TOPICS > Politics

Fire and ice: Clashes and competition on the global stage

bio-ifill
Co-Anchor & Managing Editor
BY Gwen Ifill  February 20, 2014 at 2:08 PM EST
Anti-government protesters gather at Independence Square Thursday in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Vasily Shaposhnikov/Kommersant via Getty Images

Anti-government protesters gather at Independence Square Thursday in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Vasily Shaposhnikov/Kommersant via Getty Images

News is what happens when you’re focusing on other things.

So it happened that reporters assigned to Sochi, Russia to cover the Olympics found themselves dispatched instead this week to Kiev’s charred Independence Square.

And President Obama, perched on the edge of a chair in Toluca, Mexico, spent more time talking about what was happening in Ukraine than what was occurring at the North American summit he was there to attend.

The schedule for the president and first lady this week was doggedly focused on domestic issues -– from fuel efficiency to economic inequality to childhood obesity. Congress, even in its absence, continued to wrangle over debt and spending.

But the fires and blood in Kiev, the uprising in Caracas and the starving refugees in Syria seemed to overshadow it all.

As always, the United States government is central and yet peripheral to it all. In Venezuela, embattled President Nicolas Maduro has declared the U.S. is manipulating levers in support of the Harvard-educated opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez.

In Ukraine, U.S. and Russian leaders have furiously worked back channels to urge Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to try to quell the escalating standoff there. And at conference tables in Vienna and Geneva all winter, diplomats have tried to measure the distance to compromise on nuclear proliferation and civil war, whether in Iran or Syria.

Meanwhile, tensions continue to build in North Korea and China, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It’s been head-snapping to watch all of this unfold against the backdrop of the world’s greatest international sporting competition -– the Olympic games in Sochi.

As news consumers, we have the luxury of separating all this out. A hockey game is just a hockey game. There is very little geopolitical consequence.
Normally, we are able to put more serious issues on pause while the snowboarders flip and the ice dancers twirl. It’s been tougher this time to ignore the bleeding protesters in Kiev and the starving refugees in Syria.

And whether the U.S. is -– or is even any longer capable of -– manipulating outcomes, this will always be true: the American president always has to be at the table.