolitical influence right into the heart of what used to be solid Russian territory is a throwback to the end of the USSR when Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan countered the Soviet expansion with the Mujahideen (Taliban), which was the beginning of the end for Communism. Losing not just all of Eastern Europe but also their only two allies in the Middle East, with no prospects for new alliances anywhere in the world makes Putin scared. This is the main reason he retaliated in 2015-2016.
On top of everything else, President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act with bipartisan approval. Sergei Magnitsky had been investigating corruption in Russia for over a few years and had been arrested, being (definitely wrongly) accused of committing fraud himself. He was beaten in the prison he was being held in while he suffered from cancer, for which he received no treatment. He died in 2009. Bill Browder went to Congress to get support and convinced Senators John McCain (R – AZ) and Benjamin Cardin (D – MD) to cosponsor it, after which it passed easily.
- Democracy Index, eiu.com
- Wikipedia for statistics, maps, and membership lists of IOs.
- Years of studying the topic, and this is just a blog post.
- Social Progress Index: https://www.socialprogressindex.com/
- IPSOS Ranking of Presidents: https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/2017-01/Obama_and_Trump_Slides.pdf
- White House announcement on Brexit: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/blog/2016/06/24/president-obama-uk-decision-leave-european-union