Regarding John Kerry’s most recent visit to Russia, it is best remembered for his dialogue with Putin about “the case.” Putin joked that apparently the U.S. is not doing so well, because the American secretary of state must carry his own briefcase (instead of someone doing that for him). Putin further suggested that maybe it contained money for “diplomatic bargaining”? Kerry hit back, saying, “When we have a private moment, I'll show you what's in my briefcase. And I think you'll be surprised — pleasantly.”
Of course, the contents of the case were not shown to the public. The conventional wisdom (“vulgar Machiavellianism”) is that diplomacy is composed of tricky strategies, and that “words are given in order to conceal true thoughts.” It is clear that urgent content will be prioritized while the “diplomatic ritual" will come second. Furthermore (“vulgar Marxism”), the solution to sophisticated and diplomatic political decisions is “concentrated economics”; in simple terms, trade and the monetary interests of the state or even individual corporations.
Sometimes the actions of politicians are based on what's important in terms of oil pipelines or some other economic equivalent. In the lager picture, politicians only think about economics. However, sometimes it is not just about economics. It is not money-related, but it is about ideology or religion or some other ambition. Often, money and material resources are spent in these areas. This happens both in ordinary life and in international politics as well.
It's not all just a “diplomatic ritual.”
Diplomats decide hidden political concerns behind closed doors, but in the public eye they focus on external PR tasks. It is not clear what constitutes either strictly political concerns or these PR tasks. It happens in every scenario, but generally maintaining a certain level of relationship — even without reaching concrete decisions — is one of the main goals in any human communication, including political and diplomatic relationships. This, too, includes Kerry’s visit. Last year was Kerry’s third meeting with Putin in Russia. Each meeting shows more warm personal contact, and it appears to continue in this pattern.
Meanwhile, relations between the United States and Russia this year can hardly be called “friendly,” or even “neutral.” The rhetoric is different and appears much more confrontational. No type of “binding statement” has resulted from these visits. They go to the press and talk, and it ends there.
On both sides, they are simply “putting up a good front,” as an attempt to alleviate uncertainty with a smile.
Of course, this can be analyzed. For example, after the joke over “the case,” positive rhetoric resounded. Putin noted Obama’s personal contribution toward a solution to the problems in Syria. Kerry underscored the importance of understanding Russia’s position. He used the term “an anti-Hitler coalition” (the same phrase Russia has used many times to call upon “our Western partners” to create something similar against the “plague of the 21st century” — international terrorism).
When it came to removing sanctions, Kerry again repeated, “…When all of the provisions of Minsk are complete.” American and European banks are in effect almost sabotaging the deployment of Russian bonds (and obviously not strictly for their own commercial purposes, but under political pressure). There is a strong convergence on Syria — which is interesting — as well as on the relationship with the Kurds. However, discrepancies pertaining to Assad are still evident.
So, what can be said of this “diplomatic routine” or “courtesy visit” for the third year? Is it possible that some kind of secret agreement was reached that is not at the level of geopolitical decisions?
I am not a connoisseur of “secret diplomacy.” There certainly should not be any “territorial catastrophes,” or “secret mutual military commitments.” Such political games should remain in the first half of the 20th century, although they are still a possibility… Remember again the 20th century. It witnessed not just all types of “secret protocols,” or the Yalta Conference* and its like, but also a “detente” between the Soviet Union and the West.
This detente began in 1968 immediately after the invasion by Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia. Concurrently, the Vietnam War was fueling a polarizing anger (in effect between the United States and Soviet Union). The fundamental economic and ideological tensions were not lessened during the detente, and neither were the countless remaining geopolitical confrontations along all meridians and parallels. Therefore, was the culmination of the “policy of detente,” which occurred at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (Helsinki, 1975), merely an empty diplomatic game? I think this can hardly be considered fair. In addition to sudden actions and collisions, there is also policy that flows smoothly and quietly. One does not exclude the other. One cannot determine the state of relations in the near future. Since the detente, new meetings have occurred. For example, Kissinger recently met Putin. Though the 92-year-old retiree holds no current official position, Putin prioritized this meeting and spoke honorably of Kissinger.
But what is the status today? It can be said that Russia and the United States (or NATO) have no territorial disputes between themselves and no mutual military threats. There are common enemies (banned both in Russia and the West: the Islamic State group). Controversy is present over Ukraine and Crimea. Additionally, there are political conflicts and reciprocal sanctions. There is a double-edged rhetoric that is often most important to evaluate the relations between states. However, neither will try to impose its political system or ideology on the other.
Friendship in these conditions is not possible. As for the detente, both sides have a refined understanding of politics, and they continue to demonstrate a willingness to smile.
So, what was in “the case?” Maybe it was an exchange of friendly remarks, and that was the “secret contents.”
*Editor’s note: The Yalta Conference was a meeting of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt early in February 1945 as World War II was winding down.