Victoria Nuland and the news behind a non-story

Two weeks ago, US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made headlines when she disparaged the EU and its efforts as an arbiter in Ukraine. In what she thought was a confidential phone conversation with the US Ambassador to Ukraine, she suggested that the US go ahead with their plans without liaising with the EU first. What all of us overwhelmingly focused on was her suggestion to “fuck the EU”. Yet that was the least interesting part of the whole conversation. There are a number of issues which are clearly more important than the revelation that diplomats sometimes take off their gloves behind the scenes.

First, isn’t it astonishing to what extent the United States is still involved in what are supposed to be European issues? We would be amazed if the EU were playing a major role in trying to resolve a conflict in Central America. Yet, even though Ukraine is a potential member candidate for accession to the European Union (at least it was), the EU seems to be playing second fiddle to the USA. It has always had trouble in trying to coordinate a coherent foreign policy strategy, and continues to struggle with assuming a role commensurate with its economic size and ideational power. It seems to be the case that Victoria Nuland and the US State Department sensed this weakness and decided to go ahead on their own. The EU should be indispensable as a diplomatic force in the Ukraine. The United States doesn’t think so.

Secondly, the remarks may be symptomatic of a deterioration in the relationship between Europe and the United States. We have seen disagreements over the Iraq war, policy towards Israel and most recently, the revelation that the US has been spying on European leaders. These are all indications that a rift has been created which leads to such disintegrated action as currently happening in Ukraine. For Europe, this may not be such a bad thing. It needs to start acting more autonomously if it is to be taken seriously on the world stage. That doesn’t necessarily mean the same sort of blundering into conflict as often displayed by the United States. It simply means showing a decisive presence and committed leadership, especially when it comes to issues such as the a state of political crisis in a pivotal European state such as Ukraine.

Lastly, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that communications are being tapped even within government agencies. Too much happened over the course of 2013 for this to retain its shock value. Nevertheless, if we think about who was talking – two very senior figures of the US foreign policy establishment – it’s disturbing to know that not even the US can manage to keep a relatively important conversation private. The call had potential implications for the future political direction the Ukraine might take, including the makeup of its leadership. It reinforces the notion that even the governments who are involved in the greatest amount of surveillance themselves cannot keep important information private.

Thus, what we should feel least shocked about is that diplomats sometimes get rough behind the scenes. Unfortunately, most news focused on this ultimately irrelevant tangential detail of an otherwise fascinating revelation. Perhaps, this also demonstrates how social media are shaping the political landscape, with hashtags and Facebook posts playing a more pivotal role than actual analysis of political events.