TIME East Asia

The Chinese President’s Visit to Seoul Says Much About Shifting Alliances

China's President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan are welcomed upon arrival at Seoul Air Base on July 3, 2014 Ed Jones—AFP/Getty Images

The two-day trip is the first time a Chinese leader has chosen to visit South Korea before calling on the North

South Korea is a good neighbor. North Korea, not so much. That’s the message China sent this week as President Xi Jinping stopped by Seoul for a two-day visit. It is the first time a Chinese leader chose to visit South Korea before meeting with the Kim clan first — a deliberate slight to North Korea and a sign of shifting alliances across Asia’s northeast.

South Korea and China are not natural allies. China backed the North in the 1950–53 war that split the Korean Peninsula. Since then, Beijing has been North Korea’s greatest ally, serving as patron and protector to Pyongyang — a closeness Mao Zedong once likened to “lips and teeth.”

But the bonds of authoritarian brotherhood have frayed of late. Beijing is rather tired of the North’s nuclear theatrics and increasing unwillingness to prop up its sluggish economy. The North’s bold young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has yet to meet with Beijing’s top brass. As news of Xi’s Seoul trip broke, he was busy lobbing rockets into the sea.

Shared frustration with the North has given democratic South Korea and authoritarian China some common ground. They have since discovered they share much else, including a thriving trading partnership and an old foe: Japan. Amid ongoing territorial disputes, the legacy of Japan’s 20th century imperial expansion and the country’s wartime record have become a focal point for East Asia, particularly Seoul and Beijing. They recently collaborated on a museum that pays tribute to Korean man who, in 1909, assassinated a Japanese colonial official.

Not wanting to be outmaneuvered, Tokyo has made a quiet overture to Pyongyang. Sitting within range of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, and an ally of the U.S., Japan is hardly a North Korea fan. But, on July 3 as Xi flew to Seoul, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that he would lift some economic sanctions on North Korea in return for its pledge to investigate the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. Japanese and North Korean diplomats have already met in Beijing.


Iran’s YouTube Message to Obama: Don’t Bully Us

Tehran takes a hard line as a July 20 nuclear deadline nears


Iran’s foreign minister posted a defiant YouTube message on Wednesday, just as high-stakes talks over Iran’s nuclear program are resuming amid dim hopes for a breakthrough by a mid-July deadline.

“Iranians are allergic to pressure,” Mohammad Javad Zarif says in the English-language video. “Let’s try mutual respect.”

Zarif’s digital salvo came the day before the formal resumption of talks between Iran, the U.S., and five other major powers—and less than three weeks before the July 20 expiration of November’s interim nuclear agreement, which froze the progress of Iran’s nuclear program in return for relaxed international sanctions.

Experts call the video a clear message to the West and an effort to gain a public relations advantage as the final round of nuclear talks get underway. “Given that the video is in English, Zarif is clearly speaking to a foreign rather than a domestic audience,” says Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “His message to Washington is that a failure to reach an agreement today will only result in a more advanced Iranian nuclear program tomorrow. His message to the world is that a failure to reach an agreement will be America’s fault.”

In talks that began last fall, the Obama administration hopes to reach a long-term agreement trading sanctions relief for limits on Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb. Such a deal might be Barack Obama’s last chance for an enduring foreign policy triumph in a star-crossed second term.

Zarif’s defiant tone, however, reinforces pessimism about the prospects for such a comprehensive deal, at least this summer.

“This probably isn’t going to get done by July 20,” says George Perkovich, also of the Carnegie Endowment, who recently returned from meetings in Tehran with people informed about the negotiations.

November’s interim deal allowed for a six-month extension, until January 2015, and many experts predict that outcome. Earlier this year Obama officials seemed to raise expectations for a more comprehensive deal, one that could last for a decade or more, but have recently struck a much more pessimistic tone. Even so, most close observers expect that the talks will continue rather than collapse entirely.

“I don’t think either side can afford to take the blame for walking away from the table if the other side is prepared to continue,” said Gary Samore, who formerly handled the Iran nuclear issue for the Obama White House, said in recent public remarks.

In latest example of Iran’s canny digital diplomacy, Zarif’s new video presents a soothing tone, opening with a shot of the diplomat strolling past a trickling fountain. A piano gently plays. But Zarif’s tone is stern. Speaking in fluent English, Iran’s western-educated negotiator denounces U.S.-led efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program over the past decade, including “the murder of our nuclear scientists, the sabotage of our facilities” and “military threats” from Washington.

