Same-sex diplomacy

(This piece originally appeared on Russia Beyond the Headlines)

Last week, the U.S. Senate confirmed John Forbes Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts (1985-2013) as the 68th United States Secretary of State. Kerry became the second U.S. senator in a row—after Hillary Clinton—to assume the top American diplomatic post. Both enjoyed impressive support from their Senate colleagues: the vote for Kerry was 94-3, an almost exact match to the 94-2 vote cast for Clinton four years ago. Characteristically, both Kerry and Clinton have had serious presidential ambitions: Kerry lost the 2004 general election to George W. Bush, whereas Clinton, defeated in the 2008 Democratic primaries by the current president Barack Obama, is still considered a formidable candidate for the Democrats in 2016.

Virtually all experts agree that Kerry’s appointment to lead the Department of State means the continuity of U.S. foreign policy during Obama’s second presidential term. Some differences in Kerry’s and Clinton’s approaches to world affairs are to be expected, though. Over the past couple of years, driven mainly by Clinton’s personal views—and, perhaps, future career considerations—American diplomacy has been increasingly focused on humanitarian issues, including the issue of human rights. This trend is unlikely to be sustained under Kerry, who seems to prefer addressing more traditional international problems, such as the Middle East peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Moscow was visibly pleased with Obama’s choice of Kerry as the next American counterpart to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In Russia, Kerry is widely recognized as a proponent of positive U.S.-Russia relations; everyone remembers his spirited support for the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty back in the fall of 2010, when Kerry was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Additionally, it is anticipated that Kerry, who is always in control of his words, will refrain from repeating the questionable statements allowed by Clinton in the closing weeks of her secretaryship, including her description of Moscow’s efforts to promote greater economic integration in Eurasia as “a move to re-Sovietize the region.”

The new concept of the foreign policy of the Russian Federation, a document yet to be signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, places Russia’s relations with the United States as only a relatively moderate foreign policy priority – third after political and economic integration in the post-Soviet space and relations with the European Union. But in reality, Russia’s foreign policy is perennially locked on what is going on in United States, an unhealthy tradition sometimes bordering on obsession.

Two factors can account for this bias. First, the Russian leadership is still psychologically refusing to accept the fact that Russia lost its status of one of the world’s two superpowers. One of the few things that in their mind keep supporting the notion of Russia’s “greatness” is the fact that together with the United States, Russia possesses about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Moscow needs dialogue with Washington—especially at the highest levels–to remind to the rest of the world (and its domestic audience) that Russia is still an important actor on the world stage.

The second factor is the persona of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. Having spent the formative years of his diplomatic career in the United States as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Lavrov tends to reduce the whole body of Russian foreign policy to a Moscow-Washington bilateral relationship, and so far has shown little desire to switch to the mundane task of integrating political and economic space in Russia’s “near abroad.” Interestingly, except for a few months in 2004, Lavrov has had to deal with two female U.S. Secretaries of State: first Condoleezza Rice, then Hillary Clinton. On occasions, his relations with the ladies were less than charming. In 2008, being reportedly offended by Rice’s criticism of Russia’s military actions in Georgia, Lavrov turned down her offers to meet to discuss a peace agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi. Last year, in a move that some Russian media interpreted as a show of strength, Lavrov refused to take Clinton’s calls on the ground that he was “busy.”

It remains to be seen which adjustments Lavrov will have to make to work with Kerry, given Kerry’s somewhat aristocratic demeanor and a clout of a decorated war veteran. (Lavrov, for his part, never served in the military). Of course, Russia may try to preserve the gender balance and replace Lavrov with a female minister of foreign affairs. To be sure, this will not solve all the problems U.S.-Russia relations have been facing as of late. On the other hand, why not to try something new?

