The president of the United States lands with all the majesty of Air Force One, waiting to exit the front door and stride down the rolling staircase to the red-carpeted tarmac. Except there is no rolling staircase. He is forced to exit – as one China expert put it rather undiplomatically – through “the ass” of the plane.
This happened Saturday at Hangzhou airport in China. In a land so sensitive to protocol, rolling staircases don’t disappear at arrival ceremonies. Indeed, none of the other G-20 world leaders was stranded on his plane upon arrival.
Did President Xi Jinping order the denying of Barack Obama a proper welcome? Who knows? But the message, whether intentional or not, wasn’t very subtle. The authorities did not apologize. On the contrary, they scolded the press for reporting the snub.
No surprise. China’s rudeness was reflective of the world’s disdain for President Obama. His high-minded lectures about global norms and demands that others live up to their “international obligations” are irritating.
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Foreign leaders have reciprocated by taking this administration down a notch knowing they pay no price. In May 2013, Vladimir Putin reportedly kept the U.S. secretary of state waiting for three hours outside his office before receiving him. As Obama hailed the Iran nuclear deal as a breakthrough, the ayatollah vowed “no change” in his policy, which remained diametrically opposed to “U.S. arrogant system.” The mullahs followed by openly conducting illegal ballistic missile tests – calculating, correctly, that Obama would do nothing.
Why should Xi treat Obama with any greater deference? Beijing illegally expands into the South China Sea, meeting only the most perfunctory pushback from the U.S.
Putin annexes Crimea and Obama crows about the isolation he has imposed on Russia. Meanwhile, Moscow has become Grand Central Station for Middle East leaders seeking help in conflicts. As for Ukraine, the French president and the German chancellor have visited Moscow to plead with Putin to make peace. Some isolation.
Iran regularly harasses our vessels in the Persian Gulf. And Wednesday, a Russian fighter flew within 10 feet of an American military jet. The price they paid? Being admonished that their actions are unsafe and unprofessional.
Add to that American acquiescence not just to ransoming hostages held by Iran, but to delivering the loot by unmarked plane filled with stacks of cold (untraceable) cash. Why the stealth? Obviously to conceal the manner of the transaction from Congress and the American public.
At the G-20, Obama said he spoke to Putin about cyberwarfare, amid revelations Russian hackers have been interfering in our political campaigns. We are more technologically advanced, offensively and defensively, in this arena than our adversaries, said Obama, but we don’t want another Cold War-style arms race.
Instead, we must all adhere to norms of international behavior.
It makes you want to weep. Putin adhering to norms? He invades Ukraine, annexes Crimea, bombs hospitals in Aleppo. And instead of using our technological lead to ensure our own cyber safety, we expect that he will observe cyber-code etiquette?
We’re back to 1929 when Secretary of State Henry Stimson shut down a U.S. code-breaking operation after it gave him decoded Japanese telegrams. He famously explained, “gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
Well, comrade, Putin is no gentleman. And he’s reading our mail.