Zarif may have been responding, in part, to a Wednesday Washington Post op-ed by Secretary of State John Kerry, warning Tehran not to “squander a historic opportunity to end Iran’s economic and diplomatic isolation,” and to accept limits that would allow for a peaceful nuclear program.

Obama officials in Vienna are pressing Iran to dismantle several thousand of its roughly 10,000 centrifuges, which are used to enrich uranium into a more fissile form, and to accept other limits on its nuclear facilities and research programs. Their goal is to extend the “break out” time required for Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to make one nuclear bomb, to as long as one year, thereby giving the international community time to detect and respond to the move. In return, Iran would get relief from harsh economic sanctions against its banking, energy and other key sectors.

Congressional Republicans and some Democrats are skeptical of such a deal, and argue for cranking up economic sanctions until Tehran, in effect, cries uncle and dismantles its nuclear program entirely.

Zarif insists that won’t happen. “To those who continue to believe that sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, I can only say that pressure has only been tried for the past eight years…. It didn’t bring the Iranian people to kneel in submission and it will not now, nor in the future,” he says in his message.

Zarif’s tone reflects a bargaining gulf that remains over everything from the number of centrifuges Iran will retain to the operation of a heavy water plutonium reactor at Arak, whose fuel can easily be fashioned into bombs. The U.S. also wants more transparency about any military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran maintains that the world has no right to dictate its use of nuclear technology for what it says are peaceful energy and medical purposes.

Complicating matters are renewed concerns that Iran could might try to build a bomb in secret after striking a deal that covers its known nuclear sites. A new report from Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs warns against the potential false comfort of a “nuclear Maginot line.”

Meeting with the Iranians in Vienna are the U.S., Great Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia—a group known as the P5+1, because, along with the U.S., it includes the five permanent members of the United Nations security council, plus Germany.

Casting a long shadow, meanwhile, is Israel, which sent a delegation to Washington on Sunday to repeat their government’s view that Iran should surrender its nuclear infrastructure entirely. In an interview after his arrival here, Israeli intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz cited the success of the deal that forced Syrian president Bashar Assad to give up his declared chemical arsenal, which has now been removed from the country. Only “total dismantlement” can ensure that Iran doesn’t test the international community’s will in the future.

Zarif wants the world to believe that Iran has no such intention. “We still have time to put an end to the myth that Iran is seeking to build a bomb,” he says. “My government remains committed to ending this unnecessary crisis by July 20. I hope my counterparts are, too.”

Even if both sides are genuinely committed to a deal, however, that doesn’t mean they can agree on one.


The Dishonest Diplomat: How a Critical Profession Got a Bad Rap

I work in a profession devoted to compromise and incremental change — and we diplomats have acquired an unfortunate reputation for dishonesty

“An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”

—Sir Henry Wotton, 1604

“Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906

There are few more odious figures in popular culture than the diplomat. Ben Kingsley’s ambassador to Yemen in the movie Rules of Engagement is first a coward, hiding under his desk from an angry mob, waiting to be rescued by U.S. Marines, and then later a snake, lying smoothly under oath to help convict the very Marine officer who saved him from the mob. In Costa-Gavras’ classic Missing, the American diplomats are alternately dissembling and disinterested. And it would be hard to top The Omen, in which an American diplomat, played by Gregory Peck, lies to his wife, played by Lee Remick, and tricks her into raising the Antichrist. That, needless to say, does not work out well.

Spies and soldiers can draw on the goodwill generated by thousands of popular books and movies that, on balance, present a broadly positive image. Tom Clancy’s CIA officers, for instance, are good-looking, hardworking, honorable patriots. The general public has every reason to feel that it understands what soldiers and spies do for a living and how they contribute to American security. Diplomats, on the other hand, are something else. Only a relatively small number of people have a good grasp of what it is that diplomats actually do. We are part of the national-security establishment. We collect information, formulate policy and seek to influence foreign governments in support of that policy. And as instruments of state power, we are considerably cheaper than spy satellites or cruise missiles.

To the extent the public thinks about it at all, however, there is something vaguely slippery about diplomacy as a profession. Part of the reason is that, at its core, diplomacy is fundamentally about compromise. It is the art of the possible. Victories are rarely clear-cut, and they are typically more of the incremental variety than of the transformational. Even more important, however, is the reputation diplomacy has acquired for dishonesty. Diplomats, it is widely assumed, are professional liars with expense accounts and nice suits. If not immoral, they are at best amoral.

