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‘The Law of Politics’ According to Sergei Lavrov
An exclusive interview with Russia's top diplomat.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, just back from his first meeting with his new American counterpart, John Kerry, sat for a wide-ranging interview in March with Foreign Policy Editor in Chief Susan B. Glasser in Moscow, holding forth on everything from why Americans can no longer adopt Russian babies to how come Russia and China team up so much at the United Nations.
Susan Glasser, Foreign Policy editor in chief: Minister Lavrov, thank you so much for taking the time. It’s a pleasure to speak with you. We are doing a special issue of Foreign Policy magazine that will come out in May and dedicated to power in all of its manifestations, so this is a perfect chance to have a conversation with you. And I appreciate you taking the time.
Sergei Lavrov: Thank you.
FP: Well, first of all, we are interested in Russian and American relations. And I’m wondering if you could give me a sense of what you think comes after the reset. I know it was not your word.…
Lavrov: It wasn’t. You know, the Russian Federation and the United States of America, the two biggest nuclear powers in the world, but apart from nuclear-wise, we have a lot in common. We have huge territories, natural resources, technologies, science, education, and of course human capital. And the two countries are basically self-sufficient, but both are not trying to be isolated. Isolationism is not loved in this world, and because the problems we share … the challenges, the threats, they are transnational, transborder, and it is only through collective effort that we can help … reduce these threats. Terrorism, drug trafficking, organized crime, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, environment, food security, energy security, all these cannot be resolved by any single power alone. Therefore, we value very much our partnership with foreign countries, and the United States is the leading power.
And our relations have, I would say, a lot of positive elements. We’ve managed to move forward along the way of nuclear disarmament. We agreed on the START treaty. We’ve managed to sign and ratify the agreement, which is called 123 agreement, the agreement on cooperation in peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which is quite beneficial for both the United States and the Russian Federation and is very important for ensuring nuclear safety and nuclear security in third countries. We’ve managed to create an unprecedented mechanism for bilateral relations, the presidential commission, which has some 20 working groups embracing all manageable areas of cooperation. We’ve managed to sign an agreement on facilitating the visa issue for tourists and businessmen from our countries. And I believe this is very much in the interests of our peoples.…
Of course the relationship between such big countries can never be cloudless. And we have some things which still divide us. Missile defense is one case in point. We still believe that if the Russian Federation and the United States bring their minds together, we can develop a common system which would be efficient in protecting the Euro-Atlantic region from threats coming outside this region. The situation so far is in a deadlock. The U.S. and NATO, which supported the U.S., believe that the system which is proposed by the United States is flawless and it cannot be changed an inch. However, the Government Account[ability] Office in the United States Congress recently produced a report which challenges the proposed configuration of this missile defense in Europe. This is not to say that our experts would agree 100 percent with this GAO report, but this indicates that even inside the United States there are different opinions as to how to handle the problem of missile proliferation, so we are reiterating our openness to discussing this issue with the United States, provided we put our brains together and provided our intellectual ability is not questioned. We are convinced that doing it together — doing it together with the United States and the Europeans — would not only be the most efficient way to try to find a response to the threat of missile proliferation, but it would bring our relationship with NATO — the Russia and NATO relationship — to a qualitatively new level. It will be really a step closer to us becoming allies again like we used to be during World War II.
There are other problems which negatively affect the relationship between Russia and the United States. And the situation which arose after the so-called Magnitsky Act was adopted by the U.S. Congress is a case in point. I have no doubt that the sponsors of that act, who are motivated by the desire to have something instead of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which became an impediment for the American business after Russia joined the WTO, and just as they wanted to use Jackson-Vanik, which has been kept artificially after all the emigration programs of the Soviet Union have been removed and the Russian Federation did not deserve the continuation of the Jackson-Vanik amendment but they kept it in order to have a leverage — influence in Russian Federation politics. And when they understood that this amendment was already making damage to the American interests, they tried to invent something to replace it, and that’s how the Magnitsky Act appeared, absolutely artificial act which was in fact an attempt to replace an anti-Soviet amendment with anti-Russian legislation. The Americans knew that we would be reacting the way we did. We reacted, you know; we adopted, our parliament adopted, the Dima Yakovlev law. And this is not our choice, but this is the law of the politics. You always reciprocate. Positively, negatively, but this is something which you cannot change. It was not invented by us. It is the law of international relations. Reciprocity is the key.
