‘Above All, Avoid Zeal’: EastWest’s Cameron Munter on Russia’s Relations With the West
Ambassador Cameron Munter is president and CEO of the EastWest Institute, a prominent NGO focused on conflict prevention and resolution, ranging from a deeply rooted legacy in the Cold War to active engagement in the Balkans, the Middle East, South and East Asia. In this Q&A, he speaks with Russia Matters director Simon Saradzhyan about U.S.-Russian relations, including issues pertaining to trade, sanctions, Ukraine, deal making, accidental nuclear war, a rising China, potential partnerships, Putin as a modernizer and much more. Ambassador Munter’s hope for future Russian-American relations is that the leadership of both countries takes an analytical and realistic look at what they can do to work together under present-day circumstances. He is a career diplomat who has served as United States Ambassador to Pakistan and Serbia and as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassies in the Czech Republic and Poland. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SS: Are there any vital U.S. interests at stake in the U.S. relationship with Moscow? And if so, are these interests advanced by America’s current policies toward Russia?
CM: There are vital U.S. interests at stake in U.S. relations with Russia. Some are quite obvious, some are more subtle and long-term. The obvious ones include the U.S. focus on Israel and its relationship with Iran. And Russia’s important role in Syria and in the region means there are issues they have to deal with in common. Similarly, the relationship of the United States with China: This is not a relationship that exists in a vacuum, and is another area in which U.S. relations with Russia really matter. There are longer-term domestic U.S. issues that matter as well—like the arguments about Russia’s alleged electoral meddling. There are also potential economic interests, whether from the energy field or others. So, there’s a wide array of things that I would consider vital U.S. interests at stake. The relationship with Russia is not the kind the U.S. can afford to simply ignore or not pay enough attention to.
SS: In a similar vein, what about EU interests and policies vis-à-vis Russia?
CM: There are at least two important areas where EU countries share interests with Russia. The key one is a concern about the countries to their south. The sources of much of the instability in Europe—whether from migration, or from such issues as Islamic fundamentalism—matter a great deal to the stability and the future of Russia, and to the Europeans. Similarly, they share interests because of Russia’s relationship to Europe as an energy supplier. They share an interest in having a stable relationship and in making sure that some sort of accommodation is reached, whether on Nord Stream 2 or other details. Are these the same interests as the United States has? I would argue yes. All countries—the Europeans, the Americans, the Russians—have an interest in stability, including a stable Middle East. I don’t know if they look at it the same way, and that’s of course a vexing problem. The American focus on Iran is obviously very different than the focus of, say, the French, the British, the Germans or the Russians, but nonetheless, they have that in common.
SS: You have noted in the past that there is “common ground between Russia and America.” Could you elaborate?
CM: Governments have a very strong interest in the security of citizens, and a need for counterterrorism in all its forms—whether it emanates from domestic threats or foreign threats—is something we have in common. There’s also the war on drugs, that countries have in common, and the EastWest Institute has been engaged in programs to get Russian experts and American experts to get together to talk about the domestic and criminal threats posed by narcotics. One more point about common ground: We don’t pay enough attention to the fact that there’s actually quite a lot of personal affinity that many Russians and Americans have for one another. Even though they were opponents in the Cold War, when Americans and Russians are together they tend to get along. I don’t want to overdo this, but neither do I want to ignore this cultural affinity that I personally have experienced—whether it’s a love for jazz or a love for computers, or a sense of humor, or a cultural experience that the Americans go west and the Russians go east, there are affinities between the people and too often these affinities become forgotten.
The American debate in Washington today is very passionate, and often the same thing is happening in Moscow. There’s a lot of anger, hurt feelings. Let’s try to get a little bit further from emotion and toward the analysis of what we can do together.
SS: So, given this common ground, building on that, in what areas do you see opportunity for normalizing the relationship and what are the biggest obstacles?