The reality is that diplomacy — good diplomacy, at least — places a premium on honesty, defined here as credibility and trustworthiness. Do you mean what you say? Do you deliver on what you promise? If not, why would anyone give you the time of day?

I have devoted more than 20 years to the diplomatic service of the U.S., and I have never once been asked to lie for my country. I have said things — often with complete confidence and utter conviction — that later turned out to be wrong. And I have engaged in my fair share of lies of a social nature — “We’re friends, aren’t we?” “Of course we are” — but I have never, to the best of my recollection, deliberately lied to a contact.

I have said things I do not believe — lots of things. But that’s a very different issue. When I speak professionally on behalf of the U.S., whether in public or private, I represent U.S. policy and U.S. views to the best of my abilities. Like royalty, diplomats do a great deal of talking in the first-person plural (“We believe . . .”) or the third-person inanimate (“My government feels . . .”). My contacts — interlocutors, in diplomatese — don’t care what I think. Or at least they shouldn’t. They care a great deal, however, about what the U.S. thinks. So my job is to persuade others to see things our way but not necessarily my way.

A couple of weeks ago, I bought the board game Diplomacy for my 12-year-old son, drawing on my fond memories of late-night sessions in junior high school. The other day, I brought the game to the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, where I am currently assigned. What could be more fun than playing Diplomacy with a bunch of diplomats?

We were terrible at it.

On one level, of course, Diplomacy the board game bears as much resemblance to diplomacy the profession as the board game Operation does to surgery. Diplomacy is the exercise of national power in its multidimensional complexity. The game version involves pushing little cardboard pieces across a map of long-defunct European empires. It also involves lying — lots of lying. You make promises to other players about how you are going to support them in achieving their ambitions, and then you don’t follow through. You deceive and cheat your way to Continental domination.

There was a demonstrable reluctance on the part of the diplomats playing Diplomacy to promise X and do Y, even in a game. In real diplomacy, if it ever becomes apparent that your word is no good, you are, for all intents and purposes, finished. A diplomat who can’t be trusted is little short of worthless.

This doesn’t mean that being a diplomat is being an open book. Far from it. We cherry-pick our facts, omit the inconvenient from our narratives and manipulate language without mercy to make our point. All of this is fair game. But just don’t lie. It’s not only unethical, it’s bad business.

The views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State.

Matthew Palmer is a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, currently serving as political counselor at the American embassy in Belgrade. While on the Secretary of State’s policy-planning staff, Palmer helped design and implement the Kimberley Process for certifying African diamonds as “conflict free.” His experience in Africa serves as the foundation for his debut novel, THE AMERICAN MISSION, out June 26.


UK Plans to Reopen Embassy in Iran

Iranian Demonstrators Break In To British Embassy In Tehran
A large number of protesters prepare to break in to the British Embassy during an anti-British demonstration on November 29, 2011 in Tehran, Iran. FarsNews/Getty Images

Foreign Secretary William Hague said "circumstances were right" to reopen Britain's embassy in Tehran some two years after Iranian protesters ransacked the building

The UK foreign secretary said Tuesday that the country would re-open its embassy in Tehran as a sign of “increasing confidence” in Iran’s new administration.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said that “circumstances were right” to restore full diplomatic relations with Iran. Britain evacuated its embassy in Tehran and suspended full diplomatic relations with Iran after hardline protesters raided the building in November 2011, the BBC reports.

But bilateral relations between the two countries have improved since the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, the arrangement of an interim nuclear deal and most recently, the makings of a fragile alliance against a common enemy, extremist Sunni militias flooding into Iraq.

“Iran is an important country in a volatile region, and maintaining embassies around the world, even under difficult conditions, is a central pillar of the UK’s global diplomatic approach,” he said in a speech before Parliament.

Hague rebutted critiques that Britain was “softening” its approach to Tehran, saying that he would continue uphold its demands on Iranian leaders to “cease support for sectarian groups across the Middle East and reach a successful conclusion to nuclear negotiations.”


TIME Military

Obama Deploys Troops to Protect Embassy in Iraq, as American and Iranian Officials Meet

An attempt to de-escalate the crisis and protect U.S. interests


President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of up to 275 military personnel “equipped for combat” into Iraq to protect the U.S. embassy in Baghdad on Monday, as American and Iranian diplomats met briefly to discuss whether the two countries can work together to defuse the crisis exploding in Iraq.

