Russian Diplomats Are Eating America's Lunch
By JAMES BRUNO
April 16, 2014
Working the Afghanistan account at the State Department in the late 1980s, I occasionally met the Russian muckraking journalist Artyom Borovik. Before he joined the vanguard of those agitating for change during glasnost, he had served as a Soviet diplomat. The son of a Novosti journalist posted to New York, Borovik spoke nearly unaccented English and excellent Spanish. He was as comfortable in an Afghan tea house as he was at a Manhattan Starbucks. Borovik, in short, was the cream of the crop of Russian youth from which the Foreign Ministry traditionally recruits its diplomats: urbane, multilingual, with elite educations and the skills to deftly navigate foreign societies.
Borovik died in 2000 in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident days after producing a scathing article about an ascendant Russian politician, Vladimir Putin, who was about to become president. Borovik quoted Putin in an article as saying, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.”
Whether or not Putin has expanded his tools of persuasion, he’s got good help in the influence department. In the lead-up to four-way talks over Ukraine and Secretary of State Kerry’s consultations with European leaders this week, Russian ambassadors are using their many close connections with continental elites to press Putin’s case, to seek to stifle or limit economic sanctions and to foster divisions between Washington and its allies. In most cases these Russian envoys have spent the bulk of their diplomatic careers dealing with the countries to which they are posted and have extensive decades-long contacts with whom they can speak, often in the latters’ native languages. This gives them a decided edge.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is fairly typical. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Institute for International Relations (known by its Russian acronym, MGIMO) and 42-year Foreign Ministry veteran, Lavrov speaks fluent English as well as Sinhalese, Dhiveli and French. A former U.S. ambassador who had dealt with Lavrov at the United Nations described him to me as disciplined, witty and charming, a diplomat so skilled “he runs rings around us in the multilateral sphere.”
Russia has always taken diplomacy and its diplomats seriously. America, on the other hand, does not. Of this country’s 28 diplomatic missions in NATO capitals (of which 26 are either currently filled by an ambassador or have nominees waiting to be confirmed), 16 are, or will be, headed by political appointees; only one ambassador to a major NATO ally, Turkey, is a career diplomat. Fourteen ambassadors got their jobs in return for raising big money for President Obama’s election campaigns, or worked as his aides. A conservative estimate of personal and bundled donations by these fundraisers is $20 million (based on figures from the New York Times, Federal Election Commission and AllGov). The U.S. ambassador to Belgium, a former Microsoft executive, bundled more than $4.3 million.
By contrast, all but two of Moscow’s ambassadors to NATO capitals are career diplomats. And the two Russian equivalents of political appointees (in Latvia and Slovakia) have 6 and 17 years of diplomatic experience respectively. The total number of years of diplomatic experience of Russia’s 28 ambassadors to NATO nations is 960 years, averaging 34 years per incumbent. The cumulative years of relevant experience of America’s ambassadors are 331, averaging 12 years per individual. Russia has 26 NATO ambassadors with 20-plus years of diplomatic service; the United States has 10. Furthermore, 16 American envoys have five years, or fewer, of diplomatic service. The figure for Russia: zero. Five U.S. NATO posts currently have no ambassador. None of Russia’s is vacant. With Michael McFaul’s departure in February, there is no U.S. ambassador in Moscow at the moment.
Domestically, the situation is equally worrisome. Three-quarters of the top policy and management positions at the State Department currently are occupied by non-diplomats, mainly Democratic Party activists or liberal think tankers. “Most are competent, but must pass an ideological test to be appointed,” a former senior official who worked with Obama’s appointees at State told me. “These positions,” she added, “are handed out based on party connections and loyalty.” In the hands of these decision-makers, all major foreign policy issues are viewed through an “ideological prism as opposed to an eye toward the long-term interests of the United States,” she said. The White House’s National Security Council staff, furthermore, has ballooned from about four dozen three decades ago to more than twice that today, a shift that has had the effect of concentrating power in the White House, and infusing key decisions with political calculations.
By contrast, the Russian Foreign Ministry is staffed top to bottom with career diplomats.
So, just how much are we disadvantaged in the diplomatic game over Ukraine? Consider these three strategically situated countries.
Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel is walking a political tightrope. On the one hand, she and the German public are as outraged over Moscow’s Crimea annexation as anyone. But Germany depends on Russia for a third of its energy needs, and when it comes to trade, the Germans sell almost as much to Russia as they buy, with 300,000 jobs dependent on German-Russian trade. Both sides have much to lose should major sanctions be imposed against Russia.
The Russian ambassador to Germany, Vladimir Grinin, who joined the diplomatic service in 1971, has served in Germany in multiple tours totaling 17 years, in addition to four years in Austria as ambassador. He is fluent in German and English. He has held a variety of posts in the Russian Foreign Ministry concentrating on European affairs. Berlin is his fourth ambassadorship.
The U.S. ambassador to Germany, John B. Emerson, has seven months of diplomatic service (since his arrival in Berlin) and speaks no German. A business and entertainment lawyer, Emerson has campaigned for Democrats ranging from Gary Hart to Bill Clinton. He bundled $2,961,800 for Barack Obama’s campaigns.
