CNN advertised its special report “The Most Powerful Man in the World”—about Russia’s President Vladimir Putin—as an answer to the question, “did he use his power to elect Donald Trump?”
After 43 minutes, however, Fareed Zakaria’s production failed to examine Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election campaign seriously.
Reasonable people can disagree about the desirability or possibility of a better relationship between Washington and Moscow—and, for that matter, about why the U.S.-Russia relationship is so bad today. They likewise can, and clearly do, disagree about President Trump.
Unfortunately, in America’s current political climate, mixing these two conversations together inevitably emphasizes the latter at the expense of the former. It obscures important questions about how the United States should address Russia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy, its disregard for U.S. interests and preferences, and its rejection of American values.
We Need A Report That Offers Expertise, Not Punditry
This is not the biggest problem with “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” which provides very little real substance, despite its length. Zakaria is a smart, accomplished, and well-connected man—which makes it difficult to understand why his documentary relies so heavily on interviews with journalists, rather than with experts on Putin, Russia, and U.S.-Russia relations. That would create a truly informative television program on a timely and important topic.
The increasingly common practice of journalists interviewing other journalists makes some sense in covering breaking news, when producers may not have time to bring experts into a studio. Assembling what amounts to a documentary should allow for somewhat greater effort in finding authoritative voices.
The consequence of this approach is a spate of superficial but quotable generalities. For example, David Sanger, the chief Washington correspondent for the New York Times, accurately cites Vladimir Putin’s well-known statement that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century” (translations vary, this is the official one).
But the program fails to provide any context for Putin’s assertion, which clearly referred to the devastating consequences of the Soviet collapse for the Russian people, or to report Putin’s subsequent backtracking comment that “people in Russia say that those who do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union have no heart, and those that do regret it have no brain.”
‘Most Powerful Man’ Uses Quotes To Prove a Point
Some of the journalists in “The Most Powerful Man in the World” have significant experience with Russia—like Masha Gessen and Julia Ioffe, who were both born there—but Zakaria uses them superficially anyway. Thus the program quotes Gessen, a harsh Putin critic, saying that Putin likely views President Donald Trump as an “apprentice,” apparently as a vehicle for Zakaria to make light of Trump’s role in the reality television program of the same name.
Considering its marketing and focus, it’s striking that Zakaria’s report wholly ignores Gessen’s earlier, quite tough analytical takedown of the U.S. intelligence community’s unclassified report on Russia’s interference in the election campaign. She dismissed the intelligence community’s assessment of “Putin’s motives for allegedly working to elect Trump” as “conjecture based on other politicians in other periods, on other continents—and also on misreported or mistranslated public statements.”
The program likewise omits Gessen’s broader denunciation of journalists who buy into what she, as someone quite hostile to Putin, terms “a xenophobic conspiracy theory” about Moscow’s role in Mr. Trump’s election. Zakaria quotes Ioffe, also a strong Putin detractor, to demonstrate Putin’s power and to tout his sophistication relative to Trump. Yet she too has stopped short of describing Trump as a “Putin plant”, making the selective manner in which Zakaria quotes her and Gessen rather suspect.
How Zakaria Uses VIP Guests In His Report
In contrast, Zakaria makes only very limited use of Henry Kissinger, quoting just one sentence from the former secretary of state. He does the same with Columbia University professor emeritus Stephen Cohen, an expert on Russia’s history and politics, who contributes two sentences to the program.
Former defense secretary Robert Gates receives considerably more screen time but, like Gessen and Ioffe, appears in selective sound bites to make predetermined points. He states, for instance, his (by all indications correct) conviction that Moscow interfered in the election campaign. How, why, and to what extent this interference occurred never get the serious and nuanced attention that such profound questions deserve.
Nor does the broader evolution of Russia’s foreign policy, an area where the tough-minded Gates is known for acknowledging that the United States underestimated Russia’s reaction both to the Soviet collapse, and to U.S. efforts to “teach” Moscow how to handle its own affairs.
The Program Is Selective In Its History, Too
“The Most Powerful Man in the World” is selective not only in its use of people, but also in its use of history. The program moves abruptly from former president George W. Bush’s famously ill-advised statement that he “was able to get a sense of [Putin’s] soul,” to Hillary Clinton’s condemnations of Putin. It never stops to consider Bush’s later criticism of the Russian president or Clinton’s announcement of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia in 2009.
Similarly, after asserting that Putin “despised Hillary Clinton” and linking this to alleged support for the Trump campaign, the program does nothing to explain why the Russian leader’s sentiments did not prevent the reset from occurring or, for that matter, lead Putin to refuse to meet with Clinton.
Beyond this, Zakaria does little to explain why candidate Donald Trump’s suggestion that “it wouldn’t be bad to get along with Russia” is such a problem, beyond repeating charges that Putin is a corrupt authoritarian leader. Since the United States maintains cooperative relations with several corrupt authoritarian leaders, this is not especially persuasive. Particularly when one considers that Russia has a nuclear arsenal that could quite literally destroy the United States in an afternoon.
At the same time, the program quotes the New Yorker’s David Remnick to the effect that Russia is in a “position of relative weakness” without referring to Trump’s regular statements that he intends to deal with Russia from a position of strength or to Russian criticism of this approach when voiced by Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Why Call Putin ‘The Most Powerful Man In The World’?
Ultimately, the program’s treatment of Clinton and Trump (and Bush, for that matter), makes it difficult to escape the conclusion that Zakaria himself is the source of the superficiality and bias in “The Most Powerful Man in the World.”
A former informal adviser to past president Obama and a frequent critic of President Trump, the special report’s host does not seem too interested in conveying details that complicate what appears to be an effort to damage Trump by attacking Putin. Lawyerly statements like Zakaria’s qualified and unsourced assertion that “at least in part, some observers say Hillary Clinton lost because of the alleged hacking operation” appear intended to insinuate rather than educate.
At the conclusion of the program, Zakaria’s strange insistence that Putin is the world’s most powerful man not because Russia is powerful, but because Putin controls Russia so thoroughly, sounds more like a retroactive justification for the title than an organizing concept for the program. On one hand, the report ignores not only that Putin is no Joseph Stalin, but also that the Russian leader does face real political constraints on his power, something apparent in the Kremlin’s obsession with public opinion polls.
On the other hand, it does not explain why Russia is powerful—what is it, exactly, that Putin is doing to exercise this global dominance as the world’s most powerful man?
There’s Nothing ‘Special’ About This Report
Since the documentary does not investigate Russia’s foreign policy or global role, the title seems to be another contrived dig at Trump, playing with the long-held view that the president of the United States is the world’s most powerful individual by implying that Putin is the one behind the curtain, pulling the strings.
For this, the program rather predictably fails to provide a shred of evidence. Since former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has publicly stated that he was not aware of any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia when he left office on January 20, and Zakaria does not appear to have unearthed anything himself, this looks like an old-fashioned cheap shot.
CNN has at times justifiably criticized Donald Trump for his casual allegations. This time, however, Fareed Zakaria’s special report seems to be making charges it just can’t back up. In the end, it isn’t very special at all.