Obama informed Congress of the military deployment; the Pentagon said 170 servicemembers are already on the ground, while another 100 are prepared to go in as needed. The Obama Administration has so far resisted Republican calls for airstrikes and more military involvement, while also speaking of the need to protect U.S. interests on the ground. Amid growing violence by Sunni militants from the group ISIS, who have already captured several towns and have their sights set on Baghdad, the State Department on Sunday withdrew some American diplomats from the embassy there to safer locations.

The meeting between American and Iranian diplomats came on the margins of the so-called P5+1 talks in Geneva about ending Iran’s nuclear program, a senior State Department official said. Many Republican lawmakers have opposed engaging with Iran over the Iraq crisis.

“These engagements will not include military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people,” the State Department official said in a statement. “We will discuss how [ISIS] threatens many countries in the region, including Iran, and the need to support inclusivity in Iraq and refrain from pressing a sectarian agenda.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that Obama would meet with his national-security team Monday evening, after having directed them last week to prepare a range of options for U.S. intervention for him to consider. Obama has ruled out deploying American forces on the ground as part of any effort to counter the offensive , but Administration officials are contemplating other options, including air strikes.

Over the weekend, the Sunni extremist group ISIS claimed credit for massacring Iraqi air force recruits near Tikrit. The Iranian government deployed forces to Iraq over the weekend to bolster the Iraqi government’s defenses. Meanwhile, American officials are pressuring the Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to begin reconciliation efforts to ease sectarian tensions.

A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner said Boehner supports the deployment of military personnel but wants Obama to present a broader strategy for Iraq. “The Speaker supports the ongoing steps to secure U.S. personnel and facilities in the midst of a fluid situation, but he still expects a comprehensive strategy to protect America’s national security interests in Iraq,” spokesman Michael Steel said. “We hope the President will offer such a plan in coming days. Too many Americans sacrificed too much to allow Iraq to slip back into chaos.”

TIME diplomacy

U.S. May Engage Iran in Talks Over Iraq Crisis

An image uploaded on June 14, 2014 on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of ISIS capturing dozens of Iraqi security forces members prior to transporting them to an unknown location in the Salaheddin province ahead of executing them.
An image uploaded on June 14, 2014 on the jihadist website Welayat Salahuddin allegedly shows militants of ISIS capturing dozens of Iraqi security forces members prior to transporting them to an unknown location in the Salaheddin province ahead of executing them. Welayat Salahuddin—AFP/Getty Images

As militants advance and American embassy hunkers down

The Obama Administration is “open” to direct talks with Iran over the exploding crisis in Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview published Monday, as militants who say they massacred hundreds of Iraqi soldiers continued their march toward Baghdad and the U.S. embassy there evacuated some personnel.

Kerry told Yahoo News that drone strikes in the country “may well” be an option. Asked if the military cooperation with Iran might be on the table, Kerry said he wouldn’t “rule out anything that would be constructive.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki later walked back the latter comment, saying on Twitter that the Administration is open to “political conversation with Iran” but “not military cooperation.”

U.S. diplomats may discuss the situation in Iraq with their Iranian counterparts as early as Monday while in Geneva for the so-called “P5+1″ talks about Iran’s nuclear program, a senior Administration official said. “It may be that on the margins of P5+1, but completely unconnected to it, there may be some conversation,” the official said.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, a national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, were in Geneva on Monday. With the U.S. embassy in Baghdad relocating some employees, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Monday ordered another American warship to the Persian Gulf to protect “American citizens and interests in Iraq,” a Pentagon spokesman said in a statement.

“Its presence in the Gulf adds to that of other U.S. naval ships already there—including the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush—and provides the commander-in-chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

The potential outreach to Iran comes as the Islamic Republic has already offered to help Iraq battle Sunni insurgents destabilizing the country and fomenting sectarian unrest. The Guardian, citing an unnamed senior Iraqi official, reports Iran has already sent 2,000 troops across the border. Iran’s Shi’ite government is wary of the gains by Sunni militants in Iraq, while the U.S. is watching a country where it invested years, thousands of lives and more than a trillion dollars descend into chaos. That could make common cause for frequent foes already engaged in unprecedented diplomacy over the country’s nuclear program. The Wall Street Journal first reported on the possible talks Sunday.

