Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir V. Putin

I enjoy reading the memoirs and biographies of government leaders, especially of American Presidents and Secretaries of State.  With my training in European and Russian history, and my special interest in diplomatic history, I looked forward to reading President George W. Bush’s commentary on his eight years in the White House and I was not disappointed.  His first book, Decision Points, is not a typical memoir.  It does not offer a chronological review of his presidential years, but rather focuses on a series of critical decisions he faced in his personal and public life. 

Compared to other presidential memoirs I have read, Bush’s commentaries are not defensive in nature and he is humble enough to say at certain points, I had to make a tough call without all of the information – which, of course, is what happens when you are president!  Anyone who reads this book with an open mind will be struck by the enormous pressures that any president faces every day, pressures that were never anticipated and that take your administration off in a direction you never imagined.

Bush’s first meeting with President Putin was held in a Slovenian palace and his goal was to establish a personal friendship with the Russian leader.  Like many Presidents before him, Bush was convinced that “personal diplomacy” would help these two leaders work through tough issues and give them a basis for future cooperation.  In his book, Bush cites the examples of his father and Abraham Lincoln, who both believed that developing a personal friendship with other world leaders was of critical importance.

At this first meeting, Bush surprised Putin by asking him about a cross given to him by his mother, a cross that Putin later had blessed in Jerusalem.  Putin told Bush how he had hung this cross in his dacha (summer house) and when it later caught fire, how the firefighters were able to find the cross in the wreckage. 

Bush was convinced that this personal exchange relieved the pressure present in their first meeting and, when a reporter later asked Bush if Putin was a man Americans could trust, he said yes.  He then said words that came back to haunt him – “I looked the man in the eye and . . . I was able to get a sense of his soul.”  Reflecting on this experience, Bush now says, “In the years ahead, Putin would give me reasons to revise my opinion” (p. 196).

Three months after this meeting in Slovenia, Putin was the first foreign leaders to call the White House on September 11, a fact that few Americans remember.  The next day, Bush and Putin talked by phone and Putin ended the conversation by saying “Good will triumph over evil.  I want you to know that in this struggle, we will stand together.”

While the first encounters between the two presidents were positive, it did not take long for differences to emerge as these leaders assessed the national interests of their countries from different perspectives.  Putin did not view Saddam Hussein as a threat and joined the French leader, Jacques Chirac, and the German leader, Gerhard Schroeder, in opposition to American pressure on Iraq.

Similar opposition came from President Putin regarding America’s policies toward Iran, NATO expansion, and the war against the Republic of Georgia in August 2008.  Despite hopes for a cooperative relationship with Putin that began in the meeting in Slovenia and the personal exchange about the cross Putin wears, the clashes of interests between Russia and the United States became pronounced over the next eight years.

I was surprised to read that these two presidents met forty times in eight years!  One humorous event took place in the Oval Room of the White House, when Putin entered Bush’s office early in the morning as the sunlight was streaming through the south windows.  As he stepped to the door, he blurted out, “My God . . . This is beautiful!”  Bush commented that this was quite a response for a former KGB agent from the atheist Soviet Union.

While Bush makes it clear that Russia was an opponent of his “freedom agenda,” and this was a “disappointment,” he had the following summary comments about the Russian president: “Putin was a proud man who loved his country.  He wanted Russia to have the stature of a great power again and was driven to expand Russia’s sphere of influence . . . Putin liked power, and the Russian people liked him.”

By the end of Bush’s eight years in the White House, the conflict between Russia and the Republic of Georgia in August 2008 created a hostile relationship between the two countries and the presidents were never able to restore their original friendship.  It was clear to those of us who worked in Russia at that time that this was one of the low points in US-Russian relations.  When the presidents are upset with each other, we find that working with Russian government officials, who follow the lead of their strong president or prime minister, becomes even more difficult that normal. 

While developing close personal relations with presidents and prime ministers of foreign countries has some value, it is never as valuable as the leaders imagine.  Protecting the national interests of their country will always be the bottom line that determines how leaders relate to the heads of other governments.