FP: Although you say that Americans expected a response, which of course they did, but they were surprised — and it seems even many Russians were surprised — by the specifics of the Russian response. To have it include this provision about adopted children seemed very asymmetrical.
Lavrov: It’s a separate theme. The problems with the kids who have been adopted in the United States are not unique for Russian kids. We have looked into the general problems with adoption in the United States, and we discovered — on the basis of the reports written by American NGOs — we discovered that not only Russians but kids from other countries and the American-born kids have been subject to very unfortunate behavior on the part of their adopted parents. And I can only tell you that we tried very hard to make the agreement on cooperation in the area of adoption work, and unfortunately the State Department, which under that agreement undertook to make sure that the states would allow access by the Russian officials to the adopted kids in case of some problems, but this endeavor did not materialize. And we did not get access in a couple of cases where a state court would not allow Russian consular officials to visit kids in families where these problems were discovered. It is not very often mentioned, but Russia is not the only country which had to do this. Kazakhstan, for example, suspended the implementation of a similar agreement on adoption with the United States; so did Vietnam. And if I am no
t wrong, so did Guatemala. So it is a systemic problem inside the United States, and I do believe the increased public attention to this issue would help the American authorities to do something about it. On the other hand, the emotional atmosphere around this situation with adoption also helped the Russian authorities to pay more attention to the kids who for one reason or another lose their parents, and we will be doing much more than we have been doing before to make sure that these kids are treated well, that they have new families. There will be more financing for this purpose to stimulate adoption inside the Russian Federation, and I’m sure the society will feel a positive effect.
FP: So you don’t see any lasting tension in the U.S.-Russian relationship as a result of this exchange of laws between the two partners.
Lavrov: You know, this was not our choice. And the aggravation of the one or another area of the relations between Russia and the United States is not what we want. I understand that it is not what the Obama administration wants as well. I met at the end of February with John Kerry, and I sensed the same desire to move forward without, of course, forgetting about the differences and trying to find a mutually acceptable solution to those different issues. But on quite a number of areas — I listed some of them — we have common interests, and we shall continue to be partners in cooperating in so many international and regional issues.
FP: It was Alexei Pushkov who described both you and Secretary Kerry as "professional pragmatists" and suggested that maybe you would have a good basis for getting along with him, in particular possibly in comparison with his two predecessors, like Secretary Rice, with whom you had at times a famously contentious relationship. What do you think about that?
Lavrov: Well, I don’t [laughs] engage in comparing my partners. I can only say that I have good personal relations with all secretaries of state with whom I have a chance to work. It is another matter that not always these good personal relations — also at the level of the presidents — translated into some positive movement in practical terms. But John Kerry is a professional. He is pragmatic. And this is a very important quality for a diplomat and especially for a secretary of state. He has very good knowledge of things around the world. He has keen interest in moving some of the old problems out of the deadlock, and we discussed with him potential joint efforts on the issues of Iranian nuclear program, nuclear program of the Korean Peninsula, and of course everything which relates to the so-called Arab Spring. It is really a situation which is creating more threats so far than positive incentives.
FP: Well I definitely want to talk also about your conversations with him regarding Syria. He’s expressed a willingness and an interest in continuing to find a solution that Russia as well as the United States could put forward to the civil war. At the same time, he was just criticizing you in Saudi Arabia for continuing to sell arms to the Syrian regime.
Lavrov: Well, you know on the arms sales, we never, we never tried to hide that we are implementing the contracts which have been signed quite some time ago, long before all this started. And those contracts are mostly about providing the Syrian government with anti-aircraft defensive weapons, and it is absolutely clear that Syria needs legitimately defensive capabilities because the threats are not invented — they are quite real. And any country has the legitimate right to have defense capabilities which are not prohibited by any international treaty, and we are not violating any. So I believe that it is much more important to take a better look at the other side of the drama because the opposition is being armed by offensive weapons, by the weapons which have been also, you know, infiltrated from Libya, including MANPADS, which is a very dangerous weapon. And we have to take this information into account against the background of the leaders of the Free Syrian Army making public statements that airplanes, including civilian airplanes, and airports, including civilian airports, will be legitimate targets. This is very dangerous.