CM: In this, there are two elements. One is the atmosphere, the way you do it, and one is the issues that are important. The opportunity for normalization of relations begins in an attitude and the attitude, in my mind, has to be a little less fire, a little more ice. Kind of cooling off. There is a famous quote from the French foreign minister Talleyrand who says, “Above all, avoid zeal.” That is to say, try not to be too passionate about these things. The American debate in Washington today is very, very passionate, and very often I see the same thing, at least from a distance, happening among my friends in Moscow. There is not only analysis, but there’s a lot of anger, hurt feelings. There’s emotion. I think the first thing is let’s try to figure out where we can get a little bit further from emotion and toward the analysis of what we can do together. Then the issues: Now, the opportunity for normalizing relations that I have always looked at has been the interest of people to develop economically. That is difficult now. It’s very difficult with the sanctions from America as a result of the annexation of Crimea. A lot of people who are potentially the kind of people who want to be friends and go-betweens—whether they’re people working in key industries like agriculture or energy, or people who are actually in the business of trade—are leery because of the fear of sanctions. Nonetheless, I think that is a constituency that very much wants to see relations be good. Throughout the Cold War there were always businesspeople on both sides who were very willing to go against the tide, to try to work on good relations. Again, the sanctions make it difficult, but I would say the opportunity for normalizing the relationship probably lies as much as anything in the ability for businesspeople to do deals.
SS: Well, I certainly agree with that point. One underlying weakness of the relationship is that neither country has much trade with the other.
CM: You’re absolutely right. The capacity is way underutilized for trade, and the less trade you have, the less commitment you have. That’s not a good thing. Take as an example: America is very often an agricultural supplier to Russia, and Russia is often not only an energy supplier but also a supplier of minerals and natural resources to the United States. These are basic areas where there could be much more trade, but these are also such basic items that if the Russians can’t sell to the Americans, they can sell to someone else; if the Americans can’t sell their agricultural products to the Russians, they can sell them to someone else.
SS: Do you think the lack of an economic foundation could be one reason why there is no U.S. support whatsoever, as far as I see, at least in the House of Representatives, for improving the relationship?
CM: Yes, but I don’t want to overdo this. I think it’s one of the factors. Usually our Congress responds to the interests of its constituents, so if you have, for example, a senator from a farming state that’s selling a lot of grain to Russian suppliers, he’s going to hear from his constituents that they have an interest in stable relations with Russia. This is not a question of who loves Russia or who hates Russia; this is a question of interests. And, yes, the fact that American investment firms are not as heavily exposed in Russia as they were in the past, that American companies are selling less, trading less, doing less investment in Russia, that just means there are fewer voices telling our lawmakers that they would be wise to be careful. It doesn’t define the relationship, but it is one of the big factors.
When there was a deal between the U.S. and the USSR, it was a deal that basically stuck. That’s no longer the case.
SS: You mentioned the meddling, and certainly that has played a role in congressional skepticism. Do you believe the Russian government meddled in the U.S. presidential elections? And if so, what was the purpose and did it pay off?
CM: It’s widely accepted that there was an organized effort to have an effect on the election and that that effect was in order to support Trump and to work against Hillary Clinton. What’s interesting is the question of why that might have happened. The only clue I have about that is my memories of being a diplomat and spending a lot of time in the countries on Russia’s border. I was, for example, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassies in Poland and in the Czech Republic. I remember talking with my Russian colleagues about their impressions of American policy, let’s say in the first decade of this century. And I remember having these discussions when we were, for example, observing the Orange Revolution period—2004, 2005—in Ukraine, and the very widely held conviction on the part of many of the Russians was that this was not an indigenous revolution, but something that was being organized by the Americans. It wasn’t true, but I remember that it was a very widespread feeling among my Russian colleagues. And so, I’m sensing that one reason may have been: “Well, you did it to us, we’re going to do it to you.” Right or wrong, but if there was a perception that the West meddled—not only, say, in the Orange Revolution or the so-called Rose Revolution of Georgia, but even somehow in elections in Russia itself in 2012—if people believe that, I can see that as being a motivation, to get back at the U.S.