Congressional Republicans have criticized the Obama Administration over the situation in Iraq, and Sen. John McCain said Monday that it would be the “height of folly” to work with Iran to stabilize the country.

“This is the same Iranian regime that has trained and armed the most dangerous Shia militant groups, that has consistently urged [Iraqi] Prime Minister Maliki to pursue a narrow sectarian agenda at the expense of national reconciliation, that supplies the rockets that have been fired at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, that has sponsored acts of terrorism throughout the Middle East and the world, and that continues to use Iraq’s territory and airspace to send weapons and fighters to prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” McCain said in a statement. “The reality is, U.S. and Iranian interests and goals do not align in Iraq, and greater Iranian intervention would only make the situation dramatically worse.”

President Hasan Rouhani of Iran said Saturday that he was open to working with the U.S. in Iran, the Journal reports.

“When the U.S. takes action, then one can think about cooperation,” Rouhani said in Tehran. “Until today, no specific request for help has been demanded. But we are ready to help within international law.”

Secretary of State John Kerry signaled Saturday that any talks would be unconnected to the nuclear negotiations.

“Whatever dialogue may or may not be taking place [with Iran] would take place on the sideline or outside the mainstream of the nuclear talks,” Kerry said. “We don’t want that linked and mixed.”

Militants who have captured Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, as well as Tikrit, took over the northern town of Tal Afar on Monday, the Associated Press reports, which sits along the key highway to Syria.

-Additional reporting by Zeke J Miller

TIME diplomacy

A Failed Russia ‘Reset’ Haunts Obama in Europe

Obama Komorowski Poland
President of Poland Bronislaw Komorowski (R) and U.S. President Barack Obama (L) attend a meeting with Polish and US F-16 fighters pilots at the Okecie Airport in Warsaw, Poland, June 3, 2014. Leszek Szymanski—EPA

Many European leaders wish he could have seen the threat from Russia after the last time it invaded a neighbor

In the summer of 2009, two dozen statesmen from Central and Eastern Europe issued a joint appeal for President Barack Obama not to forget the lessons of recent history. The White House had just rolled out its “reset” in relations with Russia as a centerpiece of Obama’s foreign policy, and the Europeans were concerned the U.S. would give Moscow a pass for its invasion of Georgia the previous summer. “There is nervousness in our capitals,” said the open letter to Obama, which was signed by the former leaders of nine E.U. states. “NATO today seems weaker than when we joined,” they wrote. At the same time, the letter added, “Russia is back as a revisionist power pursuing a 19th-century agenda.”

Today that statement seems prescient. Obama’s reset has failed, and in a throwback to the 19th century, Russia has invaded another one of its neighbors—Ukraine—this time even annexing a chunk of its territory. What used to be nervousness in Eastern European capitals has now turned into fear, and Obama has finally started to pay more attention to the warnings he got five years ago. On Tuesday evening, he met in the Polish capital with the Presidents of all the nations represented in that 2009 appeal, reassuring them of his commitment to their security. “We stand together always,” he said as they sat down at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw. “What you’ve built over the last 25 years no other nation can take away.”

To some of the diplomats who saw Europe’s vulnerability coming, this felt like a tardy gesture, as did Obama’s pledge on Tuesday to spend a billion dollars on increasing the U.S. military presence on the continent. The reset had already created the conditions for Russian expansionism, and now Obama is trying to repair the damage it had done, said Adam Rotfeld, Poland’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, who signed the appeal to Obama in 2009. “The Russians interpreted the reset as a kind of American weakness,” Rotfeld said in an interview in Warsaw. “It suggested that NATO is not as strong of an alliance as it was. And that gave Russia an opportunity to act.”

Russia’s invasion of Georgia had not met any Western resistance. It was not expelled from any major partnership with the West. It faced neither sanctions nor diplomatic isolation. The West did not even send military aid to support the Georgian forces, and within a year, a new U.S. President took office and offered Russia a fresh start. The Kremlin factored all of this experience into its decision to invade Ukraine in March, and in some ways it may have miscalculated. This time around Russia has faced sanctions, isolation and expulsion from the G8 club of wealthy nations. But for Eastern European diplomats like Rotfeld, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the Ukrainian crisis could have been avoided if the U.S. had pushed back harder five years ago.

