Editor’s note: This article is the second piece of a five-part series that examines the bizarre and at times uncanny relationship between John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov. Click here to read the first article.
Since he began his tenure as foreign minister in 2004, Sergey Lavrov’s relationships with former United States secretaries of state Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton have been unpleasant. And he was in no mood to begin anew with an even more pompous secretary of state.
Lavrov had clashed with Powell over Ukraine’s 2004-2005 “Orange Revolution”, and he disliked Rice immensely. He reportedly perfected the art of irritating her.
And despite Clinton’s 2009 attempt to “reset” deteriorating ties with Russia, the relationship ironically went into “overload” mode. Clinton presented the Russians with a symbolic “reset” red button in Geneva to signal a positive change in US-Russia relations, yet the button amusingly bore the word for “overload” in Russian.
When the Syrian crisis intensified at the beginning of 2012, Clinton termed the Chinese and Russian disapproval to the US initiative to stop the bloodshed in Syria “despicable”. Lavrov shot back, calling the American response “hysterical”.
The political grandstanding and badgering between the two also reflected how Lavrov, an old apparatchik who belongs to the traditional diplomatic men’s club, does not like working with women – whether Clinton or Rice. He would’ve hated working with Madeleine Albright.
Although Kerry is not as macho, he also belongs to the same old misogynistic tradition: known as a Mad Men’s club of diplomats, if you’ve ever watched the American TV series. He does, however, do it with more fineness.
On his first day of work, Kerry wondered jokingly, in reference to Clinton, if any man could manage the state department, and added, rather inappropriately, that he had “big heels to fill”, a joke that could not have gone down well among the working women at the state department.
It was certainly not love at first sight - but it was the first of many more encounters to come. And with each encounter, suspicion gave way to familiarity as the two grew on each other.
At any rate, Kerry and Lavrov finally met to discuss Syria, among other issues. Since there’s public record of their talks, based on various news reports, this is how I imagine their first conversation went:
JK: Happy to meet you at last, Mr Foreign Minister. [With a wide smile showing his big teeth] So much to discuss.
SL: [Shakes hands with Kerry, squishing his fingers for good measure] I suggest we start by clearing the air and opening a new page.
JK: [Surprised] You’ve got a strong grip there, Sergey.
SL: Look, Hillary was quite a difficult person to deal with. She was more driven by future presidential ambitions than serious diplomacy, and she was unrealistic. Now, President Obama is being difficult.
JK: It rather seems to me, that when Dmitry Medvedev was president, he got along just fine with President Obama, and they got a lot done. It seems to me that it is President Putin who has been difficult since retaking the presidency.
SL: Come on John, you know that Dmitry wouldn’t take a leak without Putin’s permission – you just prefer to ignore the fact.
JK: [Half-jokingly] I don’t suppose you do either! I am sorry; I couldn’t help myself [his voice trailed as he giggled].
SL: No, neither do I [he retorted rather bitterly] – not when you continue to screw up in the Middle East and leave me little or no wiggle room to change Vladimir’s opinion!
JK: What screw-ups? We have long said that we will stand with those who stand for themselves. We couldn’t just stand on the sidelines as Arab dictators slaughtered their people.
SL: Seriously? You’re not going to eat my brain with cliches! Are you? How have you improved the situation there? I mean, look at it! Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq! The whole region is crumbling because of your policies. You give people false expectations of hope, and you never follow through. You Americans are hypocrites. You say one thing and you do another.
JK: Oh, really? Well, at least we stand for something. They’re called universal values and human rights. What do you stand for? Didn’t you act like thugs in Georgia? It can’t be all about power, you know. You used to have ideals, flawed ideals, but ideals nonetheless. Nowadays, it seems you’re all about personal ambition, nationalism and state interest. Mother Russia! Give me a break!
SL: Don’t go there and spare me the bullshit. At least we don’t lie to ourselves and to the world. Yes, we work to preserve our interests and we admit it. It’s called realism. You camouflage the pursuit of your imperial interest on fake humanitarian or idealistic grounds. It’s called deception.
JK: We promote freedom, democracy and human rights because it serves our interests. Interests and values aren’t mutually exclusive, Sergey.
SL: [Repeating himself] Delusional, delusional, de-lusion-al. Every time your country tried to force regime change, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya, you’ve created a terrible mess. And don’t get me started over your other military escapades.
I imagine the recrimination went on and on. And while it was disagreeable, the exchange did culminate in a frank and sobering rapport, the two men thought.
Kerry would’ve insisted that despite their Cold War-like differences, there were lots of positives to build on, and expressed confidence, as he always does, that he was going to change Sergey’s mind.
Delusional, the Russian thought to himself. This guy will kill me with his confidence and optimism.
The meeting reportedly went on for two hours, and when it was finally over; Lavrov portrayed it as “constructive” and “ambitious”. The US State Department referred to it as “really serious and hard-working”.
It was certainly not love at first sight – but it was the first of many more encounters to come. And with each encounter, suspicion gave way to familiarity as the two grew on each other.
But the question remains: What is it about these two men that allowed their relationship to bloom when US-Russian relations forecast doom and gloom?
Coming up in the series on Kerry and Lavrov: How and why the bromance developed.
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.