I’ve heard Samantha Power being interviewed twice this week. Yesterday it was on Charlie Rose’s TV show, discussing her new book about Sergio Viera de Mello. On Sunday it was about Barack Obama, for whom she has worked several years, currently as his senior foreign policy adviser. She obviously admires both de Mello and Obama, and for some of the same qualities.
Her description of de Mello (see his photo) sounded like an exaggerated version of Obama’s best quality, his readiness to negotiate with opponents as well as friends. De Mello evidently carried this trait to an extreme by, for example, searching for exactly the right gift to take on his first visit with a presumptive adversary. His opinions about the “war on terror” and the invasion of Iraq were diametrically opposed to those of George W. Bush, yet he revealed none of his misgivings when meeting with the President. Instead, he established a virtual friendship before he broached such topics as the prison at Guantanamo. Always his ultimate concern was to support the importance and effectiveness of the United Nations against all likely critics. This “friendship” with George W. Bush eventually proved his undoing, for when the President wanted to send someone to head the UN mission in Iraq, he immediately thought of that nice guy de Mello, who absolutely did not want the job and who, in fact, was killed in Iraq by a suicide bomber.
There is a gray area instead of a sharp line between diplomatic “buttering up” and principled straight talk. I haven’t read Samantha Power’s book, so I cannot offer an opinion about the merits of De Mello’s flexibility, but for myself I’m sure I would be a lot more rigid. Although I have taught conflict resolution, it is not an approach in which I excel. Sometimes I wish I did, for though I don’t know much about De Mello, I admire Obama’s friendly readiness to negotiate, without preconditions, with enemies of the United States. I don’t think, however, that he would disguise his principled positions for the sake of building friendly relationships that can later be converted into serious negotiations.
A similar dilemma was discussed today in the Globe and Mail by my favorite journalist, Doug Saunders. He contrasted the approaches of Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro, who has just resigned his top role in Cuba. To my surprise, Saunders revealed that at the end of his revolution, Castro took over a Cuba that was extremely affluent for a Third World country, with a medical system for example that was already outstanding. (Leftists always attribute Cuba’s good medical institutions to Fidel’s wise leadership, and I didn't know otherwise.) And at the time, Castro denied that he was Communist. There were, however, very incompatible factions within his team, and instead of staying liberal he swung around to accept the radical commitments of his brother Raul and of Che Guevara. He turned the Cuban economy in an ideological direction based on “import substitution” and isolation. His estrangement from the US inevitably impoverished Cuba, which thereafter required economic support from the Soviet Union.
Mandela, in contrast, continued to pursue good relations with all sides when he was released from prison and resumed his leadership. He might have become an ideologue as easily as Castro, but instead he tried to find common ground with as many others as possible, including his old political nemesis in South Africa. From every standpoint, his policy turned out to help his people more than the position adopted by Castro.
Obama’s approach is being contrasted these days to that of Hillary Clinton and, especially, to that of John McCain. Certainly the comparisons are apt. However, an even greater contrast is between Obama and Castro, while his resemblance to both Sergio De Mello and Nelson Mandela are remarkably conspicuous.
I see another remarkable similarity: between Obama and Mikhail Gorbachev. This brings me to a related development going on in Russia now. Vladimir V. Putin, who is almost the mirror image of the hawkish George W. Bush, is about to step down – or step sideways into the prime ministership of Russia. He has named his chosen successor in the presidency, Dimitry Medvedev, a younger man who had been his assistant for quite a long time. The usual way of portraying this transition is to expect Medvedev to continue serving as an acolyte of Putin, following his orders indefinitely.
That prediction may prove to be true. Medvedev does have to be elected and is going through desultory motions of campaigning, so what he says now may not reflect his future actions at all. However, I have been reading Johnson’s Russia List – a daily compilation of articles about and usually from Russia, and in many of his speeches, Medvedev is showing a far more liberal attitude than that of his mentor, Putin. He insists that the press should be truly free, for example. He upholds the rule of law, and he argues that people should have freedom within the boundaries of the law. Thus he would loosen the rules for registering non-profit organizations, and he would abolish the usual requirement that citizens should have prior permission for their actions; instead they should simply notify the government about their plans.
True, Medvedev often criticizes the United States, just as Putin typically does, but that is understandable. Most Europeans and Canadians – indeed, most people around the whole world nowadays — are also critical of US policies. That will change when the US begins adopting more reasonable and conciliatory positions, as it will certainly do under Obama.
What a prospect! By early 2009 both the United States and Russia may be led by flexible, liberal presidents, Obama and Medvedev. At that time, the progress that had been going on under Gorbachev may resume and even intensify. Let’s hope they get together right away and address the global challenges that lie ahead. We may be nearing a remarkable turning point in human history. I can hardly wait.