"Do not reset, go forward" – former US State Secretary
Deterioration in Russia-US relations in recent years is ‘regrettable’ and both sides are to blame, believes former US Secretary of State James Baker.
RT: Hello, Secretary Baker, it’s an honour to have you with us today.
James Baker: Thank you Sophie, I’m delighted to be here.
RT: Now, rumour has it that your visit to Russia has something to do with President Medvedev and Barack Obama’s first meeting in London on April the 1st for the G20.
J.B.: Well that’s a good rumour but it’s wrong. I’m here as a private citizen. I’m here to support and visit with my law office that’s been here since 1993. Baker Botts, that’s my family law firm of which I’m still a partner, has an office here in Moscow which we’ve had since 93. And so that’s one reason I’m here, and the other reason is to participate in a conference that the Baker Institute for Public Policy Rice University which was named after me is conducting here on Caspian energy and Russia’s role in Caspian energy reserves.
RT: When it comes to political analysis you are the man that the world listens to, especially when it has to do with US-Russia relations. Where do you think they are at right now?
J.B.: Well I think that there’s been a regrettable deterioration in US-Russia relations since I was Secretary of State back in 1989-1992. At that time of course the Cold War was ending to the surprise of many of us both on the Russian side, or the Soviet side then, and the US side. The Soviet Union imploded, this was something that none of us, I don’t think, were able to foresee. It happened in 1991. And in the aftermath of that the relationship between Russia and the United States was extraordinarily close, and it was close for many years.
We used to say in those days that we had gone from confrontation to cooperation, and then from cooperation to partnership, and there were many examples and instances where the United States and Russia worked very closely together. We brought Israel and all of the Arab neigbours together face to face for the first time ever at the Madrid peace conference sponsored by Soviet Union and the United States and then by Russia and the United States. And we banded together to reverse Iraq’s aggression against the small state Kuwait in the First Gulf war.
So there were many instances of not just cooperation really, but partnership. Now, since that time there’s been a deterioration in the relationship to the point in fact that the new administration in the United States, President Obama, his administration has said that they want to hit the reset button.
RT: How do we get to that point?
J.B.: Well, we got to that point I think through certain unfortunate circumstances but as I just said in my remarks to the conference, the energy conference the Baker Institute and Carnegie Endowment are sponsoring jointly here in Moscow, there’s blame on both sides. It’s not just one side’s fault, there’s blame… when countries fall out that’s usually the case, like when the individuals fall out there’s usually some blame to be placed on each side. So I think there’s blame on each side but the point is not so much how we got to that point but how we get back on the right track.
RT: Reset has several meanings, exactly.
J.B.: Well it does, and we just had, as I said, we’ve just participated in the conference, and my former colleague Alexander Bessmertnykh who was foreign minister of Soviet Union for a while when I was Secretary of State, said reset is not really not the right term. This is what he said. He said that’s not the right term because that means just getting back to where you were and it doesn’t mean progress going forward which is perhaps more important.
RT: So in this case that would mean heading for better times or sliding back?
J.B.: It would mean heading for better times, certainly. And there are plenty of ways in which Russia and the United States can cooperate. There are a lot of points of convergence, I call them points of convergence, where the interests of the two countries are very much aligned. We cannot, you’re not gonna deal with climate change without Russia and the United States cooperating. You’re not gonna deal with the current economic crisis without Russia and the United States cooperating. You’re not gonna deal with the question of nuclear weaponry.
We still have, the two countries, Russia and the United States, 95% of the nuclear weapons in the world. So if we’re gonna have a substantial reduction or maybe ultimate elimination years from now of nuclear weapons you don’t get there unless there’s cooperation between Russia and the United States. So there are many, many areas of convergence. There are also differences, and what’s really important I think is that we, Russia and the United States take advantage of those points of convergence where they can work together to accomplish things that are in the best interests of both countries but also in the best interests of the world and manage those areas of difference where they exist, and there are areas of difference that will continue to exist, and that’s only normal. I mean each country is going to pursue its own foreign policy and that’s natural and normal. You manage the differences, you cooperate more on similar interests.
RT: You’re such a great diplomat, but I would still like to go details. There are three sore points between the US and Russia: the expansion of NATO.
RT: … the disagreement on the August war in the Caucasus and also the placement of the anti-missile defense system in Eastern
J.B.: Well those are three of them, there may be some other differences big way
RT: Well those are the biggest ones.
RT: They are the biggest stumbling points, right?
J.B.: That’s correct, yeah, right.
