Hitting the Wrong Button
By Glenn Kessler
ANKARA, Turkey, March 7--Diplomacy often is about shades of gray. And symbols, as well as substance, are all part of the game.
So what happens when you throw a gimmick into the mix, a stunt more akin to a primary campaign? It's a bit daring and just might work. But careful attention to detail is important.
The Clinton team learned that lesson the hard way when, before a crucial meeting in Geneva Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presented her Russian counterpart with a mock "reset button"--with the wrong Russian word emblazoned on the device. Instead of "reset," it said "overcharge" or "overload," as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov quickly pointed out.
The concept was clever--it was intended to symbolize the U.S. desire to "reset" the relationship with Russia--but the execution was sloppy. The idea of the gift was a bit of a last-minute thing, which is unusual given that Clinton was headed into a high-stakes encounter. State Department officials back in Washington were simultaneously amused and appalled.
Clinton, to her credit, made the best of the situation. Lavrov's quick identification of the error earned a full-throated laugh from the secretary. Lavrov, who often wields a diplomatic stiletto, then made a mocking reference to the mistake in the post-meeting news conference.
At the news conference, a Russian reporter also questioned Clinton about the gaffe (in what may have been a planted question). But Clinton cleverly responded, "The minister corrected our word choice. But in a way, the word that was on the button turns out to be also true. We are resetting, and because we are resetting, the minister and I have an 'overload' of work."
The episode earned some derision in the Russian media, according to an account by Agence France Press:
"Daily newspaper Kommersant put a prominent picture of the fake red button on its front page and declared: 'Sergey Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pushed the wrong button.'
"A correspondent for NTV television called it a 'symbolic mistake,' pointing out that US-Russian ties had become overcharged in recent years due to discord over such issues as missile defense and last summer's war in Georgia.
" 'The friendly U.S. gesture was upturned by a small amusing incident,' the news website RBC.ru wrote in an article posted late Friday evening. 'Yet this curious episode did not stop Clinton and Lavrov from pushing the button in front of television cameras.' "
Reporters traveling with Clinton had to wrestle with the question about how much to make of the incident. An anxious Clinton aide sent a series of e-mails urging reporters to focus on the "substance." Three senior U.S. officials then trooped down to the filing center for an impromptu briefing on what they described as a very productive meeting.
But what had been accomplished beyond a noticeable change in atmospherics? (I have never seen the normally dour Lavrov so buoyant.) There were no real announcements, just talk about "work plans" and plans to have more meetings. That's in part because any possible announcements of substance are being reserved for when the presidents meet early next month. This was essentially a get-to-know-you meeting.
Of the five newspapers traveling on the plane, it was a split decision. The New York Times and The Washington Post led with the gaffe. (The Times headline: "Lost in Translation: A U.S. Gift to Russia.") The Washington Times led with the presentation of the gift, but did not mention the error until deep in the story. The Los Angeles Times did not mention either the gift or the linguistic miscue until the last few paragraphs. (The Wall Street Journal did a news analysis of Clinton's trip.)
To some extent, Clinton's staff may have achieved success. They faced the prospect of a somewhat newsless but high-profile encounter, and they needed a device that would capture the essence of the Obama administration approach. Even with the attention paid to the gaffe, the image of the "reset button" dominated much of the news coverage. Over time, that is the symbol that may linger, especially if the Obama outreach proves successful.
Next time, though, triple-check the spelling.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: Jay | March 7, 2009 10:05 AM
Posted by: aepelbaum | March 7, 2009 11:25 AM
Posted by: laparisienne | March 7, 2009 5:55 PM
Posted by: Brian | March 8, 2009 4:26 AM
Posted by: Roseann | March 8, 2009 11:09 AM
Posted by: DriveByPoster | March 8, 2009 8:03 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.