After the terrible thing that happened last week, namely Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland using the F-word in reference to the EU's "effectiveness" in the Ukraine, we thought it might be good idea to remember a fable by Aesop: The Cat, the Rooster, and the Young Mouse.
We Europeans have all read it as children although it was not meant for children at all. Just to refresh your memory, it's about the scary looking Rooster who scares the hell out of the Little Mouse, when he screams and chases away the Cat, who is smooth looking and kind, but about to eat the little one. When the Little Mouse tells about his ordeal to his mother, she enlightens him:
"My son", said the Mother Mouse, "that gentle creature you saw was none other than the Cat. Under his kindly appearance, he bears a grudge against every one of us. The other was nothing but a bird who wouldn't harm you in the least. As for the Cat, he eats us. So be thankful, my child, that you escaped with your life, and, as long as you live, never judge people by their looks."
We think it is a fitting tale. Let's state the obvious: leaking the Assistant Secretary of State's private phone conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine has a certain Eastern European leader written all over it. You know, the one at the moment enjoying being the host of the Winter Olympics. You have one guess. Look at it this way: it's another little episode in the Kremlin's thinly veiled and continued efforts to divide Europe and the United States.
The fallout from the Nuland YouTube video says little about Washington's attitude towards the EU and more about America's real strategic worries -- and of course the modus operandi of present day Russia. As we now know, the story was originally tweeted by a Russian government account. Even though Nuland quickly apologized, some Europeans fell for the obvious temptation of resorting to outrage. Angela Merkel's spokesperson called Nuland's words "absolutely unacceptable." And a member of the European Parliament, Austrian Jörg Leichtfried, not only called for Nuland's resignation but also a suspension of the negotiations of the transatlantic free trade agreement, TTIP.
Utter nonsense! Perhaps European diplomats in Washington failed to inform their leaders, that Nuland is Europe's friend. One should look at her track record. One should also know how happy European diplomats in Washington were to see her take the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Europe. She knows Europe and she cares about the EU. In her first major speech in Washington after becoming appointed to her current position, Nuland spoke warmly of the EU and promised to work towards a new "transatlantic renaissance." She is the wrong person to fight on an issue where she was perhaps too harsh in her language, but certainly not off the mark as far as the substance is concerned.
Both Europeans and Americans have a shared interest in ensuring that the diplomatic crisis over the Nuland non-story does not escalate any further. In the wake of the NSA scandal, which is still reverberating strongly in some (though not all) European capitals and with the stakes in Ukraine getting higher by the day, what the West needs now is unity rather than division. Europe and America needs to stand firm and stand together in its opposition to the Yanukovich government's brutal crackdown of peaceful protestors and against Putin's foul play in the country.
So rather than wasting time decrying Nuland's comments, it would behoove European leaders to pay closer attention to what she has actually said -- namely, that the EU's response to the Ukraine crisis so far has been embarrassingly weak and slow, lacking a sense of urgency. Although some individual European leaders like Sweden's Carl Bildt and Poland's Radoslaw Sikorski have rightly called for a tougher and more pro-active EU approach to Ukraine, on the whole Europe has failed to deliver.
It is crucial that in addition to short-term fixes such as sanctions and economic aid, Brussels must also boldly extend to Ukraine the future possibility of membership in the EU as an incentive. This would naturally require revamping the Union's flawed neighborhood policy, which bizarrely lumps together countries as diverse as Ukraine and Egypt under a one-size-fits-all approach. If Ukraine shows anything, it is that this approach is nothing but an abject failure.
Europeans have repeatedly called for U.S. leadership. They should not be disappointed when such leadership is finally there. What Nuland said about the EU behind closed doors is not an issue. What should be an issue is for Europe to take a more strategic view and understand what really is at stake here.
Accept Nuland's apology and get back to the real issue: Europe and America must act together to resolve the Ukraine crisis. On that, clarity and even blunt talk is in place, as long as it helps keep that country on a trajectory towards democracy and indeed European integration.