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In Defense of Victoria Nuland

The colorful and crude terms in which American diplomat Victoria Nuland dismissed the European Union’s slow response to Ukraine’s political crisis expectedly overshadowed the other implications of the gaffe. One was discussed by Max Boot at the time: Russia seemingly had recorded the phone call between Nuland and America’s Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, and then released the tape to drive a wedge between the U.S. and the EU.

But the other, more important implication had to do with what Nuland and Pyatt were discussing, and why. Nuland is America’s top diplomatic official for Europe. Pyatt is the ambassador to the country whose capital was convulsed in popular protests demanding the end of the ruling regime of Viktor Yanukovych and constitutional protections against autocracy. Among the topics discussed in the Nuland-Pyatt conversation was an organizational strategy for the opposition. In other words, Nuland and Pyatt were doing their jobs, and quite sensibly so, to tell from the recording.

But for some, the idea of the United States involving itself in Eastern European politics, even when invited, is deemed to be meddling. The Cold War is over, proclaim those who remain obsessed to the point of distraction with the Cold War. I’ve written about this in past, a prominent example being President Obama’s amateurish joke that those who criticize Putin’s Russia are stuck in a “Cold War mind warp,” when in fact it was the president who compulsively brought up the Cold War. And now Nuland is coming in for criticism from such corners.

Kenneth Weisbrode has written a piece for Foreign Policy’s website comparing Nuland to the tradition of proconsuls going back to ancient Rome, and then suggesting that to Nuland “it may be that the Cold War never really ended.” It’s an entirely unconvincing piece, in part because the phone call showed Nuland to understand the nuances of Ukrainian politics while it is Weisbrode who can’t help but see the Cold War anytime Americans and Russians disagree. But Weisbrode gives an indication of his perspective on this when he reviews Nuland’s experience:

Nuland’s work for Talbott coincided with a NATO project called Partnership for Peace, similar to today’s E.U. Eastern Partnership, although it was offered publicly (as even the Marshall Plan was) to anyone east of the old Iron Curtain, including Russia. For reasons that are still opaque, Talbott and his team came instead to endorse a policy of enlarging NATO itself, which in effect supplanted the Partnership for Peace. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum, who had been well disposed toward the Clinton administration, called this nothing less than a “bridge to the nineteenth century.”

Quoting Mandelbaum as an authority on this is strange, because Mandelbaum’s judgment on this issue, as we now know, was wrong. (Though it should have been clear at the time that he wrong.) NATO isn’t a bridge to the nineteenth century but a bridge to the twenty-first, by enabling states to move toward democracy, independence, and self-sufficiency. It should actually be considered complementary to Nuland that she understood the future post-Soviet power structure so much better than her critics at the time. And it appears she still does.

It’s worth quoting here the portion of the phone call that raised such suspicion. Here is the relevant segment about Vitaly Klitschko, a prominent but inexperienced opposition figure:

Nuland: Good. I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.

Pyatt: Yeah. I guess… in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff. I’m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tyahnybok [Oleh Tyahnybok, the other opposition leader] and his guys and I’m sure that’s part of what [President Viktor] Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

Nuland: [Breaks in] I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience. He’s the… what he needs is Klitsch and Tyahnybok on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week, you know. I just think Klitsch going in… he’s going to be at that level working for Yatseniuk, it’s just not going to work.

You can see how this makes it look like the uprising is being stage managed by the U.S., but it’s not as though Nuland provoked the unrest. If the opposition didn’t want her there, she’d be locked out of the process. What she’s offering is guidance–even if it appears heavyhanded at times–to an inexperienced opposition group representing a significant movement in favor of more democracy.

One lesson of the Arab Spring, and of many popular uprisings before it, is that the transition to a post-authoritarian government is really quite challenging, and that a failed transition to a more democratic model can result in harsh authoritarian backsliding and the discrediting of political liberty. Nuland, to her credit, has been on the ground in Kiev since the early days of the protests supporting those who want her help. That doesn’t make her a Roman proconsul or a Cold Warrior, but a principled American diplomat.


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