President of the Brookings Institution and former Deputy Secretary of State under the Clinton Administration Strobe Talbott spoke at Occidental Tuesday in his lecture, “Vladimir Putin vs the 21st Century: How the Last Month Has Made Global Governance Harder.” Talbott discussed how the recent actions by Putin in Ukraine have created new tension between Russia and the West.
After his introduction by Diplomacy and World Affairs (DWA) professor Sanjeev Khagram, Talbott gave a summation of how he came to know Ambassador Derek Shearer, who currently serves as director of the McKinnon Center for Global Affairs.
Talbott became interested in Russia because of its history and culture, but also because of the Soviet threat present since the beginning of the Cold War.
“It is very difficult for you students to imagine what it was like over a period of decades to never be entirely sure, when we woke up in the morning, that we would survive the day,” Talbott said. “The threat of global thermo-nuclear holocaust was constant, [it] was a sort of damocles. And the thread by which that sword hung was very frail indeed and certainly built that way during the Cuban missile crisis.”
According to Talbott, the course that Russia has been taking up this point has been out of a desire to become a normal modern state. But now Russia appears to be taking a U-turn.
“With the stroke of a pen, [Putin] repudiated and reversed Boris Yeltsin’s crucial decision that was supposed to last forever,” Talbott said.
Talbott introduced the concept of irredentism, the seizing of the territory of another state to reunite people of the same ethnicity, as a driving force for Putin’s actions. According to Talbott, this is an old practice that many had hoped had died out in the 20th century.
“We are living in an era of Putinism,” Talbott said. “Irredentism is the external 21st century manifestation of Putinism itself.”
But the internal manifestations of Putinism — what goes on within the borders of Russia — is where Talbott claims Putinism will fail for three reasons: First, Putin’s exploitation of Russian nationalism is likely to backfire abroad; second, Putin’s Russian chauvinism is likely to backfire within Russia itself; and third, Putin’s biggest failure is that he is essentially offering authoritarianism, crony capitalism, continuing corruption, a resource-cursed backward economy, a crippled healthcare system and a demographic crisis that is harassing the slavic population.
What he is offering, according to Talbott, is the reinstatement of some of the most fatal features of the U.S.S.R.
Putinism will only last as long as the Russian people allow it to last. Talbott believes that the end of Putinism would come quicker if there is a forceful voice backed by national and international resolve.
Talbott then brought Occidental back into his speech because he believes that Putinism will only be stopped by Occidental’s most famous alumnus: Barack Obama ‘.
“This is a bully pulpit moment for Barack Hussein Obama,” Talbott said. “Given the spreading doubts that the west cannot do anything to reign in Putinism — and they are beginning to dominate the commentary right now — I would say this is a moment for President Obama to get up and say at some length, ‘Yes we can reign in Putinism, and here is how we are going to do it.’ Let us hope he seizes that moment and that he does so soon.”
Talbott ended his talk by opening up a discussion between himself and the students in attendance.
DWA major Ian Mariani (senior), who asked Talbott questions after the talk, enjoyed the lecture.
“For [Talbott] to present, essentially, an opinion that I thought was very good in the sense that I have seen a lot of Cold Warriors try to return to the rhetoric, try to return to this idea that it’s the Soviet Union again. It is good to see someone get up there, who has the knowledge of the Soviet Union for all of its history and to say it is a different game. It is Putinism. It is not necessarily Soviet nationalism as he has known it, or as any of us have ever learned about it,” Mariani said.
DWA major Rachel Farkas (senior) also enjoyed what Talbott had to say and appreciated his background as a journalist.
“Although I would say he is an intellectual, I would not necessarily say he is an academic. He studied Russia but his background as a journalist sets him up to be wanting to know more about everything,” Farkas said. “I think Strobe Talbott is different from other Cold Warriors, like the speaker we had a couple weeks ago. He does not seem to be stuck in that way of thinking. He recognizes the impossible, but he does not see it as only a geopolitical or security issue. He is looking at it with a constructivist mindset.”