Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gotta Love the E.U.

Nothing quite catches my eye like a provocative mixture of earthy Anglo-Saxon and the elegant Gallic language.

That is why my eye was drawn to a headline in Sunday’s Le Monde, the closest equivalent France has to The New York Times. The headline read: Les cinq leçons du « fuck the EU ! » d’une diplomate américaine.

That refers to the conversation that was posted on YouTube last week, in which Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland could be heard candidly discussing the situation in Ukraine with the U.S. ambassador to that country. Everyone is taking it as given that the Russians recorded the conversation and then made it public in order to embarrass the Obama administration.

Nuland uttered the expletive as a way of saying that the Americans would be better off working around their nominal partners (the Europeans), rather than with them, when it comes to dealing with the situation in Ukraine. People in that country have taken to the streets in protest of their government’s intention to move closer to Russia.

So what are the five lessons referenced in the title of the article, as enumerated by its author, Sylvie Kauffmann? Briefly, they are that 1) Moscow has no hesitation in using old KGB tricks, 2) there is no longer any secrecy in diplomacy, 3) the U.S. and the European Union are divided on Ukraine, 4) the U.S. is not only clumsy but arrogant, and 5) Germany is fed up with the U.S.

Kauffmann notes that, despite the obligatory expressions of utter offense by E.U. leaders, much of the non-official reaction has been more bemusement, if not outright amusement, as demonstrated by the image (accompanied by “In anticipation of Valentine’s Day ;-)") tweeted by the E.U ambassador to the U.S., Joao Vale de Almeida:

Some of the amusement comes from seeing the tables turned on the Americans, who were so recently and dramatically revealed to be spying on and monitoring friends and foes alike around the world—including, most famously, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her anger had particular resonance because of her personal history of growing up in repressive East Germany.

There is no small irony in hearing Europeans vent about American clumsiness and arrogance in the sixth year of the presidency of a man who got elected, at least in part, by promising to change that very perception of the United States in the world. The paradox is that President Obama has never stopped being personally popular around the world, even while attitudes toward America and its foreign policy have not really changed—or, if anything, have worsened. It is as if people around the world do not actually see the U.S. government as something that Obama is the head of but rather as something that operates separately from him. This perception is only enhanced by the president’s interesting manner of sometimes sounding as though he is speaking for himself personally rather than for the government as a whole.

If the Nuland recording tells us anything new, it is the degree to which Vladimir Putin does not take the U.S. government seriously. As a former British ambassador was quoted as explaining in The Times of London, if it was indeed the Russians, “they have chosen to sacrifice a very strong source of intelligence to make a very strong propaganda point.” It seems as though Putin enjoys tweaking the American president publicly.

Last March, two months before Putin began his current term as president, President Obama was caught by a microphone telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev he needed more time “particularly with missile defense,” adding, “This is my last election… After my election I have more flexibility.” Replied Medvedev, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

So far we have not seen Putin take advantage of Obama’s offer of flexibility, but he has certainly been aggressive in strengthening Russia’s influence in a breakaway state like Ukraine, where it’s pretty clear that the population wants closer links to Western Europe, and in a client state like Syria, where Obama briefly threatened—then disavowed—military action after flagrant chemical weapon attacks. While the Syrian government continues to slaughter its own people, Russia defends it against criticism for missing deadlines for turning over its chemical weapons. To date it has handed over less than five percent of its acknowledged stockpile. As for peace talks, Russia is blocking sanctions in the U.N. Security Council against Syria for a lack of progress. And as for Iran, Russia is already warming up for an oil deal in anticipation of a full lifting of sanctions by the U.S. and E.U., and Iran is warming up by testing new laser-guided ballistic missiles.

Long gone are the days when American schoolchildren were taught drills in case of a Soviet nuclear attack, but Putin’s Russia has shown that its interventionism can result in plenty of misery in other parts of the world and that it can definitely make the world a more dangerous place.

In a 2012 debate, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia America’s biggest geopolitical foe, quipping that “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

That line was much funnier (and less offensive) than anything Victoria Nuland might have come up with. In hindsight, though, it’s actually kind of hard to fault the assertion that it was ridiculing.

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