Kauffmann’s op-ed essay shows that she deals in platitudes and makes foolhardy mistakes of fact and interpretation which, due to her august position in mainstream media, few if any call out. In this brief critique, I will break that silence…
Push-back to Sylvie Kauffmann’s op-ed page essay “How Europe Can Help Kiev” in The International New York Times
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
By their calling, journalists should be diligent, hard-working folks. After all, they are by and large generalists with a gift for writing and/or speaking who are called upon to deal with any and all subjects, who are dispatched to the four corners of the globe to cover breaking news and must get into the core facts with great speed.
However, by her past performance and by her op-ed page contribution to The International New York Times this week, the former editor-in-chief of Le Monde and its current editorial director has demonstrated that hard work is not her forte.
In this connection I am obliged to point out that Kauffmann’s mental laziness and preference to talk rather than listen first came to my attention in March 2012 when she, together with the editors-in-chief of five other leading world newspapers, took part in a round-table meeting in Novo Ogarevo with then presidential candidate Vladimir Putin just days before the Russian election.¹ They were expected to discuss the points in a 14 page campaign manifesto entitled “Russia and a Changing World” which Putin had just published. Instead they lectured Putin on democracy.
In her article about the event, “In Putin’s Dacha,’ appearing in Le Monde a week later, Kauffmann denounced the Russian position paper as ‘a diatribe.’ However, from the 38 page transcript of the meeting which was published on Putin’s website, it is plain that Kauffmann, like 4 of the other 5 editors, never bothered to read Putin’s 14 pages on the way to the meeting. The only diligent soul was the Japanese editor of Asahi Shimbun. And Kauffmann used her 5 minutes in direct contact with Russia’s top politician to badger Putin on why Russia did not force Syria’s President Assad to release a wounded French journalist then being held hostage. It took Putin to explain that the lady journalist was actually being held not by Syrian state forces but by the rebels, who were refusing to hand her over to a waiting Russian helicopter crew.
Kauffmann’s latest op-ed essay shows that she continues to deal in platitudes, to serve up conventional wisdom and to make foolhardy mistakes of fact and interpretation which, due to her august position in mainstream media, few if any call out. In the following brief critique, I will break that silence: the queen of the French print media is stark naked. And this is all the more to be rued because she has chosen to address one of the key questions of international relations in our day: how to interrelate with rising Russia.
Sylvie Kauffmann strikes a moderate, above-the-fray pose in her essay on the recent European diplomatic fiasco in relations with Ukraine. From the very start, she seeks to minimize the nature of Europe’s defeat by putting her American audience on the defensive and issuing them a put-down that may be well received among intellectual snobs in the Times readership but in no way exculpates Europe for its own grievous obtuseness in handling Russia.
Kauffmann calls to mind President George Bush’s ‘Chicken Kiev” speech of 1991 to demonstrate how wrongly American leaders can read the situation on the ground in far-off places. That Bush erred is undisputable, however, his calculations (concern over nuclear proliferation if the Soviet Union broke up) were graver and deserve greater respect that Kauffmann deals him.
Then with typical Parisian hauteur she notes the antics on Kyiv’s Independence Square last week by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Senator John McCain. Yes, Kauffmann is right: both revealed the American predisposition to reach into the Cold War toolbox to deal with every new development in relations with the East. However, she fails to mention that European politicians were equally keen to mingle with pro-Europe demonstrators in Kyiv and pose for photo opportunities, among them a delegation from the European People’s Party in the European Parliament and the Foreign Minister of Germany, Guido Westerwelle. Such grandstanding is cheap politics and unhelpful meddling in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, whether practiced by Americans or Europeans.
Kauffmann tells us Europe has superior savoir-faire with regard to Russia arising from its new Member States in the East: “Today, some of the younger members – Sweden Poland, Lithuania – are important players in this drama, bringing new expertise to Brussels.” In this connection she cites in particular the Czech EU Commissioner for enlargement Stefan Fule and the Polish diplomat Jan Tombinski, the EU ambassador to Kyiv. They and others with in-depth experience constitute a ‘new Europe’ that is ‘already bringing East and West together.”
There are grievous flaws in logic and in fact in these assertions. First, on the logic side, we may say that the proof is always in the pudding. What counts is the outcome, which in the case of Ukraine’s decision against signing the political and economic agreements with the EU at the end of November was a pure disaster for the policy set by Brussels. Kauffmann herself quotes Aleksander Kwasniewski to the effect that “Brussels was naïve.” That puts in question the expertise and political wisdom of the EU team.
Moreover, in the broader sense the New Europe, including Sweden, is precisely part of the problem, not the solution to relations with Russia. Poland, Lithuania and Sweden all have contested control of East Central Europe with Russia going back to the 17th century. On the Old Continent, all political elites have excellent historical memories. And while Poland and Sweden have in the past few years found an accommodation with Moscow and resolved issues of mutual interest, Lithuania and its sister Member States in the Baltics have continued up to the present to lead the charge against Russia and for many years now have frustrated the conclusion of a new strategic agreement at the EU level.
Now for the most inexplicable error of facts: Kaufmann suggests that Ukraine’s signing the EU documents will be good for its economy, which can then be expected to grow as has Poland’s since its accession. Poland now has a per capita GDP which is 3 times higher than Ukraine’s. She goes on: “If, one day, the Ukrainians catch up with the Poles, their Russian counterparts will take note.” Sadly, Mme. Kauffmann did not bother to take two minutes to consult Wikipedia on per capita GDP in the world. Had she done so, she would find that in 2012 Russia ranked number 47 in the world with $14,302 while Poland was number 55, with $12,709.
That blunder is emblematic of her closed mind to new information. Sylvie Kauffmann is, simply put, too full of herself, too complacent to be an intellectual leader. Her own flag waving for Europe is not at all dissimilar from Reagan’s image of America as a beacon, a light on the hill. Per Kauffmann, Europe means “rule of law, government without corruption and solidarity.” Starting from a low base, like all of the post-Soviet states, Russia today is trying hard to tackle those three issues, with greater or lesser success. Meanwhile Europe, with an acknowledged ‘democracy deficit’ that the sovereign debt crisis and austerity have highlighted, is still sitting on its laurels. At a university conference in Brussels last week, experts from the local chapter of Transparency International and the International Chamber of Commerce revealed that a seemingly whistle-clean country like Belgium, ranking 15th in the TI ratings per perceived corruption (Russia is 127th) holds the position chiefly because of the opaqueness of its public services.²
Most importantly, and revelatory of her idealist turn of mind, Kaufmann leaves current money matters for the very last paragraph in her essay. She notes that Vladimir Putin offered to Ukraine $15 billion in loans and discounted natural gas, which she calls ‘a big fish.’ Her belief that Europe’s offering instead to ‘teach Ukraine how to fish for itself’ does not stand up to any scrutiny when she is addressing a country in recession, a country which has exhausted its hard currency reserves and is at the brink of default.
It is regrettable that the op-ed page of the International New York Times has no fact or logic checks on the essays it publishes so long as the basic message is in line with the editorial stance of the paper itself. The exclusive showcasing of like-minded authors is not a credit to the paper’s management or an encouragement to its readership to think for themselves.
²This will be the subject of a separate analytical essay in the coming week
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G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book, Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback and e-book from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. Also on sale in Sterling and Waterstone’s booksellers, Brussels.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2013