Moving Past "Who Lost Russia?"

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The following are excerpts from remarks made by former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III at a 4 October 1999 dinner in honor of the Kennan Institute's twenty-fifth anniversary:

...The Kennan Institute, as we've learned here tonight, is one of the oldest programs of the Center. It is one of the premiere institutions in the world for Russian Studies. Created in 1974, the Institute has promoted fresh thinking about Russia, and about U.S.-Russian relations, by bridging the worlds of academia and the worlds of policy making the world of ideas and the world of action. It has strengthened our understanding of Russian history, of Russian politics, of Russian culture, and it plays an extraordinarily critical role in keeping the ties between Russia and the United States strong.

The Kennan Institute's work in deepening our understanding of Russia, I think, was invaluable during the cold war, during the rapid changes of perestroika and glasnost', and during the final days of the Soviet Union. And I think it remains invaluable today, as it helps us understand the changes taking place as Russia...tries to adjust to post-communist rule...

Most of you may not know that the Kennan Institute is actually named after an ancestor of Ambassador Kennan, George Kennan the elder. The elder Kennan...became America's foremost expert on Siberia and the exile policies of the czarist government. Kennan also used his reputation as a leading scholar to become an important figure in the foreign policy debates of his day.

Ambassador Kennan continued and built upon his ancestor's example of scholarship in public service. Ambassador Kennan's contribution to our country was recognized in 1989 when President George Bush awarded him a Presidential Medal of Freedom. And the citation that accompanied that award begins with these words: "Career diplomat, historian, and educator, George Kennan has helped shape American foreign policy since 1933."

Our country would, of course, be very well served if all of our foreign policy makers approached issues with the thoughtfulness and a long-term perspective of Ambassador George Kennan, especially in our relationship with Russia. It is important to keep our eyes trained on the challenges and the opportunities that lie before us. We need a lot more foresight, and we need a lot less partisanship. Or to use Russian phrasing, we need to ask, "What is to be done?" rather than "Who is to blame?"

One of the most acrimonious foreign policy debates in America today, of course, is the debate over "who lost Russia?" Particularly since the major setbacks to Russia's reform efforts last year, observers of Russia have argued fiercely over who's to blame for Russia's continued difficulty in adapting to capitalism and democracy.

Some in the West charge that the United States lost Russia, first by failing to seize on the historic opportunity presented by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then by supporting individual Russian leaders, rather than democratic institutions and ideals. Some in Russia, on the other hand, argue that the reformers, supported by the West, lost Russia by enacting reforms that turned dozens into millionaires and millions into paupers living below the poverty line. Some on both sides claim that Russia was nobody's to lose in the first place. According to this view, Russians themselves are to blame for their current condition, or their plight is somehow seen as the inevitable legacy of their communist past.

So conflicting perceptions drive this debate, perceptions of what should have happened, or what should have been done. These perceptions cloud, rather than shed light on the real problems of Russia's current situation and future. We Americans today are frequently frustrated by what is happening in Russia. We're upset by the misuse of loans from international organizations. We're upset by stories of massive money laundering. We're exasperated by Russian opposition to U.S. foreign policy initiatives, whether they be in Kosovo, or in Iraq, or somewhere else. We're disturbed by the rise of anti-American sentiment in Russia. Most of all, we're disappointed that the tremendous efforts and resources that we devoted to trying to help Russia join the world community as a stable, prosperous democracy have not yet come to fruition.

On the other hand, Russians today are extraordinarily suspicious of America...of our power. And they are suspicious particularly of our intentions. They resent the fact that we did not provide the kind of aid that we extended to Germany and Japan after World War II. Worse, they feel that we've exploited the collapse of the Soviet Union in order to extend our hegemonic influence. Russians accuse us of pushing for reforms that have resulted in an unprecedented economic depression in Russia. They believe that even now, today, we are holding back their development in order to keep them in a role of a raw material producer and a market for Western goods. They were enraged by the expansion of NATO, particularly by the way in which it was accomplished, and they were equally, if not more so, enraged by our intervention in Kosovo. Our efforts to search for a way to protect ourselves from missile attack by other nations or terrorist groups are perceived by Russians as a threat to them.

