Who Scripted the New Queen Victoria’s Tragic Exit?

Like Hamlet’s Polonius, who after pushing forward much of the tragedy’s plot, surprisingly exited the play two acts before its conclusion, Victoria Nuland unexpectedly leaves the stage and the unfinished Ukraine drama she was so instrumental in launching.
Victoria Nuland

KYIV, UKRAINE – JULY 16, 2015: USA Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland visits Ukraine. © Vitaliy Holovin / shutterstock.com

March 13, 2024 03:02 EDT

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed his regrets following Victoria Nuland’s unexpected resignation from her key role in the State Department. Praising her immense talent, he highlights the fact that she “personified President Biden’s commitment to put diplomacy back at the center of our foreign policy and revitalize America’s global leadership at a crucial time for our nation and the world.”

Diplomacy took on new meaning during the thirty-year reign of the State Department’s Queen Victoria. Today’s definition seeks to capture the essence of the concept that sits “at the center of” Biden’s, Blinken’s and Nuland’s foreign policy.

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:


The practice of peremptorily giving instructions to ambassadors intended to relieve them of the embarrassing and time-consuming task of engaging in dialogue with foreign governments.

Contextual note

Ukraine’s modern history will be forever marked by an intercepted phone call between Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt on February 4, 2014, 18 days before the coup d’état that overturned the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. In it, Nuland provided the perfect demonstration of how diplomacy has come to resemble the art of dramaturgy. Whether Nuland herself wrote the script of the play, or whether she was the designated lead actor of a production funded and produced in Washington’s Beltway, we may never know.

We do know, however, that for the diplomats involved, it was more about playing rather than practicing the complex but boring ritual of constructive dialogue that in former times defined diplomacy. Postmodern diplomacy can be summed up in this idea: Don’t waste time talking; write the script and hire the actors.

Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt’s opening words in the conversation were: “I think we’re in play.” After this flourish, the two immediately embark on the equivalent of a director’s casting session for an upcoming Broadway production. It’s clear from their phone chat that they are preparing a new season of political theater in Ukraine. The program would include the turbulent drama of the Maidan coup quickly followed by a revolt by the ethnic Russians in the Donbas that quickly morphed into a civil war punctuated by Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.

The following season featured the two-act tragedy of the Minsk accords, whose delayed denouement, staged eight years later, revealed that the tragedy was actually designed as a pantomime, a comic interlude designed to fool the audience (mainly Russian) and allow Ukraine the time backstage to arm itself, thanks to the able assistance of NATO in the role of costume designer, props manager and wardrobe assistant.

Like so much in our postmodern civilization, theatrically managed, produced and promoted historical events efface reality. Events are scripted. Roles are assigned. The media sets itself up in the orchestra, playing their own role as a disciplined group of musicians reading from their score. Their own modest role is to set the rhythm and provide any incidental music required, scene by scene.

Though the great geopolitical dramas unfolding before our eyes make little sense and radically reduce the kind of human agency that might seek to resolve rather than produce crises, the public now expects these dramas. Thanks to the media’s presentation of them as logical — usually because of some identifiable diabolical presence — the public never questions the causes or seriously wonders about possible solutions. That is the nature of today’s political and geopolitical hyperreality. Diplomacy is the most obvious victim of the trend. 

Historical note

In former times, diplomats played a key role in defining historical reality. They invested energy and intelligence in the effort. They entertained the now passé belief that crises might find solutions through dialogue. Ambassadors and diplomats learned to ply the subtle art of managing relations between national governments. Their leaders defined the themes and the goals, but the diplomats had the responsibility for developing and managing the dialogue. Today’s diplomats, especially those certain of the financial and military might behind them, have been instructed to stage-manage an elaborate pre-scripted roleplay.

On the other hand, most of the world’s diplomats, who lack the financial or military clout have no choice but to learn to play their assigned role. Europe’s leaders as well as its diplomats have now accepted that reality. Their actions, and especially their lack of reactions, demonstrate that they see themselves as hired actors working for a professional production team in Washington that has all the right backers.

Some of Europe’s supporting actors — the ones who sport the prestigious title of president or prime minister — may at some point in their career have naively expected to enjoy a fleeting moment at center stage. But in recent years, they have all discovered the pattern at work. The director, according to his or her inspiration, has the power to write their role out of the script, leaving them simply visible as extras in a crowd scene. Or the production team may let them speak but require them to deliver their lines from the wings. Nuland made this relationship clear back in 2014, when weighing the factors at play as the coup was brewing, she blurted out, “and fuck the EU!”

Could any elected leader in a European democracy dare to say anything similar? German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, leading players on their respective national stages, were probably convinced in their hearts of their noble diplomatic mission when sponsoring and promoting the Minsk accords between Russia and Ukraine. The result on paper had all the appearances of successful diplomacy in the traditional sense. But both of those leaders of Europe’s two most powerful nations admitted years later, after leaving office, that the Minsk agreements, to the people like Nuland in the production team, were nothing more than a ploy to gain time and facilitate Ukraine’s integration into NATO.

Merkel managed to be respected and admired for her control of some crucial situations within Germany and Europe. Her successor Olaf Scholz silently watched his role and his nation’s economy reduced to that of an afterthought when the American production team decided that he was too fond of the cheap Russian gas required to make his industry competitive. That scene highlighting Germany’s powerful economy had, in the meantime, been written out of the script.

But not all are so self-effacing as Scholz. French President Emmanuel Macron, sure of his talent, last week decided to turn his assigned role as Rosencranz or Guildenstern on alternative nights into that of Julius Caesar, as he unexpectedly marched forward, stage right, to deliver an improvised soliloquy. He was apparently unaware that the play’s setting happens to be Elsinore, not Rome, situated squarely in the state of Denmark, where the true hero of play knew that something smelled increasingly rotten.

Blinken’s panegyric of the departing Nuland celebrates “Toria’s leadership on Ukraine that diplomats and students of foreign policy will study for years to come.” Indeed, students wishing to understand the slow but certain degradation of diplomacy and the creeping paralysis of US foreign policy will be attentive to every aspect of her role in the Ukraine fiasco, whose history is yet to be written. The most astute commentators are suggesting that her departure signals the acceptance in the Beltway of the imminent abandonment of Nuland’s disastrous policies.

Blinken looks forward to “the day when [Ukraine] will be able to stand strongly on its own feet — democratically, economically, and militarily.” John Mearsheimer believes that as a result of Nuland’s policies, it is likely to become little more than a “dysfunctional rump state.”

Responsible Statecraft’s Daniel Larison cites an unnamed European official’s summary of Nuland’s “leadership” that so impressed Blinken. “She doesn’t engage like most diplomats. She comes off as rather ideological.” Larson adds this pertinent comment: “It is a measure of how little diplomatic skills are prized in U.S. foreign policy that Nuland flourished for such a long time in Washington.”

Her time is over. The question remains: Is Washington’s grip on Ukraine that she so personally tightened over? Joe Biden desperately wants to avoid a repeat of his chaotic exit from Afghanistan in 2021. That may explain why he needs $61 billion more to maintain the suspense at least until November’s election.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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