Norway: Norway rivals its Russian neighbor in gas exports to the European Union, supplying 20 percent (compared with 25 percent from Russia). Should Russia cut back gas exports to Europe by 20 percent, Norway could easily make up the difference. Oslo suspended all military cooperation with Moscow right after the latter’s incursion into Crimea. Tens of thousands of Russian troops have maneuvered closer to the Nordic and Baltic nations, leading the Norwegian defense minister to call for historically neutral Sweden and Finland to join NATO.
Vyacheslav Pavlovskiy has been Moscow’s envoy in Oslo since 2010. A MGIMO graduate and 36-year diplomatic veteran, he speaks three foreign languages.
President Obama’s nominee as ambassador to Norway, hotel magnate George Tsunis, bundled $988,550 for Obama’s 2012 campaign. He so botched his Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in February with displays of ignorance about the country to which he is to be posted that Norway’s media went ballistic and he became a laughingstock domestically. He is yet to be confirmed.
Hungary: Bordering Ukraine and reliant on Russia for 80 percent of its natural gas imports, Hungary has come out against sanctions against Russia. Domestically, a rise in anti-Semitism and extremism has accompanied a low-growth economy.
Russian envoy Alexander Tolkach, a 39-year Foreign Ministry veteran and MGIMO alumnus, is on his second ambassadorship; he speaks three foreign languages.
Colleen Bell, a producer of a popular TV soap opera with no professional foreign affairs background, snagged the nomination of U.S. ambassador to Hungary with $2,191,835 in bundled donations to President Obama. She stumbled nearly as badly as Tsunis before her Senate hearing with her incoherent, rambling responses to basic questions on U.S.-Hungarian relations. She also awaits Senate confirmation.
With the exception of the U.S. mission to NATO in Brussels, which is headed by a former army general, this talent imbalance is matched at the other European embassies headed by non-career ambassadors.
With so many dilettantes in charge of U.S. foreign policy at home and abroad, how can Washington hope to compete with a highly trained Russian diplomatic cadre whose president’s tool kit of statecraft centers on the application of “blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill” to achieve his ends?
“The Russians take a much longer-term view. They’ll wait us out, knowing the American people will eventually forget about Crimea,” said a former U.S. diplomat with years of service in Russia and its “near abroad.” This is where smart and vigorous diplomacy on the ground is key. A unified NATO will gain more respect from the Kremlin than a divided one. And it is the job of diplomats on the ground to try to convince wary Europeans to slash economic ties with Moscow should it come to that.
U.S. ambassadors lacking in knowledge of national security, statecraft and European politics as well as long established contacts in the host government are at a clear disadvantage. And those who won their positions through the exchange of cash or cronyism often earn little respect among Europeans, inventors of modern diplomacy. This is not to say that some highly talented non-career ambassadors cannot be effective in pressing Washington’s positions. By and large, however, they lack in innovative diplomacy and often miss opportunities, according to two former U.S. envoys who have worked with political appointees. And the hand-holding they require from their career staff limits what those professional diplomats can get done.
Russia’s diplomats have their own shortcomings. Rigidly trained in the mechanics of diplomacy, they tend to confine their contacts with the foreign ministries of the countries in which they are serving, neglecting to engage with a cross section of society as American diplomats are trained to do. Their bureaucratic culture “discourages innovation and risk-taking,” noted the diplomat who had served in Russia and former Soviet republics. “Our diplomacy has heart. Russian diplomacy has power,” she added. A former senior official who has dealt with Putin noted, “Russian diplomats are backward in social media and feel most comfortable in places like their own.”
Meanwhile, diplomacy over Ukraine intensifies. Secretary of State John Kerry returns to Europe Thursday for talks in Geneva with Lavrov, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. Moscow has proposed “an authentic Ukraine-wide dialogue involving all political forces and regions” while fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine and amassing troops along the Russia-Ukraine border. Kerry’s job is to test Moscow’s sincerity, but also to stiffen the spine of our NATO allies by getting them to agree to enforce harsher sanctions should Russia show a lack of commitment to a genuine settlement and instead destabilize or invade Ukraine.
John Kerry is nobody’s fool. The 28-year veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and diplomat’s son is an equal match to Sergei Lavrov, who is on a very short leash, as all Russian and Soviet foreign ministers have been. Having worked with and hosted Kerry over a period of years when serving abroad as a Foreign Service officer, I have been impressed with his preparedness, probity, intellect and forward thinking.
Overall, though, we are outmatched diplomatically. Obama’s foreign policy apparatus is bloated at the White House level, over-politicized at the State Department and dismissive of the expertise to be gained from career diplomats, with decision-making tending toward groupthink in an echo chamber. And if the White House believes it can achieve its goals toward Moscow by sending TV soap opera producers, hoteliers and other campaign contributor neophytes to face veteran Russian diplomats in key European capitals, it is nothing short of delusional. At the very least, Obama risks stumbling in his pursuit of foreign policy goals in a situation where every mistake counts.