Offensive Charm

Why Vladimir Putin Tried -- and Failed -- to Woo the U.S. Public

Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin at a G-20 summit in Great Britain
(Courtesy Reuters)

The great foreign policy intellectual George Kennan would probably not have admitted feeling nauseous after reading Russian President Vladimir Putin’s New York Times op-ed on Syria, but he certainly would have understood Democratic New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez’s dismay. In his influential survey of American diplomatic history, Kennan famously lamented that U.S. foreign policy has always “felt itself beholden to short-term trends of public opinion in the country and from what we might call the erratic and subjective nature of public reaction to foreign policy questions.” Kennan understood that the United States’ commitment to democracy meant that the political system would always be vulnerable to opinions from self-serving and non-expert groups -- including international actors with an interest in the activities of the White House.

But if there is a long history of outside leaders intervening in U.S. foreign policy debates, there is also a long history of them doing so poorly, the latest example being Putin’s op-ed. Although it is natural that the U.S. political elites would bristle at being lectured to in public, they can rest assured that Putin, like his many foreign predecessors, is unlikely to have won over many American hearts or minds. It is no accident that such efforts to influence public opinion usually end up failing.

The first instance occurred in the early years after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In 1793, the French revolutionary government appointed Edmond-Charles Genêt as its minister to the United States. Despite President George Washington’s Proclamation of Neutrality in the European wars of the period, Genêt worked against the U.S. government’s official policy. He personally commissioned private American citizens to harass British ships and seize their contents for use by French allies. He also appealed to sympathizers in the United States, including Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, to ally formally with the French revolutionary regime against Great Britain. When Washington rebuffed him, Genêt took his case to the American people through newspapers, speeches, and other efforts at what we would today call public diplomacy.

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