US, EU: Stop Name-Calling and Get to Work

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.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. The arrogant stupidity of Ambassador Nuland also resurrects another old cliche: the Ugly American.
    She wants to “dump” on Europe and – when caught out expressing her desire to do so – tries to laugh it off.
    She and her “diplomat” colleagues need to learn some humility – or is that a word or a concept they no longer understand?
    As for the TTIP, there are many in Europe who view it as just another opportunity for large powerful American corporations to wage lawfare against Europe. Why should we want to support that?

  2. With all due to respect to Ambassador Hunter, this episode goes beyond the use of expletives in an unguarded moment by someone who as the State Department spokesman should have known better. There are a number of very disturbing facts about this short clip:

    1- It shows that after the disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, etc. the liberal interventionists or neocons are still very much a part of power structure in the United States and wield a great deal of influence.

    2- It shows that Cold War hostilities are still very much alive and kicking and some people find it difficult to move on. This can be seen in the way that the United States has been trying to push the NATO closer and closer
    to Russian borders.

    3- It shows how some US officials try to manipulate the United Nations to “glue this thing, to have the UN glue it.” Nuland goes on to say “When I talked to Jeff Feltman [who incidentally served as US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Ambassador to Lebanon, and serving in the Embassy in Tel Aviv, etc. before joining the UN] this morning he had a new name for the UN guy…” who would be the person to “glue this thing”.

    4- The dis-respective way that she refers to US Vice-President Biden, by saying that “Biden is willing” to help to make sure “that the deal will stick”.

    5- It shows what they think about their EU allies. If Ukraine decides to join the EU it is a matter between that country and EU, but it seems that some US officials feel that they have a bigger say in the matter than “… the EU”

    6- However, the most disturbing point is that these people feel entitled to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries up to the point of deciding who should serve in the new government and who should not after they bring about the regime change. In many ways the relationship between Ukraine and Russia is similar to the relationship between Scotland and England. Shortly there will be a vote in Scotland on whether to break away from Britain or not. Imagine if Russian and Chinese officials were all over Scotland, telling the people what to do and even deciding the officials of a future independent Scotland, presumably as a part of the EU.

    Altogether, it is very frightening and disgusting.

  3. With all due respect, the TTIP is not a saving grace, except for the multinationals and those who would control the currency markets, and therefore the economies of the TTIP signatory states. In its present form, it is a gateway to hell. Also, I would take issue with Amb. Hunter’s characterization of U.S. intentions with regard Ukraine, or the implication that the Administration has been passive or disinterested in the planning and execution of efforts to destabilize and overthrow the Ukraine government. It is not as if the US-NATO has not been expanding to Russia’s doorstep and even creating problems within Russian republics, either directly or through proxies. Our policies since the breakup of the Soviet Union have been more neocon than not, and whether or not we say the cold war ended, it still seems to be alive. If Russia’s experience over the past 25 years is any guide, it does have reason to fear that the U.S. still wants to control or contain it.

  4. The question that Amb. Hunter does not answer is: “Why is the US taking charge of the Ukraine anyway?” US interests are not directly involved. It is a European problem. Let the Europeans do their thing, as much as we do not like the way they are doing it. Wouldn’t it be great if the US answer to a press query about Ukraine would be: “We are confident that the Ukraine will be able to sort out its problems in the near future.” Actually, the best thing the US could do to help the pro-European forces in Ukraine is to work with the private sector and assure an independent gas supply to Ukraine.

  5. Please correct dis-respective to disrespectful. Sorry for the typing error.

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