Micheal McFaul, who implemented the reset strategy as Obama’s ambassador to Moscow, doesn’t believe that would have helped. The reset, he said, was not about “changing the mood music” in relations with Russia, but about pursuing specific goals of U.S. foreign policy, such as a new treaty on nuclear arms reduction. Refusing to pursue that objective would not have stopped Russia from invading Ukraine, McFaul said, and neither would anything else the U.S. could have done. “When a leader in the Kremlin decides to use force in Eastern Europe, he has rightly calculated that the United States will not use force and does not have the ability to deter that aggression,” he told TIME by phone from Stanford University, where he took a fellowship after stepping down as ambassador in February. “That is the tragic truth.”

Obama’s visit to Europe has affirmed that truth in subtle ways. His meeting with European leaders on Tuesday was only open to members of the E.U. and NATO, not to aspiring E.U. members like Moldova. Ukraine’s President-elect Petro Poroshenko, whose inauguration is scheduled for this weekend, will meet with Obama on Wednesday in Warsaw. But the U.S. President decided not to visit Ukraine during this trip, and he has been careful not to promise Ukraine any military aid to fend off Russian aggression. “This is a defensive visit, not a proactive one,” said Matthew Rojansky, an expert of U.S.-Russian relations at the Wilson Center. “He is playing it very safe.”

It would be a lot less safe to go stomping around the parts of Eastern Europe that Russia still sees as its zone of influence, particularly Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia. Building those alliances through military aid or a promise of NATO membership would not only provoke more aggression from the Russians, but it would risk Obama going out on a limb alone, without the support Europe’s most powerful countries. “Berlin is watching this visit with some trepidation,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller, a senior fellow at the German Marshal Fund, a think tank focused on U.S.-German relations. “What Berlin wants of the Obama Administration is for them not steal a march on the Europeans by doing anything hasty.”

But that does not leave Obama with many options. Even the prospect of further sanctions against Russia will likely get shot down when he travels on Thursday to Brussels to meet with the leaders of Western Europe. They do not share the enthusiasm of their allies in the east for a battle of wills with Russia. What they would prefer is for the latest crisis on Russia’s borders to be resolved amicably enough for them to continue trading with Russia and buying its oil and gas. If that kind of pragmatism leaves countries outside the NATO alliance to deal with Russia on their own, then so be it. “Everyone is asking, ‘Where is the red line that Russia will not cross?’” said Rotfeld, the Polish diplomat. “That is the line where Russia will be counteracted by resistance.”

And so far, Russia does not seem to have found it.


Obama Lands in Tokyo On First Stop in Asia Tour

President Obama walks off Air Force One as he arrives at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, on April 23, 2014.
President Obama walks off Air Force One as he arrives at Haneda Airport in Tokyo, on April 23, 2014. Jim Watson—AFP/Getty Images

He begins a week-long tour of Japan, Malaysia, South Korea and the Philippines to reassure allies and position the U.S. as a regional leader

President Barack Obama arrived in Tokyo Wednesday evening on the first stop in a four-country tour intended to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to its Pacific allies.

Obama will be visiting South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines in addition to Japan, CNN reports, as the United States tries to position itself as a counterbalance to China’s growing economic strength in the region.

The President will seek to further progress on a trade deal with Japan, and will dine with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Wednesday at the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro, where food service lasts 20 minutes and costs around $292 per head. He will visit an innovation center in Kuala Lumpur and negotiate a new agreement that could boost the United States’ military presence in the region in the Philippines.

Obama’s long-touted “pivot to Asia” ran into obstacles last year when the president canceled a trip to visit Pacific allies amidst the debt ceiling debacle. Since then, distractions including the Iran nuclear talks, the civil war in Syria and unrest in Ukraine have hampered Obama’s aim to exert U.S. influence in the region.

With the current transportation disasters in Asia—the sinking of the South Korean ferry, and the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight—Obama is entering a region engrossed with its own domestic problems. “The South Korea visit could really be overshadowed by the ferry,” an unnamed senior administration official told the New York Times.


TIME White House

Top Career Diplomat William Burns Will Retire

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Holds Hearings On Syria And Ukraine
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee March 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee—Getty Images

William Burns, who was instrumental in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Iran, will stay on until October, raising the specter that he will again be a key player if formal talks for a nuclear agreement fall through by the July deadline

The State Department said Friday that its second in command will retire in October.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, a career diplomat who led the White House’s behind-the-scene efforts to bring Iran to the negotiating table, is only the second career Foreign Service officer to hold his post.