And speaking of the Syrian situation in general and about the American position and the Russian position, we have been listening for a couple of years during the previous administration of President Obama. We have been hearing appeals to us to change our position. All the time the official representatives of the State Department or the White House will be saying, "We call on Russia and China to change their position," which meant the conviction of Washington that their position was right. And I’m gratified to note some positive change which occurred on the part of those who have been denying any possibility for a dialogue as long as President Assad is in Syria. We have been consistent. We have been saying that for us priority No. 1 is to stop the bloodshed and to save lives, and therefore cessation of hostilities and dialogue without any preconditions is the best way to achieve this desired goal. And when people were telling us, "Well, we can support you only if President Assad disappears," that meant one very simple thing: that for them priority No. 1 was not saving lives but removing the president and changing the regime.
Now, we have been, you know, witnessing a very welcome change. Not only from Washington, various other European capitals, but also from the Arab countries who are now saying things which they did not say before, namely that there must be beginning of a dialogue. The leader of the so-called Syrian National Coalition of Revolutionary Forces something, Mr. Khatib, with whom I met in February in Germany, he publicly stated that he would like to start a dialogue. Yes, they are putting in some preconditions, like acceptability of negotiators. The same is being done by the government. The government has said that they would be open to a dialogue with anyone, including with those who fight the government on the ground, except the people who have been engaging in terrorist attacks. But they are also putting in some preconditions. But the main thing is that both players express the desire for a dialogue. And the rest is doable by diplomatic means. And that is where international mediation could help, be it Lakhdar Brahimi, be it the secretary-general of the United Nations, be it anyone else who would be prepared to help arrange the parameters of a dialogue, the place, the venue, the composition of the delegations. But unfortunately this readiness expressed by Mr. Khatib was not supported by the rest of the coalition, and they basically canceled the offer, which is something we do not understand.
If this war in Syria continues, I am afraid that the military solution could only mean a radicalization of the country. Military solution can have only two options: The government wins, or the opposition wins. If the opposition wins on the ground militarily, I am afraid the people who have been selected for this national coalition, the people who compose the Syrian National Council, they will not be invited to Syria because the people with the guns, the extremists, would have the day. And somehow it is not mentioned publicly too often, but when the United States listed the Jabhat al-Nusra as terrorist organization, the members of the coalition of the Syrians — this opposition, the united, national coalition — they protested publicly, saying that those were freedom fighters. And this is a very important point. J
abhat al-Nusra is getting a lot of outside financing, a lot of arms, and by some assessment it is the most efficient opposition force on the ground, and it is affiliated with al Qaeda.
So we really have to understand what we are doing when we support one side or another. The people whom the French and the Africans are fighting in Mali now, those are the same people which Europeans supported in Libya. Some of the arms used against the French apparently are the arms the Libyan opposition received from France. So we must take a broader look at the situation. We cannot say, well, Libya is not Syria, Syria is not Mali, Mali is not Tunis, Tunis is not Egypt. This is absolutely true. Each country is different, but the process which is under way in the context of this Arab Spring is certainly a comprehensive issue involving so many aspects that we cannot afford the luxury of just limiting ourselves at every given moment by a situation in country X, forgetting about the ramifications.
FP: Do you feel that you were misled on the Libyan resolution, that you supported something that Russia in fact does not support?
Lavrov: We stated clearly that the mandate given by the resolution on which we and the Chinese abstained was grossly violated. The no-fly zone is about not allowing the military aircraft flying, and that’s it. And that’s it. The coalition was not patrolling the no-fly zone and was not ensuring the no-fly zone. It was taking out targets on the ground, directly participating in the internal conflict.
FP: Do you think there are any situations in which humanitarian intervention is justified?
Lavrov: Well, you know this issue has been discussed a lot, including at the United Nations. It is a generally accepted rule and norm of international law that sovereignty cannot be used as a pretext for gross violations of human rights, ethnic cleansing, genocide, military crimes. And all this has been clearly spelled out in 2005 when the United Nations General Assembly was convened at the summit level and adopted a declaration where this "responsibility to protect" concept was described. It clearly stated, that declaration, that the priorities given to the efforts of the states themselves who have the obligation — the primary obligation — to protect their population, that the priority must be given to political means. And that only in case when a state exhausts all its possibilities and is not able to protect the population, it is only then that the international community can interfere, but only when the Security Council so decides. So this issue is closed. The rules have been agreed. It is a consensus resolution — declaration. And yes, my answer is yes, there are some situations when this interference is inevitable — on the decision of the Security Council.
