It’s the diplomatic equivalent of the proverbial spoiled child picking up the ball and walking off in a huff – because the others “won’t play by my rules”.
After weeks of threatening to cancel the G20 one-to-one meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, the White House has finally gone into full temper tantrum mode. The day after US President Barack Obama appeared on a TV chat show earlier this week complaining about Putin “slipping into Cold War mentality”, the White House announced that the planned bilateral meeting between the two leaders will not now be taking place.
Obama and Putin were scheduled to have one-on-one discussions early next month in Moscow just days before the G20 summit in St Petersburg. The last time the two leaders met was on 17 June during the G9 conference held in Northern Ireland. That encounter was markedly frosty, largely because Putin rebuffed Obama and other Western leaders who had attempted to pressure the Russian president into cutting ties with the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
Since then, US-Russia relations have nosedived – largely at Washington’s insistence – with the emergence of the Snowden row. Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow on 23 June to escape an extradition bid by the US government to arraign him in Hong Kong. Snowden’s revelations of massive illegal spying and information gathering by the US National Security Agency have been making international headlines since early June when he first made his disclosures.
The US immediately began pressuring Russia to hand over Snowden to face charges of espionage. The two countries do not have an extradition treaty, but as Obama made clear during his TV chat show appearance this week, the US fully expected Russia to comply with its demands. Obama told his host, Jay Leno: “Even though we don’t have an extradition treaty with them [Russia], traditionally we have tried to respect if there’s a law breaker or alleged law breaker in their country, we evaluate it, and we try to work with them.”
For five weeks, Snowden was forced to live in a netherworld at Moscow’s international airport because Washington took the unprecedented step of revoking his passport. That meant the 30-year-old American could not travel on to Latin American where he originally planned to seek political asylum, and had to then apply for temporary sanctuary in Russia. Russian officials granted a one-year asylum last week and Snowden has since been able to leave the airport transit lounge for a relatively normalised life.
From the outset of Snowden’s arrival in Moscow, Putin had said matter-of-factly that Russia would not extradite the whistleblower. Russian officials calmly explained that they were obligated under international law to offer asylum to anyone seeking to avoid political persecution. Given the mistreatment of other American whistleblowers under the Obama administration, including US soldier and Wikileaks source, Bradley Manning, currently undergoing a court martial trial after years of solitary confinement, there are strong grounds to believe that Snowden would likewise face similar persecution, not to mention a prejudiced trial, if he were returned to the US.
By contrast, however, Washington has become increasingly petulant, even hysterical, in its demands to Russia. One week after arriving in Moscow, US secretary of state John Kerry said that Russia should be “calm and hand over” the fugitive. Before Russia’s official granting of asylum, US attorney general Eric Holder proffered the bizarre and somewhat desperate-sounding deal with Moscow that if it sent Snowden back to face prosecution that “he would not be tortured or face the death penalty”.
Prominent US senators have in recent weeks even called for the complete cancellation of the G20 summit in St Petersburg. Before the latest announcement of Obama snubbing his one-to-one meeting with Putin, White House spokesman Jay Carney had said the administration was “evaluating the utility” of that meeting – words that were intended as a slight to Putin’s authority.
Now the White House has finally shown its scornful hand by scrubbing the two leaders’ forthcoming discussions – a move that is widely seen as an unprecedented diplomatic blow.
Ironically, American Senator Charles Schumer, one of the most outspoken on Capitol Hill pushing for the G20 summit to be moved to a different country, said of the cancellation: “President Putin is acting like a school-yard bully and doesn’t deserve the respect a bilateral summit would have accorded him.” Senator Schumer found the apt metaphor all right, but applied it to the wrong person.
Even prior to the latest snub from Obama to Putin, Russian officials have voiced bewilderment at Washington’s foot stamping over the Snowden case.
Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Interfax news agency: “The US administration is bringing into question bilateral contact at the highest level. I think this is an absolute distortion of reality; it’s looking at the world in a crooked mirror,” adding that it was “unclear why the United States is blowing up the situation with Snowden”.
The conclusion is hard to miss: Washington at the highest levels is panicked by what further embarrassing revelations will emerge from Snowden. Snowden has been granted asylum by Russia on condition that he does not reveal any more damaging leaks about US illegal spying and other illicit covert US government conduct. But as the whistleblower has said he is no longer in control of the leaked information that he has already divulged to journalists. One of those journalists, Glenn Greenwald, disclosed that he is in possession of as many as 20,000 top-secret files furnished to him by Snowden from up to a month ago – way before his asylum conditions were set – and that he intends to go ahead with publishing the contents of those files in coming weeks.
Greenwald, who works for the British Guardian newspaper, has said that those classified files contain even more damaging information than has already been published with regard to unconstitutional practices of the US government, and its international lawlessness towards foreign governments, including supposed allies.
For the US authorities that prospect must be deeply unsettling. The massive surveillance programs already revealed have shown that the US agencies, such as the NSA and CIA, have been willfully violating the constitutional rights of American citizens. Not only have the rights of millions of Americans been violated, so too have those of citizens and governments all over the world.
Furthermore, Snowden’s disclosures have also shown that President Obama and senior officials at the NSA have been lying to the American Congress and people about the invasiveness of the surveillance. That is an impeachable offence under US law. This week, Obama again reiterated the official claim that the US intelligence agencies are not spying on the American population and are not collecting the contents of phone calls, email and other communications. These claims have been exposed as barefaced lies by Snowden’s revelations of systematic, warrant-less tapping by the NSA spy programs, such as XKeyscore, Prism, and Boundless Informant.
There is also the very real prospect that Snowden’s files may reveal explosive secrets going back to the 9/11 alleged terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. It has been long suspected by many analysts and experts that the official narrative on those purported attacks is a cover-up for something much more sinister, such as US government collusion for secret strategic interests. Then there are the US overseas’ military interventions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were supposedly premised on the “global war on terror”, as well as the countless emergency powers that the US government enforced under the draconian Patriot and Homeland Security Acts.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Washington’s temper tantrum towards Russia following its granting of asylum to Edward Snowden also comes with the US issuing a global terror alert. The closure of some 20 embassies and consular sites by Washington is, we are led to believe, due to “increased chatter” of “imminent terror attacks”. That dramatic move is based on vague, unspecified information that only Washington allegedly knows the secret details of. But it smacks of a propaganda stunt with two-fold hidden purposes: to give a semblance of legitimacy to the US criminal spying programs; and, secondly, to undermine the credibility of Edward Snowden and, by extension, Russia.
The extraordinary escalation of Washington’s diplomatic spat with Moscow suggests that the US is deeply rattled by what more damage may emerge for its international standing – a standing that is already in tatters. Before any further damage is done, Washington is trying to pick up the ball and change the rules of the game.