SS: I think Secretary Pompeo has pointed to the meddling as an issue that has to be resolved, which Russia sort of has to come clean on, before relations can be normalized. His predecessor, Secretary Tillerson, had said that if there were a single issue that could pave the way for the start of normalization, it’s a change in Russia’s position on Ukraine. Do you believe there is a single issue that, if Russia were to change its behavior in a significant way, would pave the way for normalizing the relationship?
CM: Ukraine is certainly a key issue for the Americans, and I think it’s a key issue for the Russians. So, if we can untie that particular knot, I think it would go a long way toward the relationship’s improvement. But, it doesn’t seem to me, from many indications I have from Russia, that anyone in a position of authority in Russia is rethinking what has happened in Ukraine—the annexation of Crimea, the conflicts in eastern Ukraine. So, I don’t see a change coming from the Russian side, and I don’t see a change coming from the American side. If anything, the sanctions continue to pile up. So, my answer to you is that if there were a way at least to get past the situation in Ukraine, I think that would go a long way toward solving this.
SS: You have observed that the current crisis in U.S.-Russian relations “won’t be a Cold War in the sense that we understood it before.” What are the differences and similarities between the Cold War and the current crisis?
CM: The key difference I see is that when there was a deal between the Russians and the Americans, it was a deal that basically stuck. The U.S. and the USSR were the decision makers. That’s no longer the case. So much has changed in the world over the last 30 years—the rise of China and other economic powers in Asia, the spread of technology, new social media, the ability of people to participate in politics. It’s no longer possible to see that kind of bilateral relationship in the static and solid way that people saw it before. It’s almost as if you are looking at this as a scientist, and you want to have a controlled experiment. It used to be a lot easier to convince yourself that there was that kind of stability, solid sets of rules and assumptions, and that the world they dealt with would be predictable. I don’t think that kind of predictability is possible anymore. So, when I said I don’t think there will be a Cold War in the sense that we understood it before, it’s because, as much as anything else, the world outside of Russia and America has changed. What people miss about that relationship was that, as I mentioned, there was a set of assumptions and rules. Especially, let’s take the example of the nuclear standoff, there were a set of assumptions that experts—we can call them the high priests of nuclear theory—understood about each other and they studied each other and they took great care to try to understand each other. I’m not sure that a problem now would lend itself to that—that idea that you could go back to an old Cold War kind of stasis, I just don’t think it’s possible.
The greatest danger is that we simply don’t have the mechanisms in place that we had during the Cold War to defuse tense situations.
SS: At several points in the Cold War the two countries came very close to nuclear war. One was obviously the Cuban Missile Crisis, another was the Able Archer exercise, 35 years ago. Do you think today we face similar risks of an accidental nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia after a period of relative calm and, if so, what should be done to reduce that risk?
CM: I’m not really sure. There are some indicators we can all look at: The absolute number of warheads and the absolute number of pressure points are fewer than there were. We don’t really see organized groups of soldiers, not in the way we saw before, say, in a place like Germany, looking at each other over a border. So, in a certain sense the threat is less. But you were talking about the threat of an accidental nuclear war, and that is key. What if people make mistakes and actions are misunderstood? The less contact you have, the more chances for misunderstandings. Say, there’s a Russian fighter plane that flies over the Baltic Sea and comes very close to a NATO warship. Anytime something like that happens, what do you do? Do you have a mechanism to talk with each other? Do you have ways of trying to defuse the tense situation? That’s where the greatest danger is because, to my knowledge, we simply don’t have the mechanisms in place that we had during the Cold War. And that always leaves open the possibility that we won’t respond to mistakes in the best way because we just don’t have as much contact as we need.
SS: You have mentioned the changes we are witnessing in the world. Do they amount to a change in world order? And if so, what is that order going to look like and who will be the key players?
