Commentary Magazine


Topic: Victoria Nuland

Was Russia’s WTO Membership a Mistake?

A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a critic of Putin’s Russia–who was expelled for his trouble–who noted with alarm the Russian-owned gas companies dotting American highways. I said I saw that as a good sign: at the very least the economic integration meant Russia had more skin in the game, and would probably be less abusive to Western companies doing business in Russia.

In the broader sense, though, the benefits were potentially endless, in large part because the more that Russian citizens dealt directly with Americans the better for both countries. My interlocutor saw it differently, because America will play by the rules whether Russia does or not. I thought of his warning, and dismissed it, in the debate over Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia’s membership in the WTO, I argued repeatedly, was overdue and would benefit American companies, and the increased trade would restrain Putin’s ability to manipulate American policy while boosting American leverage over Russia.

I was sure I was right. I’m not so sure now. But it’s not because Russia doesn’t “deserve” to be in the WTO or that the benefits were a mirage. And it’s not because of the push to “punish” Russia for its invasion of Ukraine–though sanctions are surely appropriate. It’s because the economic integration of Russia has done precisely the opposite of what it was expected to do in one crucial regard: the recent events in Ukraine and the West’s unsteady response indicate Russia’s increased leverage instead. Today’s New York Times story on the Obama administration’s internal debate over Ukraine demonstrates this perfectly.

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A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a critic of Putin’s Russia–who was expelled for his trouble–who noted with alarm the Russian-owned gas companies dotting American highways. I said I saw that as a good sign: at the very least the economic integration meant Russia had more skin in the game, and would probably be less abusive to Western companies doing business in Russia.

In the broader sense, though, the benefits were potentially endless, in large part because the more that Russian citizens dealt directly with Americans the better for both countries. My interlocutor saw it differently, because America will play by the rules whether Russia does or not. I thought of his warning, and dismissed it, in the debate over Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia’s membership in the WTO, I argued repeatedly, was overdue and would benefit American companies, and the increased trade would restrain Putin’s ability to manipulate American policy while boosting American leverage over Russia.

I was sure I was right. I’m not so sure now. But it’s not because Russia doesn’t “deserve” to be in the WTO or that the benefits were a mirage. And it’s not because of the push to “punish” Russia for its invasion of Ukraine–though sanctions are surely appropriate. It’s because the economic integration of Russia has done precisely the opposite of what it was expected to do in one crucial regard: the recent events in Ukraine and the West’s unsteady response indicate Russia’s increased leverage instead. Today’s New York Times story on the Obama administration’s internal debate over Ukraine demonstrates this perfectly.

It reveals that there are two sides in the administration: those who want to swiftly punish Russia and those who want to show extreme caution toward something that could reverberate throughout the economy. That’s why, the Times explains, “Obama has the power to go much further even without new legislation from Congress” but hasn’t done so. And the roster of administration advisors line up pretty much exactly where you’d expect them to on this, with those like Victoria Nuland supporting more aggressive sanctions and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew opposed. The Times continues:

But American businesses are warning against overreaction. Representatives of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States-Russia Business Council have been holding meetings at the White House or in Congress to share their views.

They are urging policy makers to be sure that any sanctions would actually have an impact on Russian behavior, that the costs not outweigh the benefits and that they be multilateral. “We are working closely with policy makers on both sides of the aisle to safeguard manufacturing employees and manufacturers’ investments around the world,” said Jay Timmons, president of the manufacturers association.

Although the United States does only $40 billion in trade with Russia each year, American businesses argue that the amount understates the real economic ties. Ford, for instance, has two assembly plants in Russia that make cars with material that comes from Europe, so that would not be reflected in import-export figures.

Boeing has sold or leased hundreds of planes in Russia and projects that the republics of the former Soviet Union will need an additional 1,170 planes worth nearly $140 billion over the next 20 years. Moreover, the company has a design center in Moscow, has just announced new manufacturing and training facilities in Russia and depends on Russia for 35 percent of its titanium.

“There’s no doubt that key economic groups, especially energy, don’t want us to act,” said James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under Mr. Obama and now dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

I’m not suggesting that U.S.-Russia trade suddenly materialized out of nowhere when Russia joined the WTO–of course that’s not the case. But it does raise questions about authoritarian actors joining international institutions that don’t require more sturdy political liberalization (like NATO). I’ve written in the past about “reverse integration,” James Mann’s theory of how China could take advantage of economic integration not to play by international rules but to weaken the threshold for rogue regimes to be granted increased international legitimacy and thus dilute, not enhance, global democracy.

