Reporters are a fairly cynical lot – even we “interested pencils”. But when Hillary Clinton finished her first press conference in Europe as US Secretary of State a little while ago, I heard laughter and a short ripple of applause from the audience.
She got the laughs at the end of a lengthy and serious explanation of why anti-missile defence systems would be important for the US and its allies in the 21st century (rogue regimes and networks of terrorists will be tomorrow’s problem, not traditional nation-states). Noticing that her audience had gone quiet in apparent contemplation of the missile warfare awaiting us, she said brightly: ”And on that happy note…!” The mood lifted and the press conference ended.
The corridors of Nato are starting to echo with praise for US secretary of state Hillary Clinton as she wraps up her first official talks at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. “She’s started well, eh?” Bernard Kouchner, France’s foreign minister, said just now.
Kouchner said Clinton’s trip to the Middle East, just before she arrived in Brussels, had gone done well with other Nato ministers because “she talked with everyone… At Jerusalem and Ramallah she displayed a determination to show that she wasn’t the same as the previous [Republican] administration.”
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Nato’s secretary-general, has just told a news conference that the alliance’s foreign ministers have agreed to resume high-level ministerial contacts with Russia. He made no mention of Lithuania’s objections, and no reporter managed to raise the matter in a question.
But there was perhaps just a hint that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her colleagues paid some attention to what the Lithuanians were saying. Because what the foreign ministers have agreed is that high-level contacts with Russia should restart “as soon as possible” after a Nato summit in early April in Strasbourg and Kehl, Germany.
That indeterminate timeframe could be interpreted as a concession to Lithuania’s demand that Nato leaders should discuss the issue at greater length before resuming the contacts with Russia.
Maybe we’ll know more when Clinton holds her own news conference in a couple of hours.
In the meantime, everyone is beavering away here in the press area at Nato headquarters under a big red sign that says: “No classified discussion in this area.” And when I say everyone, I don’t just mean “interested pencils”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s inaugural working visit to Europe has run into its first setback. At Nato’s headquarters outside central Brussels, she and other alliance foreign ministers have been discussing how to start a new era in relations with Russia. Last night, according to US officials, it seemed a sure bet that everyone would agree to restore high-level ministerial contacts with Moscow – they were suspended after last August’s Russian-Georgian war.
But this afternoon it has become clear that Lithuania is raising objections. The Lithuanians want the issue to be debated at greater length at a summit of the 26 Nato countries’ leaders in Strasbourg and Kehl, Germany, on April 3-4. Other countries are impatient to get the process started sooner rather than later.
The problem is that Nato works by consensus, rather than by majority voting. So at the moment the Lithuanians can block everything if they choose. Some will remember that they did something similar inside the European Union not long ago, resisting the appeals of other EU states to open talks on a long-term partnership agreement with Russia.
How this is sorted out will be the first serious test of Clinton’s diplomatic skills.
At her first round of talks with her fellow Nato foreign ministers, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has just said that it’s “time to explore a fresh start” in relations with Russia. Virtually in the same breath, she has also rejected Russia’s claim to a special sphere of influence in the post-Soviet region, and said that the Western alliance shouldn’t close the door of membership to Georgia and Ukraine.
Is any of this different to what we heard during the final phase of the administration of President George W. Bush? In some respects, not much. The Bush administration also rejected the idea, put forward by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, that Moscow is entitled to a “privileged sphere of influence” in the non-Russian states of the former Soviet Union.
Now for the serious stuff.
One important topic of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s discussions with her fellow Nato foreign ministers today is the alliance’s campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan. As a senior US official put it to us reporters last night, the ministers will talk about “what’s going well and what’s not going well”.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s team have offered me the chance to be an “interested pencil”. Shamefully, I’ve declined.
“Interested pencil” is the hot term for a reporter who doesn’t hold cameras or take pictures, but confines him/herself to the mean art of writing news stories – or blogs. If a news event is nothing but a photo opportunity – as it was this morning, when Clinton arrived at Nato’s headquarters in Brussels for a meeting with Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the alliance’s secretary-general – then there isn’t much point in the reporter who writes showing up. Still, he or she can, if he or she really wants - hence the adjective “interested”.