When most people think of diplomats, they think of aristocratic families and their descendants who attend private schools like Eton, Harrow or Le Rosey and universities like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or ENA. When most people think of diplomacy, they think of flying on special planes, feasting at fancy receptions in elegant embassies, sleeping in luxurious suites in hotels like the Hotel Intercontinental or savoring haute cuisine meals in restaurants like the Perle de Lac.
One does not think of diplomats as being creative. However, there are situations in which creativity is needed to get out of seemingly intractable situations. The current crisis in Ukraine is an excellent example. A large country with over 40 million citizens, Ukraine appears torn between entering into a customs union with the Russian Federation and some former Soviet Republics and an accession agreement with the European Union (EU). President Viktor Yanukovich said he would sign the EU agreement in Vilnius at the end of November, then changed his mind and appeared in Russia negotiating with President Putin. No one, perhaps even Yanukovich, knows his intentions.
It’s cold in Kiev. No, this is not a weather report, though it is freezing here. Rather, it is a reflection on the current political turmoil since the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovitch, did not sign an accession agreement with the European Union (EU) at the end of November in Vilnius. Protesters are braving the weather to gather in squares in the center of the city to express their clear desire to have Ukraine become an official part of Europe rather than join a customs union with Russia. European Union flags are being sold by street vendors, Ukrainian flags on cars are another sign of support, although the manifestations are very limited to a specific area in downtown Kiev.
Peace seems to be breaking out in the Middle East. An agreement has been reached with Iran to curb the development of its potential military nuclear program. The United States and the Islamic Republic are publicly talking. Over thirty years of diplomatic isolation appears to have ended. In addition, and not unrelated, a date has been set for a major conference in Geneva to stop the horrendous civil war in Syria. Diplomacy is working; sabers have been put back in their sheaths. Geneva is back in the news; the Hotel Intercontinental is doing land office business.
There are, however, two countries that are not jumping up with joy over the above.
In March 2009, Hillary Clinton presented Sergey Lavrov with a reset button in Geneva. The symbolic gesture was to usher in a new era of a cooperative relationship between the United States and the Russian Federation. No more missile crisis, no more pounding shoes on a desk at the United Nations. If the fall of the Berlin Wall had symbolized the end of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the gift of the reset button was supposed to symbolize the beginning of positive cooperation.
Things did not work out that way. President Medvedev was replaced by President Putin and the atmosphere surrounding his relationship with Barack Obama has been described as chilly at best. The high (or low) point of that relationship occurred when President Obama canceled a meeting with the Russian President in Moscow before the recent G20 summit in St. Petersburg. The ostensible reason for the cancellation was the Federation’s granting of asylum to Edward Snowden, considered a traitor by the United States for leaking secret information about the National Security Agency’s eavesdropping activities, an obvious poke in the eye to the United States.
How are we to understand the meeting in Geneva between Lavrov and John Kerry on September 12? How are we to understand the U.S./Russian cooperation on Syria? Is this the beginning of a true reset in the relationship?
Switzerland was invited to attend the recent G-20 meeting in Moscow. Perhaps as a payback for its creative diplomatic efforts to help the Russian Federation become a member of the World Trade Organization, or perhaps for its role in hosting the ongoing Georgian-Russian talks in Geneva, the Russian Government invited Switzerland to participate in the gathering of central bankers and finance ministers from the world’s largest economies for the first time. While Switzerland’s relations with the United States and some European neighbors are tense over banking secrecy, there is reason to be proud to see Mme. Widmer-Schlumpf, Swiss Federal Councilor and Head of the Federal Finance Department, sitting at the table with representatives from major powers.
The Russian Federation has just closed down all domestic activities associated with the United States Agency for International Development (A.I.D.). The official arm of the U.S. government’s assistance programs has spent almost $3 billion over the past 20 years combating the spread of diseases, developing the rule of law, and helping modernize infrastructure in Russia.
The Kremlin’s decision follows previous stricter controls on foreign civil society aid and development programs. The Russian argument is that under the guise of development assistance the programs have interfered in the country’s internal affairs, crossing the line between development/humanitarian assistance and political meddling.
Following the division between Mainland China and Taiwan, a debate raged in the West about “Who lost China?”. It is becoming more and more evident today that we should be asking the question “Who lost Russia?”.
Austerity or growth? Worry about the debt or create jobs? These are two questions that economists and politicians are debating. The voters in the recent French election, voters in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, the people in the streets of Athens, Madrid and elsewhere are answering these questions in their own way. Behind these choices are serious attitude differences about what to do in a crisis.
Austerity amounts to turning inward, not being confident that by reaching out and spending more wealth will be created. The assumption behind austerity is pessimistic and negative: doing less will do more; cutting taxes will lead to more liquidity which will lead to more spending which will create more jobs. Those who favor austerity tell us: "We are in a crisis; there is a large debt; government spending got us there, therefore reduce government spending.".
Russians elect a president; French presidential campaign in full swing; Republican primaries peak on Super Tuesday March 6. Even Geneva is getting into the act replacing Conseil d'Etat Mark Muller. We are in the season of electoral fever.
What is so exciting about campaigns and elections? There is something dramatic, even athletic about the whole process. Pierre Maudet throws his hat in the ring! Mitt Romney tries to score a knockout on Super Tuesday! The vocabulary of a boxing match is often used to describe the ebb and flow of campaigns. Interviews are brutal, the participants battered. We watch the candidates' feints and jabs. Polling technology can measure crowd reactions to debates second by second much the way judges score boxing matches blow by blow.
The Cold War is supposed to be over. Unlike formal wars, the Cold War was not ended by a peace treaty, but there has been general agreement that with the end of the Soviet Union, the tensions between Russia and the United States are not what they were for over 40 years. No more Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), no more sirens in New York City with terrified school children trembling under their desks, no more pounding shoes on the table at the United Nations, no more massive buildup of troops in Central Europe. Welcome to détente, welcome to looking in Putin's eyes to see a man we can do business with, welcome to resetting the button between the two countries.
All of this comes to mind with three recent events. The death of Svetlana Stalina, the only daughter and last surviving child of Josef Stalin, brought back headlines about the cruel dictator still revered by certain people. Indeed, his statute remained in the town square of his birthplace Gori in Georgia until June 2010, over 50 years after his death in 1953. (There were confrontations about its removal. I am still waiting for the removal of Lenin's tomb from the Kremlin.)
After 18 years of negotiation, Russia is set to become a member of the World Trade Organization (W.T.O.). The world's 11th largest economy will be joining over 150 countries in the primary global institution dealing with the rules of trade between states. Three questions come to mind: 1) What took so long? 2) What changed? 3) Is this important?
Membership in the W.T.O. is determined by member countries. As a member-driven organization, the W.T.O. is based on consensus with any member state having veto power over new members. While there were several internal stumbling blocks concerning Russia's agricultural and tariff structure, the major hurdle was a positive vote from Georgia. Relations between Georgia and Russia have been strained for years. With Georgia's accession to the W.T.O. in 2000 and the armed conflict between the two countries in August 2008, Georgia's position became the last obstacle for Russian admission.