Where you stand in life and politics has everything to do with where you sit. And in September 2016, Obama, Erdogan and Putin are sitting in very different places. Indeed, chances for serious breakthroughs or strategic realignments on Syria or any other issue in these summit meetings in China this weekend are slim to none.
Having worked for Republican and Democratic administrations for more than two decades, I've seen this movie play out many times before. US presidents -- and secretaries of state -- measure their political lives in four- and eight-year increments, and Obama is months away from watching the sands run through his presidential hourglass.
Both Erdogan and Putin -- and for that matter, all of America's friends and adversaries -- have already begun to make their calculations based on the simple reality that within a very short time they will be dealing with a new president. That doesn't mean they won't seek to exploit any opportunity with the current one. Indeed, if anything, these leaders will seek to capitalize on any indication that Obama -- eager to embellish his legacy -- might show desperation and weakness that would play to their advantage. But these leaders also know that any grand bargains and big deals cut with this president won't necessarily be conveyed to the next one. Why, then, demonstrate any urgency or flexibility on issues that matter?
The authoritarian mindset
And that brings us to a related point that divides Obama from his G20 counterparts. Both Putin and Erdogan have held top government positions for 17 and 13 years, respectively. And as effective authoritarians they are likely to keep their seats for a good deal longer. We tend to underestimate the suspicions that drive and flow from the authoritarian mindset. Erdogan has just suffered an attempted coup in which the plotters tried to kill him. Turkey accuses the United States of promoting the coup or, at a minimum, harboring the Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen, who it believes was responsible for incitement.
The Turks want Gulen extradited, but given the length of the extradition process, the difficulty in proving Gulen's role in the attempted coup and the uncertainty over what the Turks would do him if he were sent back, it's unlikely to happen during Obama's administration. This dark cloud will continue to hang over the Obama/Erdogan relationship, complicating US-Turkish ties on any number of issues, including expanded use of Turkish military bases for US operations in Syria.
The situation with Putin is even worse. For the Russian leader, every US action that challenges him is somehow viewed as existential. He blames the US for the color revolutions
of 2003 and 2004 in Georgia and Ukraine; and in 2011, he accused Hillary Clinton
of encouraging demonstrations in Russia. Indeed, even his support for the Bashar al-Assad regime and aversion to American efforts to replace the Syrian leader are tied to Putin's fears that the United States is eager to see unfriendly regimes, including Putin's, changed.
These suspicions explain much about Putin's antipathy toward Obama and have long cast a pall on any real chance for serious cooperation on a range of issues.
Putin and Erdogan closer than Obama
Turkey and Russia have a long history of mutual antagonism and distrust. But Putin and Erdogan have much in common, too: They are fellow authoritarians who are wary of the United States. They both have vital interests in Syria. Russia wants to preserve its 40-year stake in Syria and not allow the Americans to dictate the terms of an endgame, and Turkey wants to prevent the Syrian Kurds from creating an autonomous area and feeding Turkish nationalism at home.
There are also strong economic reasons for cooperation, particularly since Russia is Turkey's second-largest trading partner
after Germany. The two countries also have several cooperative ventures around tourism and energy in various stages of development and/or execution.
And of late, particularly in the wake of the attempted coup, Turkey has reached out to mend ties. Putin, eager to drive a wedge between Turkey (a member of NATO) and the United States, has reciprocated. Putin also knows that Turkey's intervention in northern Syria against US-backed Kurds has created additional tensions with Washington and perhaps opened up an opportunity for cooperation.
Tactical alignment at best
Whatever may emerge in the way of pledges between the leaders this weekend to combat ISIS or to work to end the violence in Syria, there are real limits to cooperation, let alone grand deals. On Syria, the United States, Russia and Turkey share some common goals: Smash radical Islamists and keep Syria united, at least with respect to its borders. But Putin and Erdogan are playing the long game in Syria with goals that also involve checking American influence and crushing Kurdish nationalism, respectively -- and these goals differ fundamentally from Obama's.
The bottom line is Putin and Erdogan will be around long after Obama leaves office. And that's reason enough to pursue their own goals irrespective of America's and to pay more attention to one another than to a US president in his waning days in office.