Naomi Dann

On March 25, 2014, the cover photo of the New York Times showed President Obama speaking in front of an unusual backdrop. The photograph depicts President Obama addressing reporters at a podium situated in front of the massive Rembrandt masterpiece known as "The Night Watch" in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. In the midst of the current controversy over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, this image reads as a visual posturing of Western geopolitical power. 

President Obama spent time touring the Rijksmuseum with Prime Minister Mark Rutte during a weeklong trip to Europe focused on the crisis in Russia and Ukraine. The photograph of the President speaking to reporters in front of "The Night Watch" accompanied an article about the Hague meeting of the Group of Seven (G7), in which the top industrialized democracies decided to suspend Russia’s membership from their exclusive club. The suspension of Russia from the G7 was one of several steps taken this week by the United States and its Western allies to demonstrate their disapproval of what they portray as Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

The visual and political symbolism of the image of Obama speaking in front of the Rembrandt masterpiece was not lost on the President. He commented, “This is easily the most impressive backdrop that I’ve had to a press conference.” The image, painted by the Dutch master in 1642, depicts Captain Frans Banning Cocq leading a Dutch company out to war against the Spanish. Art historians have read the composition of the painting as a comment on the collaboration between Dutch Protestants and Catholics united against a common enemy in wartime. President Obama’s meetings with fellow Western leaders this week were meant to be read as a show of unified Western opposition to Russian aggression.  

This image helps to sharpen the East/West dimensions of the ongoing conflict and to project the superiority of Western power. The imagery of the President of the United States speaking in front of this painting asserts the superiority of both the Western art historical canon and Eurocentric canon of legal norms. The political leaders and mainstream media in the United States and Western Europe have presented Russia’s annexation of the territory of Crimea as a violation of the international legal principle of territorial sovereignty and an abuse of the legal principle of self-determination. However, this representation reeks of hypocrisy.

The legal concepts of territorial sovereignty and self-determination are far less concrete and clear cut than they have been presented by Western media in the light of this conflict. The legal ambiguity between these two conflicting principles have been consistently manipulated by states and minority groups seeking to justify their exertions of political power and force. Rather than inviolable principles of law, territorial sovereignty and self-determination tend to be deployed when they are convenient. The United States invoked the principle of territorial sovereignty to justify its involvement in the first Persian Gulf War when Iraq invaded Kuwait, yet the United States itself is one of the most egregious violators of other states’ territorial sovereignty. The most recent list of places the U.S. has invaded includes Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, not to mention ongoing drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia. The United States hasn’t been a particularly good defender of self-determination either; Palestine, Western Sahara, and Kashmir come to mind. Coming from the country that invaded Iraq in blatant defiance of a UN Security Council Resolution in the name of ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion that “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext” falls flat.  

In the New York Times photograph, the President’s left hand mirrors the left hand of the Dutch captain in Rembrandt’s painting. Theirs is a gesture of power; the open hand both commands attention and proclaims authority. Obama’s gesture is characteristic of his speech mannerisms; here, he is captured in a moment of explaining the state's reason as logical and infallible. The gesture projects Western superiority, and the image represents an assertion of Western geopolitical power that has little to do with international law or the rights of Crimeans.  

Naomi Dann is a senior Peace and Justice Studies major at Vassar College. She is interested in representations of violence and conflict, nonviolent approaches to addressing injustices, and interrogating normative modes of understanding identities, conflicts and the possibilities of political activism.

Image via The New York Times.