That is not quite the concern here with Putin (or at least not the main concern). Russia’s membership in the WTO doesn’t seem to be de-democratizing economic institutions here or abroad. Rather, Putin has taken advantage of economic integration with the U.S. to dull any American response to his adventuresome foreign policy. Because that response already had virtually no military component, weakening or greatly delaying any financial sanctions would tie both the West’s hands behind its back while he did what he wanted.

There has been some talk of how a more proactive energy policy, in terms of American production and export, could have already put a more effective sanctions infrastructure in place. But it’s also worth pondering if, with the best of intentions, we’ve not only depleted our own sanctions arsenal but bolstered Putin’s.

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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.

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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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Eavesdropping and Troublemaking

The European political class seems to have interrupted their bout of indignation at NSA eavesdropping to express indignation over a phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt in which Nuland is heard saying: “[It] would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the UN help glue it, and you know f*** the EU!”

And how is it that we have come to listen to Nuland’s private phone call on YouTube? No one is exactly sure but all the signs point to the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, since the audio was first highlighted in public by a Russian official and posted with Russian subtitles. As Nuland herself noted, “It was pretty impressive tradecraft. [The] audio quality was very good.”

The supposition of Russian responsibility was heightened by the fact that another telephone call has also surfaced on YouTube, this one featuring an EU foreign-policy official named Helga Schmid complaining about the U.S. to the EU ambassador to Kiev, Jan Tombinski. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty notes: “The recording appears to show Schmid expressing annoyance at the United States for criticizing the EU for being ‘too soft’ to impose sanctions and other pressure tactics against Ukraine. ‘It’s very annoying,’ she adds.”

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The European political class seems to have interrupted their bout of indignation at NSA eavesdropping to express indignation over a phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Kiev Geoffrey Pyatt in which Nuland is heard saying: “[It] would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the UN help glue it, and you know f*** the EU!”

And how is it that we have come to listen to Nuland’s private phone call on YouTube? No one is exactly sure but all the signs point to the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, since the audio was first highlighted in public by a Russian official and posted with Russian subtitles. As Nuland herself noted, “It was pretty impressive tradecraft. [The] audio quality was very good.”

The supposition of Russian responsibility was heightened by the fact that another telephone call has also surfaced on YouTube, this one featuring an EU foreign-policy official named Helga Schmid complaining about the U.S. to the EU ambassador to Kiev, Jan Tombinski. As Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty notes: “The recording appears to show Schmid expressing annoyance at the United States for criticizing the EU for being ‘too soft’ to impose sanctions and other pressure tactics against Ukraine. ‘It’s very annoying,’ she adds.”

This is the kind of harmless expression of frustration which is common in private conversations–and which is very different from the way anyone, much less a diplomat, speaks in public. Which is why there is widespread speculation the FSB leaked the calls so as to embarrass both Americans and Europeans and to drive a wedge between them, making it more difficult for them to counter the Russian power play in Ukraine.

Yet somehow much of the European outrage over the Nuland call has focused on the content of her conversation rather than the violation of her privacy. Europeans seem to be ignoring the obvious lesson here that the NSA is hardly alone in intercepting communications–and indeed other countries use such capabilities far more obnoxiously than the NSA does. But then it’s so much more fun to beat up on the big bad Americans rather than on the Russian, Chinese, or European intelligence services, all of which are very much in the eavesdropping business too. Don’t expect to hear a peep, of course, from that noted privacy champion Edward Snowden who happens to be living in Russia thanks to the hospitality of the Putin regime.

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Muslim Brotherhood Goes Hardline

Political mainstreaming will cause the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to embrace moderation and responsibility, said the same people who predicted the same things about Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet again, something seems to have gone awry:

On the campaign trail for the presidential election, now only nine days away, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a sharp turn rightward…
“We are seeing the dream of the Islamic caliphate coming true at the hands of Mohammed Morsi,” said cleric Safwat Hegazy at a campaign rally for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president.

According to a Muslim Brotherhood preacher, incidentally, the capital of that revived caliphate will be Jerusalem. For the Brotherhood, in other words, “the dream of the Islamic caliphate” is a foreign policy package.

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Political mainstreaming will cause the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to embrace moderation and responsibility, said the same people who predicted the same things about Hamas and Hezbollah. Yet again, something seems to have gone awry:

On the campaign trail for the presidential election, now only nine days away, the Muslim Brotherhood has taken a sharp turn rightward…
“We are seeing the dream of the Islamic caliphate coming true at the hands of Mohammed Morsi,” said cleric Safwat Hegazy at a campaign rally for the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for president.

According to a Muslim Brotherhood preacher, incidentally, the capital of that revived caliphate will be Jerusalem. For the Brotherhood, in other words, “the dream of the Islamic caliphate” is a foreign policy package.

