by Robert E. Hunter
Accidents happen, even to seasoned US diplomats. In this case, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia was caught in a highly sensitive conversation on Ukraine’s future with the US ambassador in Kiev. Not much out of the ordinary in their talk, conducted in diplo-speech, except for one almost inaudible expletive by Victoria Nuland.
The State Department turned it all into a joke, a kind of “boys [and girls] will be boys [and girls]” and blamed the leaking of the conversation on the Russians, a “new low in trade-craft” — more diplo-speech for spying. This barb at Moscow, although thousands of hackers around the globe could have picked up the phone call; and the Russians would naturally patrol the US embassy in Kiev (and everywhere else) listening for unguarded talk, just as (we hope) the US does likewise against the Russians. And, if Moscow had been urging its ambassador in Kiev to try manipulating Ukrainian politics, as the State Department was doing, and if we had picked up one of their phone calls, we would broadcast it to the world, as part of the continuing struggle for Ukraine’s soul now being conducted by the old Cold War superpowers.
There is irony. The recently much-maligned National Security Agency spends huge amounts of money providing US diplomats with easy access to highly secure telephones; and every junior diplomat is trained never, ever to hold a conversation as sensitive as the one revealed except through classified email or on one of those NSA instruments.
With “egg on their faces” and a well-merited rebuke from the Federal German Chancellor, whose own phone calls were hacked by the NSA, what’s not to like in this B movie? Ambassador Nuland ‘fessed up; so let’s all have our laugh and move on.
Yet this accident has revealed issues that merit study. First was the expletive, directed against what the US diplomats — and much of Washington — see to be the European Union’s fecklessness, not just in regard to Ukraine — “a day late and a Euro short” — but also in getting its act together in general.
Not so fast. It’s not as though the United States had been consistently leading for the West in helping Ukraine define its future, a country pinioned by geography between the Russian Federation and Europe Proper, in an effort to provide Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number.” Nor has the US been paying much attention to the European Union — or to Europe, for that matter. When he spoke at the Brandenburg Gate last year, President Obama made only a passing reference to NATO and referred to the EU only as “your union.” He will stop off for a brief summit meeting with the EU in Brussels next month, but for years these have been pro forma, a couple of hours of shop talk and then back on Air Force One to some place more important. There will be a NATO summit in Wales this September, but as of now it will focus on what should be done about Afghanistan after Dec. 31 when NATO troops in the International Security Assistance Force depart. Charting NATO’s future? So far an empty basket.
The fact is that for years Europe has been the low region on the US’ Northern Hemisphere totem pole. The one saving grace is the administration’s commitment to negotiating with the EU the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which has become the touchstone of transatlantic relations, now that NATO is in fast decline. But even TTIP may not make it, unless Congress gives the President so-called Fast Track Negotiating Authority, whereby he can sign a deal without Congress’ picking it apart. Even that is now in doubt, as those who oppose more open trade, mostly in the President’s own Democratic Party, are pushing back.
So, lesson 1. Mr. President and Secretary of State John Kerry: pay more attention to Europe, and if there is something as important as the future of Ukraine, get involved at a more senior level. As skilled as Ambassador Nuland is, negotiating this issue should be happening above her pay grade to show that the US is really serious. And as important as Mr. Kerry’s diplomatic heavy-lifting in the Middle East is to that benighted region, the US has to be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time.”
Lesson 2: stop looking at what is happening in Ukraine as though it is simply a replay of Cold War confrontation. It’s striking how much rhetoric, both in the US government and in the American commentariat, is reveling in the prospect of a return to the Good Old Days when the Russians were the bad guys. At the same time, it’s striking that, with all the efforts to load political issues onto the Sochi Olympics, however important LGBT rights and Syria may be, there has been no use of this moment to get President Vladimir Putin to understand that his Sochi glory also depends on controlling his ambitions in Central Europe, with all its geopolitical importance.
In the 1990s, the remaking of European security — George H.W. Bush’s grand strategy of a “Europe whole and free” and at peace — fell short in integrating the Russian Federation into the future. While it was brought into the Partnership for Peace and into a special relationship with NATO, it was too long kept largely isolated economically, so its people did not see that playing ball with the West pays dividends in their own lives.
Is it too late to try building an overarching political, economic, and security structure throughout Europe, in which the US, Canada, Western Europe, Central Europe, Ukraine, and Russia can all play legitimate parts, minus “spheres of influence” because everyone gains something more important in terms of prosperity and, yes, respect? Maybe, maybe not. It is past time for the US, as the West’s leader, to start trying. And without ignoring — and stigmatizing — its indispensable partner, the EU.