FP: How would you describe your own view of international relations? Many people with whom I have spoken have suggested that you are ultimately a realist — a Russian realist — and that you’re not looking for ideology to play a role as much as defending Russia’s national interest. Is that a fair assessment?
Lavrov: Well, that’s what I believe we are trying to do. I don’t believe in ideology in international relations. I started, you know, to work as a diplomat during the Soviet days, and in spite of ideology being very high on the Communist Party agenda, I can assure you that in practical terms we have always been trying to be pragmatic. And this is the case now, and the Russian Federation is promoting a policy internationally which will be uniting countries, not really creating some artificial ideological dividing lines. We have enough ideological dividing lines already. The situation in Europe is a case in point. NATO has lost its raison d’être after the disappearance of the Soviet Union.… Then we have the year 2014 when NATO will leave Afghanistan, though not entirely. But NATO is clearly in search of a reason to exist basically, and the new concept which NATO endorsed at its latest summit raises some questions because NATO was created as a defensive alliance. It is now proclaiming its right to act militarily anywhere, anywhere on Earth, if NATO believes that its interests under the United Nations have been affected negatively. It certainly is a new twist in thinking, and also you know it creates, it comes into confrontation with NATO obligations — with NATO members’ obligations — under the United Nations Charter and under the Organization [for] Security and Co-operation in Europe. Because we have proclaimed in OSCE the principle of indivisible security, and we said that no one of us would increase our security — no one would increase his security at the expense of security of others. And missile defense is a case in point because missile defense is certainly considered by Russia as creating problems for our security. That’s why we again and again come back to this. But ideally we would like this principle of indivisible security to be made legally binding. Now it is just a political declaration. So this is something which illustrates the remaining ideological elements of foreign policy. I am convinced that NATO is becoming more and more ideological and its expansion is absolutely artificially promoted, creating unnecessary dividing lines, as I said. Because we have nothing which would really separate us in practical [terms]. We have the same concerns. We have the same threats. We have the same challenges. And to keep the closed military alliance in a situation when we need to get united universally is really not helpful.
FP: The new Russian foreign-policy concept that President Putin signed … in February speaks of Russia as playing a "balancing" role in the world. Against whom is Russia balancing? And do you see the United States or NATO as an adversary these days?
Lavrov: No, we don’t see them as adversary. And we — Russian military doctrine says that we see a danger not in NATO as such, but in NATO trying to play a global role with global military reach, NATO making its military posture universal. Not NATO as such, but this intention to grab everything. And the second — again, not threat but danger — we see in NATO expansion accompanied by moving military infrastructure closer to our borders. When the NATO-Russia Council was created, when the Warsaw treaty was dismantled … there was a deal, which was repeated later, that there would be no movement of NATO east. Then this honor pledge was not honored, and when the Russian Federation and NATO established their relationship in the late ’90s there was a pledge on paper that there would be no substantial combat capacity of NATO moved to the territory of new members. This is not honored. Therefore we would really be very much eager not to be dissatisfied with political promises but rather get some legally binding guarantees. That’s why we have the position on the missile defense, which I explained to you.
FP: You’ve been Russian foreign minister for longer than anyone in the post-Soviet period. Do you see any changes in Russia’s foreign-policy position in that period of time, and have you seen any change between having President Medvedev in office and the return of President Putin to power?
Lavrov: You know, we have been — remember how we together with France and Germany protested the war in Iraq in 2003, and you remember what position we took on Libya, what position we are taking on Syria, and we have been told by so many Western partners that you will pay for this, that you are losing the Arab world, and so on and so forth, which was wrong. And whi
ch is wrong. In Iraq we have the government which is the result of the American intervention, and this government wants to be friends with Russia. The new Libyan authorities want us to continue the projects, economic and otherwise, which we started with the Qaddafi regime, not because they just have some preferences but because they believe that in the modern world it is not wise just to rely on somebody and not to talk to others, especially since we have a lot to offer.