He has twice delayed his departure, including the second time as the request of President Barack Obama, according to the New York Times.

“Since I took office, I have relied on him for candid advice and sensitive diplomatic missions – he has been a skilled advisor, consummate diplomat, and inspiration to generations of public servants,” Obama said in a statement. “The country is stronger for Bill’s service.

TIME diplomacy

Israel and Palestinians Look For Way Out of Talks Crisis

Palestinian women walk near Israeli border policemen after Friday prayers in Jerusalem's Old City
Palestinian women walk near Israeli border policemen after Friday prayers in Jerusalem's Old City April 4, 2014. Amir Cohen—Reuters

Peace talks hit another road bump with Israel announcing it would no longer release 26 Palestinian prisoners and Palestinians signing international treaties Israel opposes. Both sides, however, expressed hopes of saving the peace process

The trajectory at least appeared to continue downward Friday for the future of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. Before heading back to Washington from Morocco, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the American commitment to the talks he has personally championed is not “open-ended,” and said it was “reality check time.” Israel dug in its heels, announcing it was cancelling the proposed release of 26 Palestinian prisoners—the final batch in a promised string of releases whose delay last week prompted the Palestinian leadership to retaliate by signing international treaties Israel regards as threatening.

“Peace Process Crisis” read the headline in Friday’s Sof Hashavua, a Hebrew weekly. And yet, no one was calling it over. Weeks remain before the April 29 deadline for talks originally set to last nine months, and an extension remains a real possibility, according to officials on both sides.

“I would not say that everything collapsed. I don’t think so,” says an Israeli knowledgeable about the negotiations, who spoke on condition of not being identified any more precisely. “I don’t think either party has an interest in collapse. But the question is how can we avert escalation given the dangerous point that we’re at right now.

“We still have till the end of April.”

A face-to-face meeting at midweek was “very tense, but we talk to each other,” the Israeli says. Voices were not raised, the source says, and despite reports in both the Palestinian and Israeli press, chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made no overt threat of pursing Israel in international courts for “war crimes.”

But that is precisely the threat implied by the Palestinians adopting international treaties. And though none of the 15 agreements signed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday directly involved the International Criminal Court, the Israelis complained of being blind-sided by the abrupt move, which the Israeli source said altered the “context” of the talks.

The Palestinians–who ordinarily complain that the status quo in the conflict favors Israel, which has occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967–pretend a certain amount of dismay at Israel’s outrage.

“It’s a non-violent, diplomatic step,” said a Palestinian official close to the negotiations, who also spoke anonymously, citing the sensitivity of the situation. “We are not joining al-Qaeda. We are talking about joining international treaties.”

And the treaties carry obligations for Palestine as well as for Israel, especially in the realm of human rights. On Thursday, right-wing members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition were researching grounds to charge Abbas’ government at The Hague, according to a report in Yedioth Ahronoth, the best-selling Israeli daily.

But if cooler heads do prevail, it remains unclear just how the two sides will find a way to extend the negotiations both privately indicated they prefer to see continue. One route might run through the deep thicket of UN bureaucracy, which the 15 treaties and conventions officially entered shortly after Abbas signed them. The Palestinians say prompt delivery proves they are serious, but the Israeli source appeared to suggest that the action was not yet final, saying, “If those letters of ascension reach their destination and the fact becomes irreversible, then we’re in a different ballgame and I don’t think that will allow us to go back and discuss the terms of an extension.”

A middle ground might be provided by slow, deliberate (or deliberately slow) processing at the U.N., which in accepting the Palestinian documents stated that its priority is to “salvage the two-state solution.”

At the same time, the Palestinians appeared to be making the most of their newly discovered leverage. They expanded their list of demands of Israel as the price for extending the talks, including the release of high profile prisoners and lifting “the siege” on the Gaza Strip, controlled by the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

At the same time, the Palestinian official who spoke to TIME suggested that, if Israel is serious about negotiating a final pact, talks could continue even as Palestine pursues its diplomatic track with sympathetic international bodies.

“What’s the problem with negotiating and going to the United Nations?” the official asks. “Because for the Israelis there seems to be no problem with negotiating while building settlements.”

Still unaddressed, amid the rolling controversies, are the borders of a Palestinian state, the fate of Palestinian refugees, the status of Jerusalem, and other issues at the heart of the conflict.

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