John Kerry’s stance and statement in Kiev today were good—clear, strong and calibrated.
He made U.S. sympathies clear.
He didn’t bluster.
He was plain about the facts on the ground as he ascertained them. “It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” he said. It has. Vladimir Putin has suggested marauding fascist anti-Semites threaten the peaceful. Kerry said the only thing people on the streets of Kiev feel threatened by is “the potential of a Russian invasion.”
But Kerry’s remarks were also somewhat summoning toward Russia, mapping out a kind of off-ramp from the crisis—Russian forces should return to their barracks, Russia should agree to an increased number of international observers. “We are not looking for some major confrontation.” Putin should “step back and listen carefully.” The U.S. wants to see the crisis “de-escalated.”
He pledged Ukraine’s interim government concrete and specific assistance in the form of loan guarantees and various kinds of technical help in the banking and other economic sectors.
Kerry’s trip and statements had a tactical purpose within an emerging overall strategy: to isolate Russia diplomatically and politically in what used to be called the court of world opinion.
It is something between daring and cheeky to go into a potential foreign war zone and address the aggressor from there. But Kerry’s words were sober, and the trip seemed a success. Here we add time will tell, in case history records a jacked-up Putin decided to invade eastern Ukraine as he watched Kerry speak.
Throughout this crisis Mr. Kerry has been more impressive than his president. His words have commanded more serious attention; he’s the one journalists have watched to get a sense of coming U.S. policy. Kerry appears to be operating within a range of freedoms that his predecessor did not assume, or dare. He gives off an air of knowing the White House needs him and could not afford to lose him. And if that’s what he’s thinking, he’s right: They can hardly afford more discombobulation or disorder. So—he seems to have a lot of independence.
Hillary Clinton had to prove, for personal and political reasons, that she could get along inside, play well with the other children, and be loyal to something besides the Clinton project. That was her agenda. For her, to get along was to go along as foreign policy came out of the White House. Kerry at the end of his career has no such imperatives. He only has to demonstrate that he is what he takes himself to be, a serious man looking to his nation’s interests. Anyway, you get a sense as you watch him that when the youngs in the White House call to give him talking points he doesn’t jump and say yes.
* * *
President Obama too had a statement on Ukraine today. He seemed to be trying to catch up with his secretary of state and project a sense of command. (Interestingly, his statement began before the secretary’s had ended, so the cable networks had to cut away from Kerry.) People who insist on their centrality to a drama are rarely at the center of the drama. Obama seemed to be trying to fix on a line regarding the crisis: Russia’s invasion shows Russia’s weakness. That may be true, but I’m not sure it’s helpful to suggest to a man like Putin that he’s really a 98-pound weakling.
A cavil about Kerry’s statement: It was cluttered a bit at the top with personal emotionalism about how he feels about what he is seeing, how he feels about various aspects of the crisis. Sharing their feelings is what U.S. diplomats now think is necessary to convey real engagement and sincerity: I’m so upset, my heart is exploding and will soon deposit clumps of tissue all over your unmarked uniform.
They should cut it out. They should also stop tweeting their emotional reactions to events. They’re diplomats. They’re supposed to be grownups. They’re supposed to be mature.
I suspect they do it because they believe they are talking to an ignorant and emotional world. (It is also possible they do it because they are themselves ignorant and emotional.) But what they do only encourages ignorance and emotionalism. And in any case their audience is the informed and aware, some of whom are capable of critical thinking.
All of this is a reflection of the age of narcissism: My feelings, my emotions—me, me, me. Do they think the world is impressed? Or is the world, full of people who every day use a dozen platforms to share the urgency of their feelings, secretly impressed by intelligence, knowledge and logic? Discuss, but not emotionally.