We have history with the Arab world. We have long history with African countries when we firmly supported decolonization. And, by the way, the borders which were left after decolonization probably are the biggest source of trouble in Africa, when ethnic groups are just cut in the middle artificially — Rwanda, Uganda, Mali, whatever. So, take Sudan. And countries remember that we have always been consistent. We were never saying that you know we can support somebody in Libya and then fight the same people in Mali. Terrorists are terrorists, and when aggressive instincts are not being stopped, we are getting into trouble. So my answer is very straightforward. We have always been telling the truth.
And that is what our famous diplomat Alexander Gorchakov was writing, and he was one of the most efficient and brilliant diplomats in Europe. He was always saying that openness is the key to success. In foreign policy, you have always to lay down your interests bluntly, the way people will understand — and even if these interests do not coincide with the interests of your partner, even if those interests contradict the interests of your partner. If those are legitimately inspired interests, if they are clearly explained, it is always better than to try to go into Byzantine-style intrigues and so on and so forth.
As for the changes in the Russian foreign policy, yes, we have more domestic strength, if you wish. We have become stronger economically; we have been successfully resolving the social problems, raising the level of living — the standards of living — of the population. Yes, a lot is to be done. But the change is very much noticed. And we feel the change. And Russia feels more assertive — not aggressive, but assertive. And we have been getting out of the situation where we found ourselves in the early ’90s when the Soviet Union disappeared and the Russian Federation became what it is — you know, with no borders, with no budget, no money, and with huge problems starting with lack of food and so on and so forth. It is a very different country now. And of course we can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests in the areas where we were absent for quite some time after the demise of the Soviet Union. Africa is a case in point. We now have Russian companies which show interest in doing business in Africa. Africans are interested in having us there. They don’t want just to be dominated by one or two investors. They want more countries, and I believe this is a healthy — this is a healthy desire. Latin America — we economically have become strong enough to look that way as well. And there are many projects which are hugely beneficial between us and Latin American countries. Asia-Pacific of course — we are a Pacific power, and it is absolutely important for us, including for the development of the Far East and eastern Siberia in the Far East, to get closely integrated in the Asian-Pacific economic process. That’s basically what we are doing now in addition to traditional diplomacy in Europe, with China, India. We have a much, much broader agenda because we have more capacity, economically first of all.
FP: You’ve dealt with so many different U.S. ambassadors, within the United Nations and secretaries of the State Department. What is it that Americans get wrong about Russia? What mistakes do they make? For example, on Syria, I’ve many times heard back in Washington over the last year, "Well, the Russians are going to change their position this time" or "We really feel like they’re going to change," and you have not changed your position. There was a misreading there perhaps.
Lavrov: Well, I cannot read people’s minds, so I don’t know why they were saying these things. By the way, when you talk to the serious professionals from the United States or Europe about Syria or about something similar in the Middle East, they all basically share the analysis which I presented to you. But somehow when they go public, they keep saying, "Assad must go; otherwise nothing will stop." They fully understand the dangers of spreading extremism in the region, and they fully understand the need for cooperation and to agree. And so I frankly — United Nations experience is a very useful one for those who want to develop negotiating skills, because multilateral diplomacy is always challenging when you have to take into account the positions of so many players. In the Security Council there are 15 members; in the General Assembly there are almost 200 members. You have always to take into account the interests of so many, of so many states.
I mentioned Gorchakov, and one of his biggest achievements was the restoration of the Russian influence in Europe after the defeat in the Crimean War, and he did it without, as one of the Russian poets wrote — Tyutchev wrote about him — he did it without moving a gun. He did it exclusively through diplomacy, based on his wonderful and deep knowledge of the nuances of the politics of Britain, France, Italy, Prussia, Austria. That’s an example. And I, yes, I even brought one quotation from Gorchakov regarding how to organize the world affairs. He wrote that "Universal peace is a basis for natural relations amongst states, and this basis ensures equality of all countries, big and small. Foreign intervention into the domestic matters is unacceptable. It is unacceptable to use force in international relations, especially by the countries who consider themselves leaders of civilization." I believe this is the first attempt to write a concept which later became the United Nations Charter. So I really admire this man, and he served great service to his country, and we are trying to promote his traditions.
