John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov: Fatal attraction I
It was disturbing watching John’s bromance with Sergey deepen while Syria burned.
I’ve had my doubts for a long time. There’s something unusual about them. Their body language – from the way they stroll together exchanging smiles and stares, to the way they tease and joke in the midst of tension and conflict.
Not exactly protocol, if you know what I mean.
But when I read an Agence France-Presse story back in September 2013 about this diplomatic “odd couple”, my suspicion turned into curiosity. I was compelled to dig deeper.
As I read the newswire story, I could only shake my head, as the AFP reporter went on to describe with uncanny details the prospects for John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov in Geneva.
“The two men, who are spending three nights in the same luxury hotel where the famous reset button was debuted, may also be bonding over their late-night dinners. Lavrov is known to enjoy Scotch whisky, while Kerry is partial to the occasional beer or glass of fine wine.”
Bromance in the making
Despite heightened tensions and the escalation to war in the eastern Mediterranean at the time, Kerry was comfortable enough to tease a blushing Lavrov in a televised encounter, before their Geneva talks on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
The world was on edge as the United States prepared to strike against the Syrian regime following Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons to attack his people that summer.
Assad, the doctor-cum-dictator, has killed tens of thousands using conventional weaponry, but the use of weapons of mass destruction was a red line – the US president warned as such.
Beyond the smiles and the regular show of diplomacy, serious questions on the reality of US-Russian relations linger below the surface: When did this political romance evolve? How has it survived bitter geopolitical rivalries? And what makes these two seasoned diplomats tick?
Barack Obama insisted that it wasn’t just a US red line, but an international red line as well: One cannot be allowed to attack a population with chemicals.
Bomb them, shoot them, torture them to death, but do not go spraying them with chemicals! Fair enough.
At any rate, the bonding must have worked: The Americans held off on threatening the use of force and accepted a Russian-brokered deal with Assad instead, allowing him to rid Syria of chemical weapons in return for putting the prospect of US-led strikes against his regime on hold indefinitely.
In reality, Assad, the rogue dictator became a partner in an internationally brokered deal. Obama and Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu were happy to see Syria free of weapons of mass destruction, but Syrians continued to die.
The diplomatic affair
Meanwhile, Kerry and Lavrov’s Geneva encounter would have been no more than a passing diplomatic fling if the next two years had been different. But that wasn’t the case. The two men became too close for comfort.
That’s not to say that Kerry and Lavrov did not have their ups and downs, but those were the kind of disagreements couples have even on their honeymoon.
By way of contrast, their relationship has been far more pleasant than that of Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, which witnessed a few ups but mostly downs, but I will get to that later.
It was disturbing watching John’s bromance with Sergey deepen while Syria burned. As the relationship evolved, neither Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine nor its entry into the Syrian conflict could put a serious dent in the love affair.
But beyond the smiles and the regular show of diplomacy, serious questions on the reality of US-Russian relations linger below the surface: When did this political romance evolve? How has it survived bitter geopolitical rivalries? And what makes these two seasoned diplomats tick?
A rocky start
Less than two weeks into Kerry’s tenure as secretary of state, North Korea alarmed the US and the rest of the world with its third nuclear test on February 11, 2013.
As one would expect, the new secretary of state contacted his Russian counterpart to consider what could be done about the sudden and dangerous escalation on the part of Pyongyang. Lavrov did not pick up or call back.
Kerry waited. One … two … three days, yet there was no response from his Russian counterpart. Such behaviour was anything but diplomatic, let alone friendly.
OPINION: Are the US and Russia helping or deceiving the Syrians?
Was Lavrov playing games? Playing hard to get? Giving Kerry a taste of what’s to come? Showing him who’s the boss?
Washington based journalists had a field day with the Russian humiliation of the new secretary. It seemed that there was nothing else to ask about except the damned call, or should I say – the no callback.
Kerry had no other option but to be patient, especially when it turned out that Lavrov was travelling in Africa. It’s not like there were no phones or no reception on the continent. But then again, he could have been on a safari.
OPINION: Moscow and Washington are not that far apart on Syria
When Lavrov finally did return the call six long days later, their conversation was not made public. But I imagine – based on news reports – it could have only been frosty and might have gone as follows:
JK: I hoped to hear from you earlier. It was urgent.
SL: I had a busy travel schedule, and in all truth, what could we have done? The Koreans had already launched their missile.
[With a tone of irony and dismay] Besides, you already called your new friends, the Chinese.
JK: Look, I am keen to work closely with you regardless of your distaste for our diplomacy. I realise that every new secretary of state speaks of fresh beginnings, and Hillary even made a PR stunt of it.
SL: [Chuckling] She sure did, and she got it all wrong!
JK: This is different; I am different, and I will prove it to you. Watch out, Sergey, we are going to be friends.
SL: Oouf, you’re quite the optimist. Make no mistake, I have a new president in the Kremlin and he’s in no mood to play nice.
JK: My president has already made it clear to your former boss [Medvedev] that he’s freer in his second term to pursue the policies he desires without pressure from Congress or the worries of another election.
SL: The proof is in the pudding [chuckles at the use of an old English proverb]
JK: [Exasperated] Tell you what – how about we meet in Berlin next week? The pudding is on me, the stomach ache on you.
SL: The 26th?
Coming up in the series on Kerry and Lavrov: Was it love at first sight?
Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera. Follow him on Facebook.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.