Now there are some elements of truth in all of these different perceptions, just as there is evidence to support the opposing sides in the debate over "Who Lost Russia?" But I would suggest that we step back just a minute from these perceptions and arguments, and focus on where we go from here. What is the broader context of U.S.-Russian relations today, and what are the challenges that lie immediately ahead?

We are emerging from both the euphoria of the end of the Soviet era, as well as the raw tensions of the Kosovo crisis. While there is little danger of a return to cold war confrontation, the tremendous reserve of goodwill between the United States and Russia that existed just seven years ago, for instance, has nearly evaporated after troubled reform effort and after differences over foreign policy issues. Both sides are going to need to make sustained efforts, and they're going to need to make them on many fronts, in order to improve relations once again.

The next few years will present great opportunities, as well as great challenges in U.S.-Russian relations. I think, my friends, that we really are at another crossroads in history, one at least as important as the end of the Soviet era. While the cold war is over, the terms of this continuing relationship between the United States and Russia are not yet set. In coming years, the relationship between these two countries will undergo significant changes.

Those future changes we need to be thinking about today, and tomorrow. In the year 2000, Russia will have a new parliament, and for the first time in its history should see a constitutional, democratic transfer of power to a new president. In the year 2001, the United States will have a new administration in place, our first administration of the new millennium. In the next century, both nations may regard each other in a new light, without enmity, with more realistic expectations, and with our national interests firmly in hand.

Both countries are going to have to work hard to lay a positive groundwork for relations in this coming century. We can only achieve a stronger relationship if our discourse and policies are based not on the heated debate of the moment, but on careful consideration of the broader importance of the relationship.

Here, that relationship is important, for many, many reasons. Russia's large nuclear arsenal and other advanced military technology could be used to pose a major threat to us, if it got into the wrong hands. Russia's economy, though struggling today, I think few would argue has great potential. Russia has significant influence in areas of strategic importance to us, such as Central Asia and the Middle East. Russian organized crime networks do stretch throughout the world, and constitute a major problem to be reckoned with.

So given Russia's importance, it clearly follows, I think, that engagement with Russia is the only sensible approach to dealing with the problems she faces and the strains in our relationship. A peaceful, democratic, and prosperous Russia is strongly in our national interest, every bit as much so today as it was in late 1991, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union. And so we need to continue to work with Russia to help her reach that goal.

But we ought to have realistic expectations when we do so. We shouldn't expect Russia to become a thriving market democracy that functions just like ours. We must recognize that Russia will develop on her own terms, and she'll develop in her own way.

We must understand that major reforms may not be implemented for years, and that reform may not take place exactly as we would like to see it take place. We should also recognize that our involvement with Russia will not immediately produce great results. There are going to be bumps in the road. There are going to be further setbacks along the way. And we have to be patient. We have to be persistent, and we've got to seek to build bridges where that is possible. We should voice our objections with Russia when appropriate, but we should always seek to turn those objections, if we can, into a constructive dialogue.

The challenges facing Russia are immense, from security issues, to economic reform, to political strife. These problems, of course, are all badly exacerbated by the fact that Russia does not have an adequately functioning system of laws. Our efforts to help Russia meet her challenges can only have a modest impact, really, when you think about it, on a country that vast and that complex. But that impact in and of itself is well worth our time, and it's well worth our resources.

Ten years from now, I hope, and I believe that the debate over who lost Russia will be ancient history. By then I hope that U.S.-Russian relations will be stronger than ever, that Russia will be solidly on the road to prosperity and integration with the West. And such an outcome is going to take a lot of hard work on the part of many people in both countries. Let me close by suggesting that rather than continuing to bemoan the negative events and developments of recent years, I think it behooves us all to resolve to help make that potential positive outcome that I just described a reality. I know one thing: the Woodrow Wilson Center, and its Kennan Institute, can be counted upon for sure, to be leaders in that effort.

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