Rice weighs in on the Russian relationship

She called him duplicitous. He said she needed to watch her "expletives" and behave a bit more Victorian. Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, have been slinging insults at each other as their governments have sharply diverged over crises from Libya to Syria. So what does ...

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Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

She called him duplicitous.

He said she needed to watch her "expletives" and behave a bit more Victorian.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, have been slinging insults at each other as their governments have sharply diverged over crises from Libya to Syria.

She called him duplicitous.

He said she needed to watch her "expletives" and behave a bit more Victorian.

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, have been slinging insults at each other as their governments have sharply diverged over crises from Libya to Syria.

So what does Rice really think of her big power sparring partner?

"Look, we’ve had a little fun," she said, recalling how she once projected an image of Churkin’s face inside the head of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas character on the wall of the Security Council. "On a personal level, I think I am not ashamed to say [we] have a lot of fun together. We fight, we laugh and sometime we’re in agreement and sometimes we’re not."

In recent weeks, the American and Russian envoys have mostly been fighting over their sharply diverging approaches to Syria, where the U.S. is supporting an Arab plan to nudge President Bashar al-Assad from power, and Russia is backing its own competing initiative that would preserve a role for the Syrian leader in any political settlement.

On Monday night, Foreign Policy‘s editor in chief, Susan Glasser, AfPak channel editor Peter Bergen and I sat down with Ambassador Rice at an event organized by the New America Foundation to discuss her views on her Russian counterpart, Russia and China’s double veto of a U.N. Security Council resolution on Syria this past weekend, and her prospects for becoming the countries next U.S. secretary of state — if President Barack Obama wins reelection.

Here we’ve compiled a few highlights from the event, starting with a replay of some of the diplomatic wrangling that proceeded Russia and China’s historic double veto, which killed off a Western- and Arab-backed resolution condemning Syria’s repression of demonstrators and endorsing an Arab League plan for a political transition in Syria.

Rice maintained that the there was a moment when it looked like the council had secured agreement during "roller-coaster" negotiations, only to see China and Russia backtrack. "I thought at a few points it was doomed to fail but "we ultimately…hammered out what we thought was a compromise that could be sold in everybody’s capitals. We were careful in how we framed that with the press. It was something literally all of us needed to send back for guidance…we all hoped we might be in a position to get a yes after that."

That was not to happen.

Russia’s foreign ministry declared the draft unacceptable on Friday morning, privately informing their counterparts that they would propose some amendments. But Moscow only formally presented the amendments to the council as it prepared to hold a scheduled vote on its resolution. A last minute meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Munich on the sidelines of a security conference failed to close the gap. "The amendments that were tabled were widely viewed as not only too late but wrecking amendments, amendments that would have gutted the heart of the resolution," said Rice. "It was clear at that stage that we were at an impasse and it I was equally clear that with the killing intensifying on the ground and reaching the horrific levels that it did on Saturday that there was no way the council was going to do as the Russians had sought which was too delay this vote."

But even in the minutes leading up to the vote, representatives from key Arab and Islamic governments, including Egypt and Pakistan, made their final effort to lessen the blow, pressing China to break ranks with the Russians, according to Rice."Just before the vote, a throng of Arab ambassadors encircled the Chinese ambassador, [Li Baodong], and were pleading with him not to stand with the Russians in vetoing the resolution."

Ambassador Churkin recently told me that as a Russian diplomat it is not easy to ditch close allies, and that Moscow was more loyal to its friends than others. Many in the international community, he said, appreciated Russia’s stance. But Rice contended that Russia and China will pay a steep political price for its decision to block the Arab League initiative. "I think you’ve heard the prime minister of Qatar [Hamad bin Jassim and [Arab League Secretary General Nabil] Elaraby both speak of the damage that they believe Russia has done in vetoing the resolution potentially perhaps, probably giving Assad a license to kill," said Rice. "I do think that when the dust settles and when there’s a democratic government in Syria they will not forget recent history anymore than the Libyans have forgotten recent history. It will be a very different landscape that the Russians and Chinese are looking at and they may look back on this…as something they wish they could take back."

