But a bit of international embarrassment is preferable to the undermining of your entire intelligence programme, and American transparency being what it is, an awful lot of awkward questions might have to be answered about how much access the federal government already has to everybody’s “private” electronic communications. At any rate, the heavily publicised cancellation of the one-on-one session with Putin is neither here nor there. The US and Russian foreign and defence secretaries were meeting as planned in Washington, quite as if nothing had happened. The presidential sulk on both sides is public relations tosh.
But for the rest of the free world, or the West as it is now loosely defined (including, as it does, much of Eastern Europe), this is all deeply worrying. The American government seems to be incapable of stating – or acting – in a consistent, decisive way at a very dangerous time. Mr Obama has accused Mr Putin of having a Cold War mentality. This is a charge with a real sting, since we all know that the Russian president is an authoritarian KGB man at heart.
But there must be at least a glimmering of doubt even in Europe – where the Obama presidency has been given an absurdly easy ride – that America, too, is adrift in the post-Cold War landscape: that it no longer has any clear conception of its global role. Mr Obama, who talks constantly about his hopes for the future, seems to have very little interest in the new demands this new landscape might make on his country.