RT: So there is a popular opinion in this part of the world that NATO is an outdated reminder of the Cold War. Do you think it needs to be remodeled maybe?
J.B.: Well you know, interestingly enough, Sophie, in 1993 right after I left office as Secretary of State I wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times and it was printed and I think it was in December of 1993 in which I said that we should reform NATO to the extent that it would be more of a political alliance and less of a military alliance. And that any country on the Eurasian continent or the continent of Europe, I may have said Eurasian or I may have said Europe, that embraces democracy and free market should be eligible to join including, I said specifically, Russia. So it would not be perceived to be an alliance directed against Russia.
Now, the relationship has unfortunately I think deteriorated to the point today that I don’t think that’s any longer a viable approach or solution. But it ought to be at least looked at. NATO is a political alliance in addition to being a security alliance. And what would be wrong with all the countries of Europe, or the Eurasian continent cooperating together, all being in the same tent. It operates by consensus. Something could not be imposed upon Russia against her will, ‘cause if she didn’t vote for it, it wouldn’t happen.
RT: But you do understand Russia’s position when they say we feel threatened when we have a military alliance closing up to our borders. How would America feel if a military alliance…
J.B.: Yeah I understand.
RT: …was moving to its borders?
J.B.: I understand the perceptual problem in Russia. On the other hand, I also think and we think in the United States, the vast majority of people, that there is stability on this continent that is achieved and gained by having all these countries in a political alliance together. And that’s why if we had the Russia, if we had the nation of Russia there as well it would promote stability. I can understand the perceptual problem. And I understand why it is one of the areas of difference. Fundamentally, the one thing that is sacred as far as the United States is concerned is the independence of the former republics of the former Soviet Union.
These are independent nations and the United States very much wants to and will stand up and support their continued independence. That’s different than saying they are all to be in NATO. And I’ve said in my speeches here in Moscow during the time I’ve been here that the United States needs to be judicious in its approach to future NATO membership recognizing the problem that this creates in US-Russian relations.
That does not mean that Russia should have a veto on who comes into the alliance. But wouldn’t it be nice if both sides took a real hard look at emphasizing more the political character of that alliance and the possibility of Russia’s membership in it.
RT: The war in the Caucasus in August is another point of disagreement between the US and Russia. We’re not here to say who’s right or wrong ‘cause it’s too complicated of a question. But why do you think President Saakashvili is getting honour and support from the US even though he obviously didn’t listen to the US advice and went into South Ossetia?
J.B.: Well, I think it goes back to what I said just a minute ago that the United States is committed to supporting the continued independence of the republics, the former republics of the former Soviet Union, whether it’s Georgia or Ukraine or the Baltics or some other former republic. Those are independent countries by their choice and they want to remain independent and the United States supports that. Now I don’t believe that the United States encouraged the Georgians to go into Tskhivali.
RT: No, they actually, actually quite the opposite.
J.B.: I think they discouraged them. In fact I know from having talked to the leadership in that second Bush administration that they said: Do not let yourself be provoked by the fact that there are substantial Russian troops on your border. Do not overreact to that and do not let them provoke you.
It happened anyway but the United States is not going to back away from its commitment to the independence of Georgia just because that happened. And as you said in proposing the question to me, there’s plenty of debate about who started that conflict. And I suppose that still gonna be sorted out and I certainly do not know of my own personal knowledge how it unfolded.
RT: Then the anti-missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
RT: …also a huge problem between the two countries. President Medvedev described the approach of the previous administration as what I want is what I get. How much place does that leave for diplomacy, that kind of approach?
J.B.: Well you want me to assume that was the approach of the prior administration and I am not willing to assume that. I don’t wanna agree with that. Although I do think that it’s encouraging to see president Obama say: You know, maybe we can talk about this issue of missile defense. He said this, he said: Certainly, if there were no Iranian missile threat, if Iran did not develop their nuclear weapon there wouldn’t be a need for that defense. He did say that as a matter of fact. Not linking the two, news reports have suggested there was some sort of linkage. I don’t believe that to be the case.
RT: Just yesterday Barrack Obama congratulated the Iranians with a national holiday? Do you think that we have seen another reset button as far as the U.S.-Iran relations?
J.B.: Well, you know I was co-chairman of the Iraq study group and I was asked to take that on by President Bush 43 along with Lee Hamilton. We studied the situation in Iraq. One of the recommendations we came forward with was that America should start talking to… to both Syria and Iran, and now the Obama administration has changed policy, the U.S. policy, and has given every indication that it’s already talking to Syria, that it can do that, and has given every indication it’s going to talk to Iran.