About Eugene Ivanov

Eugene Ivanov is a PMI-certified Innovation Management Consultant who helps organizations increase the efficiency of their internal and external innovation programs.
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11 Responses to Same-sex diplomacy

  1. Alex says:

    Hi, Eugene
    Building a case for Lavrov’s replacement ? 🙂 I don;t have anything really serious against Clinton’s understanding of diplomatic etiquette or manners – on the average, I have to add. However, some remarks about Russia both US ladies sometimes permitted themselves to make while performing official duties, could have be a sufficient excuse to break diplomatic relations … So, some form of expressing the displeasure was due from the Russian side. Though, I am not sure that Lavrov;s “expressions” were always carefully thought out either. Where I agree is that a rotation of the staff in top positions is generally a good thing. And it does not matter if the replacement is better or worth – as long as such rotations are reasonably frequent, the natural selection will take care of the quality. Besides, this process naturally increases the “gene pool” and solves the succession problem.

    We’ve discussed female MFA for Russia in the past. My personal observation (not supported by sufficient statistics) is that males usually try to find the cause of a problem, while females facing similar problem tend to look for a (hu-) man. 🙂 Perhaps, this is the quality a senior manager in this occupation must have, I am not sure. 🙂


  2. Eugene says:

    Hi Alex,

    I have to admit I like female politicians. Women tend to be more compromise-seeking, and in politics this is a virtue. I don’t want though to discuss whether or not I consider Condi and Hillary being “female” enough:)

    Yes, like you, I believe in personnel rotation. In Lavrov’s defense, you can always say, of course, that as far as there is no rotation at the very top, what is the point of asking for rotation below? Yet, the very same Hillary complained that she feels completely burnt out after only 4 years in office. Now, Lavrov has been in office for 8+ years and he’s still seemingly OK. Two explanation: either he’s a superhuman or he hasn’t been doing his job properly.

    What do you think? Perhaps, you know my answer:)


  3. Alex says:

    Oh – you mean that Hillary or (especially) Susanne did? 🙂 (= their jobs properly) I am not stating anything – just a qualification remark 🙂 (I hustle to add that I feel certain respect for Hillary – maybe because I like women too. Sometimes 🙂

  4. Eugene says:

    I see your point on Rice and HRC. Yet, when I hear that Lavrov is an excellent negotiator, I’m always tempted to ask: and what exactly memorable agreement did he negotiate? Just don’t tell me it was Sarkozy’s plan on Georgia.

  5. Dear Eugene,

    My own view here is almost the diametric opposite of yours. I don’t think the problem is that Moscow is obsessed with Washington. On the contrary I think the problem is that Washington is obsessed with Moscow. It is after all Washington that makes repeated demands of Moscow viz its domestic policies, passes grotesquely intrusive legislation like the Magnitsky law, criticises Moscow’s plan for a Eurasian Union (and threatens to block it), demands the right to install anti ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe and seeks to expand NATO into the territory of the former USSR. If Washington left Moscow alone and gave Moscow political space I suspect things woulld quickly die down. I strongly agree with Patrick Armstrong’s view that far from Moscow hankering for a return to its former superpower status what Moscow above all wants is to be left alone so that it can sort out its internal problems.

    As for Lavrov, my criticism of him is not that he is too focused on Washington but that he is not focused on Washington anything like enough. As I have said many times, I consider Lavrov to be a superb foreign policy professional in the old fashioned sense. I don’t hold it against him that he has played tough with Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Both are tough and abrasive characters who can be pretty boorish at times. It is only right that Lavrov should on occasion pay them back in their own coin. Here in Europe at least Lavrov is widely respected (and feared) much as Andrei Gromyko once was and like Gromyko taking him on in a negotiation is considered to be the supreme test for a diplomat today (and one which by the way both our previous and our current British Foreign Secretaries, David Miliband and William Hague, are judged to have abysmally failed).

    The problem is that whilst Lavrov is masterful at putting Russia’s case in big league negotiations and the like he is totally uninterested in building bridges and makes no effort to sponsor lobbying efforts, which as I think we both agree is the only way to gain long term traction in the US. I suspect he would be bewildered if anyone ever told him that this should be part of his job. Personally if the choice were mine I would keep him on as Foreign Minister for that part of the job he does well (I believe there’s no demand to replace him) but I would appoint someone else, possibly a Deputy Prime Minister, to keep an eye on him and to do the sort of lobbying job Lavrov is temperamentally and because of his background and training unable to do.

