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Fresh Fish And Gag Gifts Go Only So Far

  • David J. Smith

There was an eerie Cold War feel to the Clinton-Lavrov meeting in Geneva.

There was an eerie Cold War feel to the Clinton-Lavrov meeting in Geneva.

If good feelings are the measure of effective diplomacy, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's foray into Europe last week earned top marks.

She wooed her NATO counterparts, balanced the reopening of NATO-Russia ties with reassurances to Georgia and Ukraine, charmed European Union leaders, chatted with women's and youth groups, and dined with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Atmospherics are important in diplomacy, but only to the extent that they facilitate tough negotiations -- and if Clinton sticks to articulated principles, she faces very tough negotiations.

Recognizing the inevitable, Clinton scored diplomatic points by welcoming the resumption of formal NATO-Russia relations, which were suspended in the wake of Russia's August 2008 war with Georgia. The NATO-Russia Council is not worth a fight. It is neither the only nor an important venue for diplomatic discourse with Moscow. Nor is Moscow unaware that most NATO countries have long abandoned even the appearance of pique over last summer's Russian aggression.

Lithuania's principled opposition to reviving the NATO-Russia Council, however, likely consolidated Clinton’s reassurances to Georgia and Ukraine.

"Our engagement with Russia in no way undermines our support for countries like Georgia or the Baltics or the Balkans to be independent, free, to make their own decisions or shape their own course without undue interference from Russia," she told interns and junior staff at the European Parliament.

"That is the premise of our reaching out and engaging with Russia and in accepting the proposal to restart the NATO-Russia Council...We are entering into our renewed relationship with our eyes open," she said.

Wowing The Europeans

That public reiteration of principle is more valuable than derailing vacuous meetings with the Russian representative in Brussels for another few weeks.

After NATO, Clinton zipped across Brussels to meet EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Javier Solana; EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner; and Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, representing the EU Presidency.

Whether George and Vladimir or Hillary and Sergei, states conduct diplomacy and war according to perceived interests and power relationships, not personal relationships.
Clinton wowed the Europeans.

"What you said mostly could have been said by a European," EU Assembly President Hans-Gert Poettering told her at the close of the meeting with young people.

On that well-intended, though condescending, note, Clinton jetted to Geneva to meet Lavrov. That prospect set Clinton advisers looking for a way to break the ice that suffused Lavrov's meetings with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The solution was to present the Russian foreign minister with a toy "reset" button, inspired by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's February 6 remark that it is time to "press the 'reset' button" on U.S.-Russian relations.

After dining at Geneva's five-star Intercontinental Hotel on perche du lac -- fish sounds better in French -- and a chocolate dessert -- probably quite good in Switzerland -- the two chief diplomats were buddies.

"It was, Sergei, a good beginning," Clinton said at the start of an after-dinner news conference.

Lavrov reciprocated.

"I hope Hillary will agree with me, I venture to say, we have a wonderful personal relationship," he said.

Without discounting the value of this, particularly after a period of strained relations, fresh fish and gag gifts go only so far.

It has become fashionable to blame every disagreement between Washington and anyone else on the social autism of former President George W. Bush and his administration. However, recall that back in 2001, Bush danced the "Cotton-Eyed-Joe" with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin at his Texas ranch. In 2008, even as Russian tanks trundled into Georgia, crushing U.S. geopolitical interests, Bush hugged his buddy Vladimir at the Beijing Olympics.

Brussels Bonhomie

Whether George and Vladimir or Hillary and Sergei, states conduct diplomacy and war according to perceived interests and power relationships, not personal relationships. Observers in Washington, European capitals, and Moscow will soon see that some American interests clash with Russian interests and -- to some extent as a consequence -- with the interests of some European allies.

Despite the Brussels bonhomie, there was no shift among NATO foreign ministers on Afghanistan, the alliance's No. 1 challenge. Meanwhile, "The New York Times" reports, "Asked if the United States was winning in Afghanistan, a war he effectively adopted as his own last month by ordering an additional 17,000 troops sent there, [U.S. President Barack] Obama replied flatly, 'No.' "

Concrete results in Geneva were equally slim. Moreover, there was an eerie Cold War feel to the Clinton-Lavrov meeting -- the American secretary of state stops at NATO for consultations, then hops to neutral Geneva for talks with the Russians, and the two sides agree to discuss...strategic nuclear arms limitations and missile defense!

Rewind the video to 1985, or even to 1969!

Of course, new, post-Cold War issues were discussed, too -- Iranian missiles and prospective nuclear weapons, losing the war in Afghanistan, North Korean missiles and nuclear weapons, and NATO enlargement. But Lavrov did not push his new "reset" button on any of them.

The future test for Clinton will be to connect the toy "reset" button to some live wires.

David J. Smith is director of the Georgian Security Analysis Center in Tbilisi and a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. The views expressed in this commentary, which was originally published in the Georgian daily "24 saati" on March 10, 2009, are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL