Last week, Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and the top U.S. “diplomat” in our relations with the European Union (EU), offended many European leaders by letting loose a salty “f*** the EU” in a phone conversation with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. Russian government eavesdroppers apparently picked up her outburst and helpfully distributed it over YouTube on Thursday, even providing Russian subtitles.
Ms. Nuland’s anger was sparked by the EU’s insistence on continuing to seek negotiations between the pro-Russian government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and pro-democracy demonstrators in Kyiv, a conflict that has rocked Ukraine for the past few months. At issue is legislation passed by the Ukrainian parliament on January 15 that banned political protests in Ukraine. The Obama Administration has supported the pro-democracy forces. It is belatedly trying to prevent Ukraine from lapsing completely back into the authoritarian Russian orbit.
The European Union meanwhile has performed up to expectations with its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, trying feebly to get the two sides in Ukraine to reach an agreement, rather than taking a stand on principle and supporting sanctions against the government. American officials are routinely frustrated by their EU counterparts. Even though individual European countries are still the main U.S. allies on a host of issues from trade to defense , the EU collectively is a thorn in the side of U.S. diplomats. In forums like the United Nations, the 28 members of the EU often vote as a block, taking direction from the European Commission in Brussels, frequently wasting valuable time on negotiations that go nowhere. Nuland previously served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO in Brussels, and has extensive experience in dealing with EU bureaucrats, which can undoubtedly be an ordeal.
Discussing possible involvement in Ukraine by the United Nations (hardly a reassuring alternative to the EU) and by Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, Nuland told Ambassador Pyatt, “That would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue it and, you know, f*** the EU.”
Nuland has had to make a round of humiliating phone calls to European leaders to apologize. Not good. German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a huge huff called the remarks “absolutely unacceptable.” While the language of this ill-fated private conversation was hardly that of international diplomacy, the Obama Administration’s broader approach to the EU could benefit from a dose of tough-mindedness a la Nuland.