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Why It Matters that Kerry Blinked First

“Of course you can have a copy of the transfer order for the file, Danny. I’m here to help in anyway I can,” Col. Nathan Jessup says to Lt. Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men, after Kaffee requests some paperwork important to his investigation that threatens to bring down Jessup’s career. “You believe that, don’t you, Danny? That I’m here to help anyway I can? The corporal will take you by Personnel on your way out to the flight line, and you can have all the transfer orders that you want.”

As Kaffee’s team turns to leave, Jessup adds, the smile gone from his face: “But you have to ask me nicely.” Kaffee, at first stunned, sheepishly complies.

It seems John Kerry either had a similar experience with his Russian counterpart or he had recently watched A Few Good Men, because no sooner was he making demands of Russia and China than he suddenly expressed a marked change in tone. For those who hoped Kerry’s initial tough talk on Russia’s hesitation to extradite NSA leaker Edward Snowden represented a foreign-policy team suddenly infused with a dose of self-respect, think again:

When Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia on Monday as a repressive country, he personally offended Mr. Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. On Tuesday, Mr. Lavrov lashed out at the United States, saying, “There are no legal grounds for this kind of behavior from American officials toward us.”

Within hours, though, the two sides appeared to pull back. Mr. Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Saudi Arabia that the United States was “not looking for a confrontation.” And American and Russian officials meeting in Geneva on Tuesday scheduled a session next week between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Lavrov to discuss Syria.

Russia is a repressive country. Kerry said so. Sergey Lavrov said the U.S. has no right to even talk that way about Russia. Kerry seems to think he has a point. The Obama White House’s decision to permit Hillary Clinton to essentially veto Susan Rice’s possible nomination to be secretary of state was always going to have certain repercussions, especially because Kerry was widely viewed as the obvious understudy. One of those repercussions was that it no doubt pleased Lavrov’s crew, who complained about Rice at the UN.

At the mere prospect of Rice continuing on as U.S. ambassador to the UN, her Russian counterpart Vitaly Churkin joked that he would ask for “double pay.” Rice was criticized for her undiplomatic language toward the UN envoys from corrupt, authoritarian states, but if she was tough on Churkin it was because she knew more than her critics. Just how much more is clear from today’s investigative report published on the website of Foreign Policy magazine from UN reporter Colum Lynch.

Lynch writes that “For much of the past decade, Russia has been engaged in a systematic effort to stymie attempts to root out corruption in U.N. spending. The Russians have pushed out U.N. reformers. They’ve defanged watchdogs. And they’ve blocked internal budget reforms aimed at saving costs.” For most of that time, Churkin has been the Russian envoy to the UN. Of course, he carries out the diplomatic wishes of Lavrov and Vladimir Putin, but Rice’s job was to scold Churkin, not the others.

But Kerry’s job is to deal with Lavrov, who is no doubt appreciating that fact this week. And Lynch’s story on Russia’s UN corruption demonstrates why the timidity of the Obama administration, most awkwardly embodied by Kerry this week, matters to the functionality of the international system. The New York Post is having some fun with the administration today:

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The fact that Russia has been able to thoroughly corrupt various activities of the UN while also using the world body to obstruct efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear drive and protect murderous dictators like Bashar al-Assad illustrates an irony that Obama has never quite understood. In order to pull back on America’s global responsibilities without chaos, there has to be a robust international order in which multilateral cooperation can replace unilateral action. But that international order cannot emerge without strong U.S. leadership.

It’s not the easiest balance to strike, but the current administration is clearly not even close to doing so, and it has chosen a secretary of state who will continue that trend.



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