‘The Samantha syndrome’ – a new name for an old threat Putin is exploiting

Samantha Power and Vitaly Churkin (Image: patriotikus.ru)

Samantha Power and Vitaly Churkin (Image: patriotikus.ru) 

Analysis & Opinion, International, Russia

The Stockholm syndrome, the situation in which a captive begins to identify with his or her captors, is widely recognized as a danger. But there is another related phenomenon, Moscow commentator Igor Yakovenko argues, which he calls “the Samantha syndrome,” that may be even more insidious and dangerous.

It occurs, he says, when Western diplomats make such an effort to understand representatives of dictatorial and especially totalitarian regimes that they forget the nature of those regimes and thus give away the game before it is even half-played, just as the representatives of those regimes intend.

Such a pattern has a long and infamous history extending back to the time of Stalin and Hitler, but it hasn’t been given a name. Now, Yakovenko says, there is good reason to label it “the Samantha syndrome,” given the article Samantha Power wrote in the New York Times on the occasion of the passing of Vitaly Churkin.

That article, he points out, “immediately made [her] a star of the Russian media and above all of the Kremlin media because of the positive things Ambassador Power, the former US permanent representative to the United Nations, made about her Russian counterpart and his supposed commitment to finding points of agreement between Moscow and Washington.

Samantha Power's tweet about Vitaly Churkin's passing

Power certainly knows perhaps better than anyone else that Churkin was “not a subject of foreign policy” but simply the representative of his government. And the actions of his that matter – vetoing resolutions on Ukraine, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Syria and so on. Indeed, Power herself pointedly asked him shortly before his death: “Have you no conscience?”

Now, Churkin is dead and Power doesn’t represent the US at the UN any more. But her essay on Churkin is informed by an attitude that makes Power’s words far more instructive than simply “the private reminiscences of one diplomat about another,” Yakovenko continues.

And that problem is this: “the consequences of interaction of people of the civilizations of the West with representatives of dictatorships. Especially dangerous are representatives of Putin’s Russia because they are not only externally indistinguishable but have many apparent internal similarities with Western intellectuals.”

To put it bluntly, “Putin’s representatives in the West talk like people, laugh like people, drink and eat like people and therefore they are taken for people” just like everyone else. But that is not only untrue but a tactic that dictators like Putin routinely use to get their way with Western leaders.

Nietzsche warned that “if you look too long into the abyss, the abyss will begin to look back at you.” Yakovenko adds: “the striving to understand representatives of totalitarian regimes which seems so justified and necessary for Western diplomats and intellectuals – we must agree and not allow a nuclear war to break out! – has led and leads now to something like the Stockholm syndrome.”

Yakovenko says he proposes to call this phenomenon “the Samantha syndrome” because Samantha Power’s essay about Churkin is a clear example of the nature of the problem and also why so many in the West are taken in.

Of course, as Power writes, Churkin – like every individual – had a rich internal life. But as a representative of the Putin regime, that is irrelevant. Instead, it is a trap that Western leaders routinely fall for: George W. Bush in 2001 looked into Vladimir Putin’s soul, Lion Feuchtwanger was struck by Stalin’s simplicity and modesty, and Bernard Shaw by the Soviet dictator’s sense of humor.

“The problem of ‘the Samantha syndrome’ isn’t that one should not understand one’s opponent at the negotiating table. It isn’t that one shouldn’t develop relations with him, smile and visit. Instead, the problem is that it is necessary to always understand that before you is a cannibal because from a cannibal regime cannot be a normal representative at the UN.”

Such people must be judged on their actions: everything else is irrelevant. And the failure to understand that distinction and to maintain it gives rise to monsters.

“‘The deep understanding’ of Stalin by the intellectual elite of the West played no small role that namely the West permitted to grow and strengthen a first monster [Stalin] and then a second one [Hitler] after which these two twin brothers almost destroyed the planet,” Yakovenko says.

And “efforts of the contemporary West to discover a soul where it by nature has never been, namely in the body of a KGB lieutenant colonel, led the lieutenant colonel to be ever bolder” and behave ever worse to his own people and to his country’s neighbors.

“Without dialogue and contacts, the world today is impossible. But when you are dealing with someone ill with AIDS, it is necessary to avoid certain forms of relations. When you go into a plague barracks, there is good reason to observe minimal hygiene and keep one’s distance.”

And “when one is dealing with a terrorist, of course, it is necessary to know” what he is about and “not feed oneself with illusions that you and he have common goals.”


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Edited by: A. N.

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