Washington’s Awkward Diplomatic Void
3 March 2014
Two highly effective US ambassadors have quit their respective “frontline” diplomatic posts within a few days of each other, and in both cases the timing couldn’t be worse. Ambassador Gary Locke, an American of Chinese origin, fluent in Mandarin, left Beijing—where he was a popular envoy—after two and a half successful years. At the same time, Stanford University professor Michael McFaul, Washington’s man in Moscow, is leaving after a two-year stint even as Vladimir Putin orders troops to the Crimea to counter the popular uprising against Ukraine’s pro-Russian government.
Seasoned American diplomats can’t recall another time when the United States found itself bereft of an ambassador in both Beijing and Moscow at the same time. Former Democratic Senator Max Baucus has already been sworn in as Locke’s successor; initially, there was something of a scramble to get a new ambassador in place in Russia before the June G8 summit in Sochi, which Putin will host.
Obama is now threatening to boycott the summit to protest Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, and the administration may decide not to appoint a new US envoy to Moscow as a further sign of its opposition.
In Beijing, meanwhile, Baucus (who told his nomination hearing that he was “no real expert on China”) is walking into another territorial dispute—the current flare-up of tension over the rival claims of Beijing and Tokyo to the uninhabited, but disputed islands in the East China Sea, which the Chinese call Diaoyu, the Japanese Senkaku, and which Japan administers.
Over the past few weeks, a succession of top Chinese military officers, including China’s navy chief of staff, have been in Washington attempting to discover US intentions if, as Locke put it, the present tension should result “in an unintended incident leading to unintended consequences,” in other words armed conflict.
Pentagon officials answered the Chinese that the United States has a treaty of cooperation and security with Japan that includes mutual assistance against an outside aggressor, and the disputed islands are part of that agreement.
But the United States is also committed, along with Russia and Britain, to ensuring Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The three nations signed an agreement to that effect in 1994 in return for Kyiv’s willingness to destroy its nuclear weapons stockpile.
At the center of the current crisis, though, is the European Union. Last year, Brussels made an offer of closer ties to the Ukrainians that has been widely interpreted as more than it actually is—at least in the short term. The European Union expressed willingness to sign an association agreement with Ukraine, primarily amounting to an arrangement to reduce tariffs. Plus, the EU offer had strings attached. President Viktor Yanukovych had to implement a specific list of political and economic reforms, including recognition of human rights, and to release his imprisoned political rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
Yanukovych walked away from the deal at the last minute, citing Russian opposition, which was certainly true. But the president was also unwilling to push through EU reforms, many of which were directed against the corruption and mismanagement of his own administration; releasing the popular Tymoshenko spelled defeat for him in the coming presidential elections.
The EU offer was mistakenly seen by many in Ukraine and elsewhere as an automatic first step toward membership, which it is not. The European Union already has forms of association agreement with some 20 countries, including Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Israel, Morocco, and the Palestinian Authority, none of which, for different reasons, will lead to membership. Besides, if Ukraine did eventually apply for EU membership it would have to join the queue and, when its turn came, submit to lengthy and rigorous negotiations that take years. For example, in the case of Croatia, the most recent addition to EU membership, the accession process took nearly 10 years.
But the subsequent unraveling of Yanukovych’s government in Kyiv gave Putin, who wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-oriented Eurasian Union of former Soviet countries as a counter-weight to the European Union, an excuse to intervene.
In reality, the European Union has as little leverage as Washington in countering Putin’s interference in Ukraine. For one thing, Russia is the EU’s main supplier of oil—and it would not be the first time Putin has used its oil exports to Europe to exert political pressure