Vail Daily column: Dealing with Putin |

Vail Daily column: Dealing with Putin

Butch Mazzuca
Butch Mazzuca |

In 1966, Abraham Maslow said, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Today this concept is commonly referred to as “Maslow’s Hammer,” a reference to the over-reliance on a familiar tool.

Given the formal name “Law of the Instrument,” this “law” essentially tells us that it’s human nature to approach problems using methods that were successful for us in the past. Implicit in this approach to problem solving is the notion that human beings tend to view problems from a single perspective.

The problem with using the Law of the Instrument, however, is that creative problem solving may take a back seat to just picking up our favorite “hammer” and “smashing” the problem.

Presidents use their hammers

It’s human nature to approach problems using methods that were successful for us in the past. Implicit in this approach to problem solving is the notion that human beings tend to view problems from a single perspective.

So what does Maslow’s Hammer have to do with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Plenty, when one considers that three presidents have used the Maslow’s Hammer approach and failed miserably when trying to deal with Putin.

President Obama is one of the most charming, engaging and charismatic politicians that has ever stepped foot in Washington — qualities that have served him well throughout his career. In fact, one might say that using his agreeable and disarming personality was his favorite tool (his “Hammer”) when interacting with foreign leaders. But Putin didn’t buy into it.

Obama’s predecessor George Bush tried the personal approach, invited Putin to his Texas ranch, looked into his eyes and saw his soul. Bill Clinton used his uncanny ability to assess people and circumstances to ascertain Putin’s real motives. Neither was successful.

Recently Bill O’Reilly interviewed Senator Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina. During the interview, the senator expressed a very hawkish view toward the Russian leader. Graham was telling O’Reilly that we are beyond a Cold War with the Russians and are for all intents and purposes engaged in a hot war.

As the questioning turned to the recent Russian hacking kerfuffle, Graham said he wished Trump had taken a harder approach with Putin from the beginning instead of dragging his feet before finally admitting Russian fingerprints were all over the matter.

It can be argued that Trump’s ego kept him from immediately admitting the intelligence agencies got it right. But after a private communication from the director of national intelligence, General James Clapper, Trump accepted Senator Graham and DNI Clapper’s conclusions.

At the same time, the president-elect is supremely confident in his negotiating ability and sees himself as the consummate negotiator. As a result, Mr. Trump may be reluctant to take the hard line approach (imposing severe sanctions targeted at the Russian energy sector) preferred by Graham and most of Congress until he’s had the opportunity to try using his own “hammer” to engage the Russian leader.

But the problem with using the Maslow’s Hammer approach with foreign policy and international diplomacy is that it fails to take into account that some leaders are driven by tribal feuds, others have Cold War fears, still others have age-old strategic loyalties, and of course there are always hidden agendas.

Different cabinets

When President Obama took office in 2009, the many members of his cabinet and appointees came from academia. Most had little or no real world economic, military or strategic experience. Meanwhile, many believed the incoming president was more concerned with intellect than with abilities and that degrees and theories were more important than real-life experiences. As a result, President Obama was frequently given less than sound advice when crafting foreign policy.

By contrast, all of Trump’s appointees have real-life experiences, proven talents and resumes replete with accomplishment. Of equal importance, Trump understands these people have expertise beyond his own in their respective fields. He knows too that successful executives get the results they seek by first supplying the vision and then surrounding themselves with proactively competent people and letting them do what they do best.

So the question becomes, will Trump’s cabinet and team of advisers encourage him to use his hammer (his abundant negotiating skills in dealing with Putin) or will they counsel him to follow the course of action preferred by Senator Graham? More importantly, will Donald Trump’s ego allow him to follow his advisers’ advice if they recommend that he leave his “hammer” in the tool box?

Quote of the day: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” — Aristotle.

Butch Mazzuca, of Edwards, writes regularly for the Vail Daily. He can be reached via email at bmazz68@