And now here is State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland last March, downplaying the rise of Islamists in Egypt. Obama had spent months punting on the issue, and the administration found itself needing to get out of grim news cycle after news cycle. The result was a pattern of willful denial, including these unblinking statements about the Egyptian Constitution panel:

“We’re not going to prejudge, obviously, the work of this [Constitutional] panel,” Nuland said… “This panel is from the elected parliament, so having been elected democratically, it’s now their obligation to uphold and defend and protect the democratic rights that brought them to power in the first place.”

Egypt’s presidential candidates, who recently sparred in a televised debate about who will implement sharia more, seem to part ways with Nuland over liberal democratic rights. So do the Egyptian courts. So does the Egyptian public. The question arises – as usual – whether the administration is being unblinkingly dishonest or mindblowingly naive.

Populist Islamism would be less of a problem if there were any Egyptian checks left on religiously-motivated violence. Egypt’s Christians are openly predicting that the status quo – which already involves anti-Christian attacks committed with uttery legal impunity – is going to seem bucolic compared to the post-election environment. And of course, anti-Semitism is so deeply ingrained that political operatives go on TV to accuse journalists of being Jews: “I intend to file charges against you tomorrow and you will have to prove otherwise.” Charming.

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State Department Spin on Jerusalem Meltdown is Already Wrong

This morning, the State Department will begin to walk back the spectacular meltdown that was yesterday’s press briefing, wherein State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland gave the Palestinians a de facto retroactive veto over Israel’s 1949 decision to make Jerusalem its capital.

The talking point will be that the Obama administration, by insisting that the status of West Jerusalem is subject to final-status negotiations, was only reiterating the explicit policies of past administrations. If that were true, then Obama critics would be making the same points they’ve made throughout this White House’s diplomatic campaign against Israel: that Obama, by making controversies out of issues everyone had been content to leave quietly buried, was unnecessarily damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the prospects for long-term Middle East peace. Read More

This morning, the State Department will begin to walk back the spectacular meltdown that was yesterday’s press briefing, wherein State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland gave the Palestinians a de facto retroactive veto over Israel’s 1949 decision to make Jerusalem its capital.

The talking point will be that the Obama administration, by insisting that the status of West Jerusalem is subject to final-status negotiations, was only reiterating the explicit policies of past administrations. If that were true, then Obama critics would be making the same points they’ve made throughout this White House’s diplomatic campaign against Israel: that Obama, by making controversies out of issues everyone had been content to leave quietly buried, was unnecessarily damaging the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the prospects for long-term Middle East peace.

As it so happens, the claim is false. Previous administrations have recognized Israel’s right to at least part of its capital city. The debate has turned on whether the Jewish State is entitled to “all” of Jerusalem, not whether it’s entitled to any part of the city. It was always about not prejudicing whether Israel would have share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state, not whether the entire city was up for grabs (let alone whether the Palestinians can retroactively veto Israel’s sovereign decision to make the parts of Jerusalem it controlled pre-1967 its capital).

White Houses have declined to move the embassy out of Tel Aviv because it would be treated as a symbolic acknowledgement of Israel’s rights over all Jerusalem, e.g. a statement that Israel wouldn’t have to share the city. Sitting on their hands on the embassy allowed presidents to dodge broader questions, which had the benefit of not running contrary to black-letter American law going back to 1995 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Until now, no administration has ever put Israel’s sovereignty over Jerusalem as such on the table, or implied that even West Jerusalem was up for grabs. Bush even used to insert language into his waivers stating “My administration remains committed to beginning the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.”

Also, there’s this from President Clinton: “the benefits of the agreement… [include] the incorporation of most of the settlers into Israel, and the Jewish capital of Jerusalem recognized by all, not just the United States, by everybody in the world.”

Also, there’s this from President Bush: “Mr. Bush said the Palestinians must elect ‘new and different’ leaders who were not ‘compromised by terror’… As soon as the Palestinians changed their leadership, stopped terrorist attacks on Israel and moved towards democracy, the U.S. would boost their economy and push Israel into meaningful negotiations… He refused to speculate on the three major sticking points: Palestinian demands that Israel return the territory won in the 1967 war, share Jerusalem as the capital and allow millions of Palestinian refugees to return.”

Also, there’s this from Senator Barack Obama. Note that while he took back the part of the speech that spoke of Israel’s capital remaining undivided, even his clarification emphasized “that Israel has a legitimate claim on” at least part of Jerusalem. Apparently that position has changed in the last few years, but the administration shouldn’t be allowed to pretend this is just the way things have always been.

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