CM: Has the liberal world order formed in 1950 changed? It was always changing. We can’t describe that 70 years as a static period. Just take Europe: You had the European Coal and Steel Community, which became the European Community, which became the EU at a time when the development of their industries and economies changed. Europe didn’t stay the same for 70 years. It changed and the institutions changed with it. And that evolution continues. That said, the main architect of many of the institutions of that world order was the United States, and the United States under President Trump is talking about that architecture differently. It’s not up to President Trump, though, to decide what the role of China is, what the role of Russia is, what the role of India is, what the role of climate change is. Yes, the American government plays an enormous and outsized role in defining issues of world politics, but the issues go on by themselves. There’s always been different kinds of stresses and changes as different countries get stronger and weaker, as different players become involved. The question we’re going to see is not whether the world order ends, but what’s going to be the role of people? What’s going to be the role of China, of India? What are going to be the roles of institutions beyond Russia, beyond America? What about the U.N.? Is it going to change? What about the role of international business? Universities? Civic groups? The world is not going to transform overnight from one system to another. We’re going to go through a “time of troubles” here, and the time of troubles will be that we’re not able to recognize a lot of the new players and a lot of the new impacts, but I don’t think the world order itself is just going to turn off like a switch overnight.
SS: Do you see China continuing to rise? What would that mean for the United States, Russia and the world?
CM: China’s role will continue to grow. It’s an enormous country and, in many ways, it’s unique in its ability to have an enormous population with a disciplined, authoritarian-style government. Compare it to India, which is a democracy—also very big, but very messy. In short, yes, I think China continues to rise. This is going to be a big question for the Americans. Will America figure out a way to work with China during this rise to be a partner, to defend the practices and the attitudes that Americans find important? Let’s just say things like transparency in business, various elements of human rights, the sanctity of a contract, attitudes toward the way you do business. Part of the engagement is not just a question of seeing who wins, but a question of seeing what the quality of that relationship for the rest of the world will be. Russia has a different kind of problem. On one hand, Russian-Chinese relations at the state level are pretty good. President Putin and President Xi get along fine. But there are going to be some imbalances because of the differences in their economies and their demography. You’re going to have issues about Russia being a supplier of raw materials and China being a consumer of raw materials. They have to sort out that relationship and figure out what to do.
It’s not as simple as, “Can Russia and the U.S. contain China?” It’s going to be: Can America, Russia and China figure out means to work together that don’t get in the way of fundamental interests of each?
SS: Henry Kissinger suggested to Trump that the U.S. should work with Russia to contain a rising China. Do you agree? If so, how could this be implemented?
CM: I actually don’t agree with that suggestion. Henry Kissinger is a sophisticated guy, maybe the argument he made was a little bit more nuanced than that. But I think that containment as it was understood by George Kennan and that generation is not something that’s really going to happen. The issue is going to be the integration of these countries with one another, whether or not they’re going to learn to find ways to protect their interests and their values with one another. It’s not as simple as saying, “Can Russia and the United States contain China?” It’s going to be: Can America, can Russia, can China figure out means by which they work together that don’t get in the way of fundamental interests of each? That’s not as satisfying as talking about containment, but the world is messier than it was before and that’s what it’s going to take.
SS: People in the Trump administration have variously described China and Russia as America’s foes, competitors, adversaries. What words would you use to describe them, as seen from the United States?
CM: I tend to put a hopeful gloss on this: These are both potential partners. But none of the three countries has realized the true potential of that partnership. Partners don’t always have to agree. Partners often compete, partners often disagree. But you can partner on such things as general directions and the general way you deal with economics or with common threats. And America has the capacity to work with each of these countries. But we have to work harder to make them partners, and for them to want to be partners with us.
SS: In the meantime, do they represent any sort of threat? What would you say are the top three threats to the Western world?
