U.S. Diplomacy in the Shackles of Election Politics
President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC),
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004)
In just two weeks the United States of America will elect its new president. According to many politicians and observers, the campaign is unprecedentedly vicious, while the confrontation with Russia emerges perhaps as one of the key issues. However, no matter who wins the race – either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump – Washington and Moscow will have to construct a pragmatic dialogue since it affects both their own wellbeing and global security, comments former Russian Foreign Minister and RIAC President Igor Ivanov in a recent interview to RIA Novosti News Agency.
— In a few days Americans will elect their new president. Which of the two candidates do you see as the likely winner?
— I would not risk answering this question. The campaign is exceptionally ferocious, practically no holds barred. Hence, either of them still might spring a surprise that would turn the tables.
— Do you have a preference as far as Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton are concerned?
— Whether you like it or not, the United States is still the world’s leading power. No matter who wins the presidency, that person will immediately take over the immense responsibility both for the future of the country and the entire world. I've always thought we must be able to work with any U.S. administration. I do still think so.
— It takes two to build a constructive bilateral relationship. Judging by the way the Russian card is being played during the campaign, does it seem timely to prepare for the worst-case scenario?
— Any election campaign is targeted only to win. Regrettably, it so happens that long-term foreign interests frequently fall victim to the immediate interests of the domestic politics. And this is something we are seeing in the U.S. right now. During recent months American diplomacy appears to have been shackled by the election campaign and has to keep the November 8 outcome in mind, which is especially evident in Washington's approach to the Syria conflict. I do hope things change for the better after the vote.
— In what way is it going to affect the Russia-US relations?
— Any campaign boils down to voting, with the winner facing a harsh reality after. And the reality dictates that unless Russia and the United States are getting ready for self-destruction, they have to build a pragmatic dialogue as it determines both their own wellbeing and global security.
— Do you think a dialogue is still possible after all that has been said in the recent months?
— To prove my point, let's take up my own foreign-ministerial experiences. George W. Bush officially became the 43rd president of the USA on January 20, 2001. In less than two months Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov was invited to the US Department of State and was familiarized with Washington's decision to expel over 50 Russian diplomats. Through such actions the new administration meant to test Moscow's strength and show its place in the new world order that Washington was going to establish.
— And what was Moscow's response?
— As soon as the news reached Moscow, President Putin immediately gathered his security chiefs for a meeting that decided to take reciprocal measures without any delay. The US Ambassador James Collins was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and handed a list of U.S. diplomats chosen to leave Russia.
The next day I was informed that Secretary of State Colin Powell was willing to urgently discuss something by phone. As a matter of fact, we had never met before. As soon as the call began, Mr. Powell in a military style (he had a long military career as JCS Chairman) asked: "How shall we handle the matter?" I answered that we did not have many options. We either keep expelling diplomats and our embassies will soon be deserted, or we launch a serious dialogue on building a relationship taking into account each other’s legitimate interests. In the long run, we agreed to meet, wasting no time.
We met in Paris in early April, and had a very sincere and constructive talk, just in the manner for all further encounters with Colin Powell, an outstanding politician and remarkable man with whom I still maintain a very cordial relationship.
We came to the conclusion that the small-steps tactics would not defuse the crisis in our relationship, and the negative dynamics could be reversed only by a powerful political impulse emanating from the two presidents. We agreed to offer our presidents a meeting as soon as possible on a neutral territory without a fixed agenda. The aim was not to solve any sort of current bilateral problems but to show that the two great powers would not return to the Cold War practices and were ready for a serious equal dialogue on a broad range of bilateral and international matters. Presidents Putin and Bush Jr. approved our initiative, and on June 17, 2011 the two leaders met in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The media reported that they "got the sense of each other's soul", opening an important page in the history of the bilateral relations.
— And what was the conclusion?
— After the Ljubljana summit it became clear that personal relations between the two presidents were going to play a serious role in the bilateral relationship. And the world could see that on September 11, 2001, when President Putin turned out to be the first world leader to call President Bush and harshly condemn the unprecedented act of international terrorism on American territory. Addressing the people of the United States on behalf of Russia, President Putin said: "We entirely and fully share and experience your pain. We support you."
Two months later President Putin came to the U.S. on his first state visit there. In his turn, President Bush visited Moscow to take part in celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the victory in the Great Patriotic War, giving credit to the enormous heroism of the Soviet people.
The two presidents regularly met, held talks, spoke by phone and exchanged messages. The two states did have quite a few differences, some of them very sharp, suffice it to remember the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty or the Iraq war. Nevertheless, the presidential relations formed a stabilizing factor that prevented confrontation.
— Historical analogies are really entertaining. But could they be reproduced now?
— Providing an example from the recent past, I mean to say that the political will and clear vision of long-term national interests may tackle any conundrum. As for Russia-US relations, one should add the special mission of the two presidents. This factor has always worked before, and will remain sizeable in the future.