Did you ever go to that middle school dance where the girls stood on one side of the room and the boys on the other, eye contact was minimal, and there was a general mood of anxiousness?
That pretty much describes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s joint press conference yesterday. Add some chilly hostility and you get an idea of what Tillerson was likely dealing with behind closed doors for several hours in Moscow. When Lavrov tells the press that the talks were “frank,” that’s diplomatic jargon for icy and contentious – characteristics that describe current U.S.-Russia relations to a tee.
Tillerson and Lavrov tried to put a positive spin on the encounter, but you would have to be completely devoid of your senses if you didn’t notice how awkward the two were next to each other. Lavrov, the consummate Scotch-drinking diplomat who’s been heading up Russian foreign policy for the past 14 years, is stoic-looking on a good day (a frown is Lavrov’s happy face). But it was Tillerson who revealed the mood. He could barely conjure up a smile, sitting there almost motionless as he tried to explain why Russia’s continued military and diplomatic support for the Assad regime was destroying its international reputation, as if Lavrov wasn’t even in the room, sitting at the same table.
The two tried to remind everybody that Washington and Moscow have common interests. Counterterrorism is a big one. And even on Assad, the most contentious issue riling the relationship right now, both America and Russia can agree that Syria should be terrorist-free, sovereign, and governed by an administration that the Syrian people can respect.
Yet the differences were stark. When it came time for questions, Tillerson and Lavrov spoke as if they were living in different universes. To Tillerson, there was no doubt that Assad was responsible for last week’s chemical weapons attack; for Lavrov, the chemical incident is a mystery that needs to be investigated independently by the U.N. To Tillerson, Assad can’t possibly be part of a future political process; for Lavrov, pushing out Assad will lead to further bloodshed and chaos, just as it has with dictators in the past. To Tillerson, it’s “fairly well-established” that Moscow screwed around in last year’s U.S. elections; to Lavrov, the allegations are nonsense, lacking any concrete proof.
Tillerson said one thing, and Lavrov said the exact opposite. Both men were in a silent competition to one-up each other and convince the world that his country was on the right side of history—great for showmanship, but terrible for productive diplomacy.
The meetings in Moscow concluded without any significant accomplishments other than Vladimir Putin agreeing to reinstate the U.S.-Russia deconfliction channel in Syria, which, after all, keeps Russian pilots safe as well. Given the state of U.S.-Russia relations at the moment, with Russian and U.S. officials openly scolding each other in the U.N. Security Council chamber, we shouldn’t have expected anything different. Tillerson leaves Moscow now with nothing but a headache, wondering how the hell he’ll be able to talk to Lavrov for the next four years without having to carry blood-pressure medication.