CM: If the accusations about electoral meddling are true and the cyber potential is there, that is something America will have to deal with. This is not just a question about Russia; China also has the potential to do this kind of thing. This is something the countries have to get together and talk about. And again, I’ll put in a plug for what we do at the EastWest Institute: One problem is that there are really no norms in the cyber-security world, the way that there were norms of behavior for nuclear weapons, treaties and practices. The possibility of cyber-security breaches, whether by state or non-state actors, is very serious and it’s in the interest of all countries—China, Russia, America—to deal with this. Here’s another threat: When China joined the WTO, Americans wanted to believe that China would somehow become more similar to the United States. In many ways, China has profited and has become more prosperous and that’s a good thing. Certainly, toward the alleviation of poverty, it’s been an amazing thing. But China, America, Russia and other countries must align their understanding of how business is done. And this gets down to some basic questions about rules, about corruption and habits, about the way you use economic power and translate it into political power. Take the debate that’s going on about the Belt and Road initiative from China: Is it a win-win as the Chinese describe it, or a debt trap, as some of the critics say? So, in addition to the big cyber threat, there’s the threat of having economies that aren’t aligned and rules of economic behavior that aren’t aligned. That’s going to be a big threat if we can’t figure out a way to cooperate.
The task is being realistic and honest about Russia, about what is strong and what is weak. Maybe we’re intellectually lazy. It doesn’t do Russia any good and it certainly doesn’t do us any good.
SS: Getting back more directly to Russia, it’s been said that Russia is never as strong or as weak as it seems. How would you summarize Russia’s weaknesses and strengths in today’s world?
CM: It’s very important that you raise that question of Russia never being as strong or weak as it seems. A lot of Western policymakers don’t have a clear understanding of Russia because they tend—for whatever reasons, either domestic or other—to make a caricature of Russia, as much more or much less capable of doing things than it really is. Of course, it’s something in-between. I think of Russia as being a powerhouse in, for example, the study of mathematics, in engineering capability. On the other hand, I haven’t ever used a Russian laptop. Russia has not been able to translate its obvious engineering and mathematical and so-called STEM skills into economic power, the dissemination of sophisticated electronic machinery. I think that supports your notion that Russia is neither as great nor as little as people say. The key issue here—it’s not entirely the question you’re asking—but I think the task is being realistic about Russia from the outside, taking it seriously for what it really does, and allaying some of Russia’s own fears about whether or not it’s being taken seriously. You take the country seriously by trying to be honest about what is strong and what is weak. And maybe dishonesty’s not the right word. Maybe we’re intellectually lazy as a culture and look at Russia as very strong in some ways and very weak in others. It doesn’t do Russia any good and it certainly doesn’t do us any good. The key misunderstanding is to make a bogeyman out of Russia. It’s not a superman, nor is it a weakling. You hear in some of our public debate in the United States about the looming juggernaut of Russia. But we’re kidding ourselves; we’re not addressing the real issues. A little humility and a little bit of honesty in the assessment of Russia, and in the Russian assessment of the United States, would probably be a good thing.
SS: In the long term, is Russia a rising power, a declining power, is it stagnating? Or maybe it’s rising and declining simultaneously?
CM: I actually fear that Russia’s a declining power. That doesn’t mean that Russia will always be a declining power, but I think that unless there is serious reform in the Russian economy, some key indicators of Russian strength are going to continue to go the wrong direction. Public health is always an issue in Russia and so is the demographic crisis, exacerbated by the fact that many young people looking for opportunity are leaving. That’s a very bad sign when young people leave, and that happens too often, I think. If the declining long-term indicators continue, Russia is going to be less powerful. Fewer people, a smaller tax base, less diversification of the economy. I don’t see that as inevitable. If there were to be the right kind of reforms, you have the talent, you have the historical kind of pride that is very important in Russia, you have the enormous national resources and space that could be utilized, so it doesn’t have to be that way. But unfortunately, I think right now the trends are not good.
SS: One claim about Russia is that if someone other than Vladimir Putin were ruling it, relations with the U.S. would be different, maybe much better. Do you think that claim holds water?