  6. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    Can you name at least one obvious success of Russian diplomacy that can be unambiguously attributed to Lavrov? I’d be interested to know your opinion here.

    On my part, I remember Medvedev’s plan of trans-Atlantic security. Many politicians in Europe agreed that this wasn’t a bad idea, but criticized Medvedev for the lack of any specifics. Who was supposed to flesh out this idea? I guess, the Foreign Ministry, but they did nothing in this direction. Now, I assume that Lavrov was busy with something else. But what?


    • Dear Eugene,

      If you are suggesting that Russian foreign policy has been a failure on Lavrov’s watch then I simply cannot agree with this. There’s been an important arms control treaty with the US. Russia has joined the WTO. It has seen off the colour revolution governments in the Ukraine and Georgia and won a war against Georgia without suffering any significant political damage. It has strengthened its position within the former Soviet space with the Customs Union. It has forged close and very friendly relations with China and maintains good relations with the other BRICS states. Relations with Germany have their ups and downs but overall the relationship is strong.

      One can argue what Lavrov’s precise contribution in all of this was. He is as I have always said an executor of policy and not a maker. But I don’t think there is any serious dispute that he does the job he does well and he must take some of the credit for what has been achieved. As I have said before, one mustn’t fall into the trap of blaming Moscow for the deterioration in relations with the US and Europe when the blame for that lies overwhelmingly with Washington. Certainly it is wrong to make a scapegoat of someone who is universally acknowledged to be an extremely able diplomat and official.

      For the rest, your comment about Medvedev’s western oriented policy could be equally well made about Gorbachev’s and Yeltsin’s and the early Putin’s policies. All of them at various times spoke about the “common European home”. Gorbachev and Yeltsin made massive concessions to achieve it. No one I think would seriously say that there was a lack of detail in what Gorbachev and Yeltsin proposed and did. The trouble is that there has been a total lack of reciprocity. The invariable pattern is that the US and the EU pocket whatever concessions Russia makes and then demand more giving nothing back in return. That has also been largely true of the reset. That there is now complete disillusion with this policy in Moscow is not therefore surprising. The blame for that lies in Washington and Brussels not in Moscow.

  7. Eugene says:

    Dear Alexander,

    Just a brief reminder: it was the US that initiated the START Treaty, not Russia. And it was the Ministry of Economic Development that led the WTO negotiations. So credits go to Gref and Nabiullina, not Lavrov.

    Now, I’m not saying that Lavrov is a bad minister. Nor, would I disagree that he isn’t a policy maker, just an executioner. And that’s really the major problem with the Russian political system: there is no policy makers, only executioners. Well, there is one policy maker, but regardless of whether he’s right or wrong, no one in government disagrees. And why? They are simply executioners, right? Characteristically, Russian ministers can be fired at times, but they never resign.


    • Alex says:

      ..the real problem is that no one in Russia leaves his post honorably – in real life it is always a dismissal .. Why after so many years it should be like that? The change is a natural selection law , it must be reflected in the Russian political system – unless one wants a single outdated “policy intentions” to last forever – eg . ” just tell us that we are still the Great World Power and we will do everything you want”.
      Lavrov is an excellent diplomat – sometimes harsh, but not over-the board & he can be (and afaik – is) respected by others because he plays straight (usually). Others talk to him in a way Russia can accept (usually) and he can (usually) deliver the message/defend Russian interests/ – or design the way of delivering/defending – which is (usually) , in the final run, understood correctly. However …it is not good to work against the laws of nature.. And perhaps, this putting 🙂 things in order should start a bit higher up than Lavrov

      Кстати, о защите интересов – с 23м Февраля!

  8. Eugene says:

    Yes, that’s something we both agree upon: if one to start changes at the very top, Lavrov should conclude the list, not lead it:)

    Тебя также, хотя, учитывая разницу во времени, вы там уже ближе в 8-му Марта…:)


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