"This was the Arab members all together coming to the Security Council for something quite specific, it wasn’t the use of force it wasn’t sanctions, it was blessing a political transition and I think we certainly thought that was an initiative that was worthy of strong international support and U.S. support in the council," said Rice. "The fact that it was blocked by an ever more isolated Russia and China may in the short term serve to embolden Assad but I think over the…middle to long term will in fact weaken him and embolden the region to stand ever stronger in favor of their goal which is a democratic transition."

In defending its decision to cast a veto, Russia has maintained that it had acted to halt the West from using the Security Council, as it had in Libya, to bring about regime change in Syria. Churkin contends that the West abuses the Security Council in Libya by using a resolution crafted to protect civilians to overthrow an internationally recognized government. Rice disputed that claim.

"First of all, using Libya as an excuse to do the wrong thing on Syria is completely disingenuous. We made very, very clear — I made very, very clear — in laying out to the Security Council what this authority would entail. The protection of civilians, as mandated and drafted, in what became Resolution 1973, was going to involve air strikes against [Muammar] Qaddafi‘s command and control centers,  air strikes against moving columns, air strikes against any asset of the regime that would threaten civilians. We discussed this at great detail and we, in fact, debated language that laid all of that out in great specificity so that countries could not claim that they didn’t know exactly what they were granting when passing that resolution," said Rice. "We wanted the council to make a clear eyed decision. If they hadn’t supported this it wouldn’t have happened…But in voting for it, or not opposing it, the council gave a clear-cut green light. Now there may be some cynical folks who say that perhaps the Russians and the Chinese were trying to give the coalition — NATO, and Western and Arab powers — enough room to hang themselves and they’re frustrated that that wasn’t exactly the outcome. I don’t know. But I do know it was very clear what they were voting for and the outcome was one that was potentially foreseen … although I understand that you have to be somewhat nuanced to see it. But the resolution and the actions of NATO really were genuinely to protect civilians, they were not designed for regime change…What transpired was that, in addition to the NATO air campaign to protect civilians, [there was] growth and transformation of the opposition. They cohered ultimately into a sufficiently capable multi-front force to ultimately topple Qaddafi."

The U.S.-Russian rift over Syria has drawn some comparisons in Washington to the diplomatic paralysis that plagued U.N. diplomacy at the height of the Cold War. Rice challenged that comparison, saying that while the two powers different sharply over important issues, they have worked closely on a range of others. "I don’t think…the difficulties we have had in the wake of the Libya vote are necessarily indicative of a return to the Cold War. In so many ways we’re past that. In my three years, the council has passed very important and broad-reaching sanctions against Iran [and North Korea]. We have together supported the emergence of an independent South Sudan. We have without rancor or difficulty backed important U.N. missions in Afghanistan and Iraq [among many other issues]. There are going to be issues that are difficult. We’ve had our share of those of late and they…divide us and even get rancorous. But I don’t think is a fair characterization of the body of work that we’ve been doing over the last several years and I expect will be doing going forward."

Speaking of issues that divide, I asked Rice about the prospects that the Security Council could be used to rally greater economic pressure on Iran. I told Rice that I’d recently asked Churkin if he would consider new sanctions against Tehran and he said: "No chance, no chance, no chance…ever." Asked if Churkin is right, Rice said that it may be difficult to reach agreement. She explained that Russia and China, frustrated that they had imposed U.N. sanctions, were infuriated that the United States and Europe followed up with their own sanctions that in some case harmed their own commercial interests.

"There is a certain logic to their point of view," Rice said."We don’t agree with it. But there saying ‘why should we adopt strong sanctions in the council, agree to adhere to them, only to be hit upside the head with a bunch of national measures that we didn’t subscribe to? How many times are we going to play this game?’"

So have U.N. sanctions against Iran run their course?

"Never say never," Rice said. "But I would say, barring something unforeseen, I think it will be a little while before there is an appetite for further action" at the United Nations.

Finally, Rice was asked if Obama wins reelection, should we expect to see her serving as his new secretary of state? She said: "I love my job and I think the only person who can answer that question is President Obama. I will do what I am asked to do or what I’m not asked to do. So, we’ll see. But it has been an enormous privilege and a whole lot of fun to serve again and to serve at the United Nations, which is never dull and I feel very fortunate to be doing what I’m doing."

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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