An NBC report about this week’s Asian economic summit in Beijing had a shot of the various leaders walking together like a crowd of students on their way to a third-period history class. Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping were in front, talking and smiling. President Obama was off to the side and back a few steps.
The random placement probably meant nothing. Still, life often mimics high school and it sure looked as if Obama were being shunned by the cool kids.
Now that Democrats have been hammered in the midterm congressional elections and the blame has fallen on Obama, the usual gaggle of pundits is speculating that world leaders will perceive the president as significantly weakened. As if to confirm this, Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the lower house of the Russian parliament, told the Tass news agency that Obama has fallen “from the president of hope to the president of disappointment.” Pushkov’s pal, Putin, must be smiling at that thought, the class bully that he is.
Putin is the bad kid who is always in trouble with the principal but remains defiant. In the face of international sanctions meant to punish him for his incursions into Ukraine, he has skipped out of planning for an upcoming international summit aimed at controlling the spread of nuclear materials to terrorists. Instead, he has sent his navy to test a new intercontinental ballistic missile with the capacity to delivery 10 nuclear warheads. Not having to worry about elections himself, Putin can play the tough guy and scoff at his lame-duck counterpart in the United States.
Obama is the smart, well-behaved lad in the global high school that punks love to pick on. As president, he’s tried for six years to be a rational-minded conciliator. He wants his opponents, both foreign and domestic, to simmer down, dispense with threats and do the logical thing. Apparently -- from the bully who brazenly stole Crimea to the wild bunch who shut down the federal government -- everyone but him thinks that’s a lame idea.
Arizona Sen. John McCain, likely the next chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is among the most vocal of the Republican critics who think Obama’s foreign policy has been too timid. During his days at the U.S. Naval Academy McCain was constantly on the edge of getting tossed out for bad grades and defiant behavior. You can bet if McCain had won the White House in 2008, he would have brought some of that cocky recklessness to the job. He was, after all, the candidate who, on the campaign trail in 2007, shocked a lot of people by singing his own version of an old Beach Boys tune: “Bomb, bomb, bomb -- bomb, bomb Iran.”
It’s hard to imagine Obama pulling such a stunt, but recklessness, rather than prudence, just might be what many voters admire and what authoritarian leaders respond to.
When he was president, Richard Nixon, one of the most calculating leaders of his time, purposely tried to make his foreign adversaries believe that he was unhinged and capable of self-destructive actions, up to and including nuclear war. In October 1969, intent on convincing the Soviets and the North Vietnamese that a lunatic was loose in the White House, Nixon put the U.S. military on full alert and ordered bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons to probe the edges of Russian airspace for three days.
Nixon’s fake craziness -- what he privately called his “madman theory” -- may have had a lasting effect in Moscow. A decade later when Ronald Reagan first took up residence in the White House, the Soviets were so sure the new president was dangerously irrational that they put their own forces on high alert expecting an imminent nuclear attack.
It’s doubtful anyone worries about Obama doing anything crazy. Contrary to what Nixon believed, sanity should be a good thing, right? Maybe, but is Obama’s caution also why the Russians and, perhaps, the Chinese, have no compunction about defying him?
It’s a tough, crazy world out there and, though we wish humanity would grow up a little, it still seems as if we are stuck playing the foolish games of high school on a global scale.