James F. Collins, Former U.S. Ambassador, Director of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
October 18, 2007
Following are excerpts of an interview conducted by Mary B. Warlick of the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, April 16, 2007
Well, I guess I would have to say unfortunately that I started kind of at the high point and things got more difficult as we went along, although, I think, in the end I left after four years with the relationship in pretty fair circumstances and enough opportunities there to have developed it in pretty much any way the incoming administration chose.
But I have to say the evolution was subject to several shocks during the time I was there, and none of them was really positive. Now, the biggest shocks were, first, the '98 Financial Crisis, which not only had a profound effect on the Russian economy, of course-I mean, a tremendous impact-but it really did on the relationship too, because suddenly Russia went from a country of great promise in the eyes of Wall Street and the bankers and people making lots of money, to a country that didn't pay its debts, defaulted, was a sort of economic basket-case, etcetera, etcetera. And then, the second major shock was the Balkans.
And I would certainly say that launching and getting the Space Station done was a major achievement. I think that also I would have to say that the second major accomplishment, probably, was to keep the Nunn-Lugar security agenda going and solving just daily problems that came up, whether it's security issues or budget problems.
Well, we came up with a few ideas, but I think the most interesting one was the American Corner, which we pioneered, which essentially was to put a little piece of America in public libraries around the Russian Federation.
The second thing that I think was very important was we supported and found ways, really, to make a major program out of the first ever legislative -legislature-originated and controlled exchange program. It was called the Open World Program, it was run from the Library of Congress, Jim Billington basically whooped it out with Ted Stevens and a number of Congressional leaders, but the Embassy basically made it work.
So now there was another thing that struck me as I traveled, that the breakdown of the Soviet system really resulted in an awful lot of disparate development of not just economic conventions but also constitutions, different forms of political organization, different legal systems, and so one of things that you really-that you came to know as you traveled around Russia was you got a new feel for our period between 1776 and 1789, where the colonies were each independent.
But it was also very rewarding to go around and watch, particularly, you know, in the more urban areas, the beginnings of things like, you know, the NGO community, where things the government wasn't doing basically generated spontaneous, from below, work by people simply to solve their daily problems.
I think one of the positive things of the last decade, certainly, has been this sort of steady expansion of the American commercial relationship. It's still small, it is still not what it could be, but the fact of the matter is that there are many, many major American businesses; in fact, most of the Fortune 500 are in one way or another, are playing some role in the Russian Federation or the broader Eurasian market, which includes Russia.
I think the most important thing to realize is that Russia changes every day, just like we do. And, most importantly, to treat the Russian government and the Russian elite and so forth with the same respect that you treat any other major political power. And, I think, in that sense the most critical thing is, as a second element, is that when we have an issue, it almost always makes sense, because the Russians are going to be involved, to go and ask them what they think. And the third thing that's very important for them, it seems to me, for the relationship, and I would argue that this is true on both sides, is that it makes no sense to surprise people. And finally, I think, the other thing I would say, that the diplomatic corps needs really to think about is that we are in desperate need of a much better capacity to discuss things in the science and technical world than we now have.
And unless we promote these kinds of capacities to talk to each other in reasonably frank and open ways, the relationship will continue to have this sort of-it will be driven by the analytical worst-case people, because they-that's their job, that's what they do. And I found that overcoming that really is a matter of having a regular dialogue.