CM: There’s always a personal element that plays a role in politics. Look at the difference between Bill Clinton, George Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Putin has certain qualities that make him an effective leader and certain weaknesses. So, yes, certainly it would be a different relationship if it weren’t Putin, but we shouldn’t overdo the personalization of politics. A lot of things—like the fluctuation of oil prices, the growth of a new generation who don’t remember the Soviet era—are not things Putin is deciding and those things are also some of the determinants of the relationship with the West. I don’t know that we should put too much of the relationship at Putin’s feet, even though the fact that he has been in power for almost 20 years, the direction and the atmosphere and the means by which he has defined things, those have very much given the flavor to the relationship. The day will come when Putin steps aside and there will be someone else. And that will be a time when things may change.
I would compare Putin with Frederick Wilhelm of Germany—a modernizer who realized his country had certain restraints and worked within those restraints to take advantage of every opportunity.
SS: Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak compared Vladimir Putin to Bismarck. Who does Putin remind you of?
CM: By training, I’m a historian. I studied German history. And I don’t think Putin is Bismarck. Bismarck was an extraordinarily careful strategist and I don’t sense that Putin is as much a strategist as a very clever opportunist and tactician. He is very good at taking a certain situation and playing it to his advantage. If there is a strategic vision that Putin has, I don’t see it. Among historical figures, I would compare him with Frederick Wilhelm of Germany—one of the old Prussian modernizers, who realized his country had certain restraints and worked within those restraints to take advantage of every opportunity. That’s what I think Putin has done.
SS: What are the biggest mistakes you think Putin has made in his policies? And what are the biggest mistakes the current and previous U.S. administrations have made vis-à-vis Russia?
CM: Domestically, the most important thing—whether it was a mistake or a choice—was the inability, especially when there were high oil prices and therefore some breathing room for reform, to make Russia have a greater percentage of its economy be higher value-added goods. That is, to take advantage of economic good times to reform and to get into high-tech industries, to get into the service industries, to get into the areas that would make it competitive in the world market beyond the export of energy and raw materials. That, to me, was a missed opportunity. On foreign policy—and he may not think of this as a mistake because of the way it played domestically, but—in terms of American-Russian relations, the annexation of Crimea was certainly a mistake. From the American point of view, what mistakes were there? There was perhaps—it gets back to that question of unrealistic expectations—a little bit too much hope in certain parts of the George Bush administration that Russia would instantly become a partner and too much skepticism in the Obama administration that—you know the famous quote that Russia is a regional power? There was a kind of relegation of Russia to the sidelines. Those were the mistakes—expecting too much from Russia and expecting too little. Not everyone in the Obama administration felt that way, not everyone in the Bush administration felt that way, but America went kind of back and forth on Russia. What it should have done is try to be more realistic and say, “At this point in its development, in which ways can Russia work with us under these circumstances?” I hope that becomes the guiding principle of a future Russian-American relationship—that it’s based on respect, on a kind of analytical, cool understanding of what Russia can and can’t do, and on the ability to not get overly excited about the issues that divide us.
Those of us who are committed to the U.S-Russian relationship have to settle in for the long haul.
SS: One year from now, if you had to bet today, what will the relationship look like? Better, worse, same? And why?
CM: I’m not really optimistic that it’s going to change quickly because there are dug-in positions on both sides. Again, on Ukraine I don’t see that Russia will want to change any time soon, and on the American side those who call for sanctions aren’t going to be backing away either. I’m hoping that over time there will be more dialogue, and that could lead to change. Piece by piece there may be military-to-military dialogue, there may be dialogue about other parts of the world, from South Asia to Central Asia to other issues. I mentioned cyber talks and other things of that sort. So, there’s the possibility of change, but I guess a year from now, I see it being the way it is. I think those of us who are committed to the U.S-Russian relationship have to settle in for the long haul to make sure that we stay in contact as best we can and try to address issues as reasonably as we can.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.