FP: Your key experience professionally was your years at the United Nations. Many people are very critical of the United Nations today and suggest that it’s lost a fair amount of its ability to help constructively solve problems. Do you agree that the United Nations doesn’t play the role that it used to?
Lavrov: The United Nations is not, is not some animal which is on its own. The United Nations is the member states. And, first of all, the Security Council. It was not by just chance that the Security Council was created the way it was. Namely, these five permanent members. It was on the insistence of the United States that the permanent-membership institution was created in the United Nations, because the U.S. did not want to repeat the failure of the League of Nations, which did not provide for the special role to be played by big powers. The model which was chosen and endorsed for the United Nations, I think it is a working model and it is an efficient one. When people say that Russia, China veto a resolution and therefore the organization has been paralyzed, it is a distortion of the original idea of the founding fathers. The veto was introduced, again, by the American insistence to make sure that decisions to be taken which have direct influence on international peace and security, that these decisions are viable and implementable. It was clearly understood by those who wrote the U.N. Charter that if one of the great powers objects, then the decision would not really be made because it wouldn’t work. That’s basically the reason for this veto to be included in the charter. So when countries sign and ratify the charter, they accept this — they accept the veto right. So the veto is not somebod
y’s caprice. It’s a part of the decision-making process, and if there is a veto, then by the charter the decision is not going to be effective and it is not going to be taken.
So when we speak about the efficiency of the United Nations, people normally mean only one thing: whether the Security Council supported the position of the West or not. That’s basically it. Because the mass media is dominated by the West, and when a president of a Western country says, "This leader is not going to be running his country; that’s my decision," and then the Security Council does not support a resolution on this issue. Then of course the media starts playing this theme of saying that the Security Council and the United Nations have been paralyzed and inefficient and so on and so forth. It is a game to a large extent, but of course the public attention is always given to some scandalous issues, conflicts, killings, murders, wars. Let’s not forget that the United Nations is a system of almost two dozen organizations: electricity, civil aviation, maritime shipping, international health standards, international labor standards. So many things which we take for granted every day are being helped by the existence of the United Nations system in its specialized agencies. Unfortunately, it’s not something which sells by the media.
FP: In recent years, Russia and China have increasingly voted together when there have been vetoes or the threat of veto. Does that make — is China Russia’s closest partner then?
Lavrov: Well, we are strategic partners with China. And I believe that the reason is — I mean the reason why we see eye to eye on international issues is because we want the same things in international relations: democracy and the rule of law. The rule of law has been promoted by our Western friends exclusively for domestic policies — at the level of nation-states. As soon as you ask them to discuss the rule of law internationally, they’re not so eager.
FP: This is true, although many of them would say that Russia and China are working together at the Security Council because you have a shared mutual concern in making sure that you have the ability to impose authoritarian policies at home without any threat of intervention internationally.
Lavrov: Well, that’s an explanation which probably suits the Western vision of Russia and China or the vision of those who would like to present Russia and China as a difficulty in international relations. We have been taking the position on the basis of our understanding of the situations and on the basis of the need to strengthen pluralism in international relations, to strengthen democratic rules in deciding on international issues and ensuring the supremacy of the law in international relations. And this is not liked by those who believe that they know better than anyone else how to qualify a situation in one country in the Middle East and the situation in another country in Africa and another country in Latin America. It is all from the past epoch.
We have to really get used to the fact that there are more than one center in the world politics, that the unipolar world never succeeded, that there are more growing, emerging economic financial powers and with economic and financial might also comes political influence. And that China has its independent view of the world and how it should be evolving. Russia has the same right and the same ability to be independent in its thinking, but independent does not mean isolationist. We want to be and will be independent in our foreign policy, but we are all in favor of promoting collective approaches to all these local threats and challenges. It is only on the basis of collectively developed decisions that we can find a sustainable way forward.
FP: So when people say you are our modern version of Mr. No because of this Russian use of the veto, you don’t see that as a problem for Russia, the idea that ultimately the veto is a powerful tool but it is a negative tool?
Lavrov: On Syria we voted with quite solid partners — not only China, India also voted with us. And Russia, China, and India, those are three players in the international arena which you can hardly ignore. You can also hardly ignore the United States as a player. And the United States did not shy away dozens of times to use veto alone with half of the voting members of the Security Council voting in favor of something. So — and we are taking this quite realistically if you wish and philosophically.