04/24/2014 05:54 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Putinism vs. The Global Obama: Or, Clash of the Titans

When President Obama was elected in 2008, his approval ratings around the world were extremely high, in part due to the Bush-fatigue from the Iraq war, and his approval has remained relatively high through 2013, except in the Muslim majority nations in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia. President Obama clearly does not lack vision and audacity. The question now is: How has Obama's America fared abroad in the past five years and is he in a position to bend the global arc of history?

In the aftermath of the Syrian genocide and Ukrainian crisis, the foreign policy challenges have put Obama in the hot seat against a traditional Cold-War adversary. Recently, two former presidential candidates, McCain and Romney have claimed that President Obama has looked weak against Putin's apparently strong-arm tactics in trying to reconstruct his motherland and some semblance of an emerging Eurasian union. Even though the president was elected to end the two long wars and congenitally prefers peacemaking, an American president who does not enter into a war may invariably be seen by some as a cultural wimp.

After the NSA scandal, the Drones controversy, and the sputtering "Pivot to Asia," the sheen was beginning to wear off the Obama world till Putin invaded Crimea and blamed the West for orchestrating a coup in Ukraine. While the Obama administration has been trying to pull-off a big foreign policy victory in the remaining years -- whether it is the Iranian nuclear deal, the Mideast peace process, ending the impasse on Climate Change debate, or the Immigration reform act -- with Putin's annexation of Crimea their task just became exponentially harder. With the Russian bear on the prowl, making the former Soviet states nervous, will Obama reclaim the trust in the American ideals and values around the world?

It is appropriate to muse openly as Ali Mazrui, the legendary African post-colonial intellectual of Obama's father's generation, has boldly predicted that Obama will go down as "a great man in history." However, will Obama become one of "the great presidents" with the passage of time? The elevation of Obama has been completed twice over by American voters of diverse backgrounds and, at least in spirit, by people around the world. Yet, many have been waiting with considerable, though cautious optimism for "the second act" of the Obama presidency.

This may be it. The Crimean conflict may have created 'the perfect storm' for Obama to show strong global leadership.

The paradigmatic moment of the American presidency, with the re-election of the first Black president taking a quantum leap into the future has receded into our collective consciousness, to be rudely awakened by the specter of cyber-spying networks and the over-arching security state. Suddenly, Putin seems to have pulled the world back into the 19th century, as Secretary Kerry said, and revived Huntington's "clash of civilizations," reminiscent of an earlier more sinister Cold War era.

Huntington argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future will be along century old cultural and religious lines: "The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural ... The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

As we try to grasp Obama's evolving leadership style, it is instructive to compare him with Vladimir Putin. While Obama is a 'consensus-builder,' with a fiercely competitive and 'hawkish' streak, Putin is a statist, who exercises centralized power, with an authoritarian personality style. Obama was a Harvard-trained legal pragmatist, with great professorial and oratory skills, before he developed into an inspiring politician. Putin was a case-officer in the KGB before he became a political operator and the president of Russia.

Both were virtual outsiders before they joined their ranks. As a Rorschach test, Obama elicits fantastical and unbelievable projections from adoring masses as well as his detractors; yet on a whole host of social and cultural issues he has revealed himself to be an unreconstructed liberal. Putin as his biographers have described is a "man without a face," with a media constructed mythic persona, and nationalistic views about the Russian motherland, otherwise called Putinism.

Obama believes in American exceptionalism, especially, through the "soft power" of development and diplomacy. Putin too believes in Russian exceptionalism, which he sees as antithetical to the Western hegemony, responsible for the defeat and humiliation of the Soviet empire. Obama has repeatedly claimed America is not declining, even though emerging economies in the Asia-Pacific region may be catching up with the developed economies in U.S. and EU. Putin clearly believes, with the silent support of China and other BRICS economies, America and the West are declining.

Obama's critics argue that the president is a champion of "leading from behind," as if that is the cornerstone of the Obama doctrine, while his proponents have put their stakes in "nation-building at home." Thus, Putin may have rudely awakened Obama to "the return of history" by showing disregard for the rules of international law, raising the specter of previous World Wars.

The U.S. may have been caught flat-footed due to their mixed response in Syria, tightening budgets, congressional opposition, and an incomplete pivot towards Asia. However, Obama can no longer avoid the clash of the titans. If he is unable to contain and engage Putin, with verbal threats and mounting sanctions, it will redefine his second term and the presidency.