Twilight of the Proconsuls

On Victoria Nuland’s gaffe and the Cold War echoes of American diplomacy abroad.


Proconsuls come from a long and distinguished tradition going back to ancient Rome. They were the officials sent to far flung provinces to keep provincials in line. A good proconsul was a bit of a mastermind as well as a brawler. When a rival turned up on the scene, they were expected to go mano a mano

Andrew Stuart, who died recently, was a nice example. He was the British protagonist in something known as the "Coconut War" against his French counterpart and a sundry bunch of lesser players on the islands of Vanuatu. The British and French shared jurisdiction over what was then called the New Hebrides. Using the pretext of a local rebellion, the French conspired to prevent the islands’ move toward independence, which the British backed. Through deft diplomacy and a bit of skullduggery, the pro-British party prevailed and Vanuatu’s sovereignty was secured. Stuart had another advantage besides cunning and the assistance of a few tough British Marines. In contesting the actions of the French and the rebellion they helped to foment, he had on his side the moral cause of decolonization.

Successful proconsuls are those who fight on behalf of history’s angels. Or, as W. Cameron Forbes, the kinsman of John Kerry who was governor-general of the Philippines, once put it, "we should only rule this place so it can rule itself." Today, there may be fewer remote islands for such proconsuls to shine; but last week’s mini-brouhaha over the leaked telephone conversation of Victoria Nuland shows that the proconsular impulse lives on, even in the heart of Old Europe.

Most of the press about the leak has mentioned Nuland’s profane reference to the role of the European Union in the crisis underway in Ukraine: "Fuck the E.U." This was said to be embarrassing to Nuland, who is the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs and presumably must keep on good terms with European Union officials. Like most diplomats, she and they will get over it, if they have not already.

What ought to be more embarrassing to Nuland is the crude and anachronistic theme of the rest of the conversation. In the leaked call, she and her man in Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, review the state of play in Kiev and Nuland (minus the nuances of The Quiet American), declares her favorites among opposition leaders. She adopts the precise language of the operative, telling Pyatt exactly what he should do and double checking his compliance.

The title of the clip — "the Marionettes of Maidan" — is apt. For weeks, the Russian government has been accused of masterminding the reaction to the protests, and of interfering against Ukrainian sovereignty. Vladimir Putin’s response has been consistent: tu quoque.

It helps that the American protagonist in this instance is seen to be a veteran player of the game. Nuland knows both Russia and the E.U. well. Several accounts last week mentioned the months she spent working on a Soviet fishing trawler. She served in Moscow as a young diplomat and was the strong right arm of Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton’s Russia maven. She later went to work for Dick Cheney before serving in Brussels as the U.S. permanent representative to NATO.

She also happens to be married to Robert Kagan, who wrote Of Paradise and Power, a bestselling pamphlet that equated America to Mars and Europe to Venus. The divided response over Ukraine would appear to be a perfect illustration of his thesis: Europe talks in platitudes; America acts. Yet it was an E.U. initiative, called the Eastern Partnership, which in large part prompted the crisis. Offered to Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, it is a modest political and economic program for the remaining "European" former Soviet republics to feel, well, more European.

Ukraine’s rejection of the initiative was seen as a repudiation of the West in favor of the East, that is to say, Russia. This was what sent so many residents of Kiev into the streets waving E.U. flags, and led to an uprising which by now has taken on a larger dimension. However it turns out for Ukrainians, it is another reminder that the 21st century offers no paradise from the Atlantic to the Urals.

Aspiring proconsuls like Nuland, whose early careers coincided with the "post-Cold War," may see the renewal of East-West rivalry at the heart of the old Russian Empire as enlivening. To some of them it may be that the Cold War never really ended, and that traditional ways of dealing with Russians are still needed. This is possible, but it is reminiscent of the infamous line of the wife of a now forgotten minor American mandarin who blamed the foreign-policy failures of the Kennedy administration on the repressed need of one-time junior officers in World War II to prove that they could be just as tough as their fathers had been.

The generational gap now is ironic. Nuland’s cohort came of age at the moment when diplomacy had supposedly moved beyond the zero-sum legerdemain that had become second nature to many Cold Warriors. Collective security was back in vogue; proconsulship, at least the old-fashioned kind, was out.

Nuland’s work for Talbott coincided with a NATO project called Partnership for Peace, similar to today’s E.U. Eastern Partnership, although it was offered publicly (as even the Marshall Plan was) to anyone east of the old Iron Curtain, including Russia. For reasons that are still opaque, Talbott and his team came instead to endorse a policy of enlarging NATO itself, which in effect supplanted the Partnership for Peace. The scholar Michael Mandelbaum, who had been well disposed toward the Clinton administration, called this nothing less than a "bridge to the nineteenth century."

The Russians haven’t been idle, of course. They nearly got into a shooting match with NATO in the former Yugoslavia, which NATO bombed and then occupied. Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, meanwhile, carried the point against any further NATO enlargement. It also prompted the E.U.’s Eastern Partnership scheme. It is no surprise that its offer was not extended to Russia. Moscow’s reaction is even less surprising.

Still, it must appear strange to some Europeans for their cause to have been taken up with so much zeal by an American more than 20 years after the formal end of the Cold War in Europe. And in the process to defame the E.U. — the institutional beneficiary of a once noble effort, well-backed by the United States, to bury so many old rivalries there.

Proconsuls have come and gone; and the received wisdom in Europe has been, to echo Governor Forbes, that they are no longer needed. There ought to be no coconut wars in a Europe whole and free. Success instead is measured in the frumpy appeal of a figure like Catherine Ashton.

Nuland may think otherwise. She may also recall the quip of Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader who did more than any other to demonstrate his own faith in a "Common European Home." He said that removing Enemy No. 1 from the scene would bring about a psychological crisis for some people in the West. He may have been right.

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