So, I think that’s a healthy development. I, for one, think that you talk to your, you know, you talk to your enemies not to your friends. There’s no need to talk to your friends. You talk to your friends, of course but you don’t negotiate peace with your friends, you negotiate peace with your enemies. So, I think that’s settled (?). Now, we have to see if that happens, if the United States opens a broad based dialogue with Iran, and we’ll have to see how Iran responds. Syria, so far, has said they welcome the idea of having full range of discussions with America.
RT: Sir the administration of Bush senior stood for more or less the same principles as the administration of Bush junior but, somehow, you managed to get your points both to Russia and to the rest of the world without clashes of interest and you did that without losing prestige.
J.B.: Well, but there were some significant differences between the …I mean I’ve just enumerated one of them. We talked at length to Syria when I was secretary of state and, in fact, I made sixteen trips to Damascus and had I not done that, we never would have gotten all of Israel’s Arab neighbors to come to Madrid and sit down to talk peace face to face for the first time ever.
That happened because Hafez al-Assad, president of Syria, changed 25 years of policy and said: “O’key. I’ll go there and I’ll talk to Israel,” because he made a strategic calculation for peace and he, I think, felt like we were opening above board nd straightening our representations to him. So, that was a difference, and the second Bush administration wouldn’t even talk to Syria. So, there were fundamental differences.
RT: Do you think that the current war in Iraq is justified or was a mistake?
J.B.: I think the jury is still out on that. Well, I think we were justified because there was, there was intelligence. It turned out to be wrong. But there was significant intelligence, and this is true that Iraq was developing a nuclear weapon. We knew from the first Gulf war that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction in the form of chemical and biological weapons.
We knew that. And we believed in America and our intelligence services believed that they were developing nuclear weapon. There were twelve United Nations Security Council resolutions calling upon Saddam Hussein to do certain things, and he thumbed his nose at all of them. So, I think he was justified, yes, he was certainly justified.
Now you can ask me will it turn out to have been the right decision, and the jury is still out on that. If Iraq ends up being a functioning democracy in the heart of the Middle East where the people have civil rights and human rights and a certain degree of freedom, then yes, it would have been the right thing to do. If, on the other hand, it should dissolve into some sort of civil war or ethnic strife and a fail nation, then it will not have been.
RT: Was it worth it? We’ll see.
J.B.: Success, yes. The jury is still out on that. We’ll have to see.
RT: Now, on more personal level you are one of the key figures who ended the Cold War and it’s so much for these two countries – Russia and the U.S. What does it do to you to see this deterioration between the relations?
J.B.: Well, as I said earlier, I think it’s very regrettable. That’s why we need to reverse it. We need to get the relationship back on track because both countries need each other, there are so many things out there, points of convergence, if you will, we will cooperate and should cooperate. And there are over here, on the other side, a few differences.
There are many more points of convergence than there are differences. And so we are going to find the way to get the relationship back on track. And I am really encouraged by the reaching out that the Obama administration has done. So far it has only been, perhaps, rhetorical but I am encouraged by that because if now Russia should respond in a positive way, may be we can get the train back on tracks. It’s sure it’s important to do that.
RT: What are the changes, do you think, Barrack Obama will bring to the U.S. foreign policy?
J.B.: Well, I don’t know. They’ve already said that they are going to talk to people that prior administrations wouldn’t talk to. I’ve said that probably clear enough and I will say it here again on your program that I think it’s very healthy to see the realism and pragmatism in the pronouncements of this administration because I happen to be of the realist foreign policy school.
Let me explain why I am. I think principles and values that is the promotion of democracy and free markets, principles and values are very rightly central to American foreign policy. But they are not the only thing. And when you formulate and implement a foreign policy, you need to have a significant national interest at stake – realism- if you are going to keep the people behind you. And in a democracy, particularly a democracy such as we have in the United States: if you lose the American people, you will lose the policy. You can support the policy only so long as you have the support of the people. So, there has to be a certain degree of realism and national interest in the policy. And |I think this new administration operates from that perspective.
RT: A black American president. Could you have imagined that back in the early 1990s when you were foreign secretary?
J.B.: Yes, I could have. And I think it’s a very, very healthy development for the United States and ,you know, since that time we’ve had two female secretaries of state which is another healthy development. And we’ve had a black secretary of state in addition to that. So, yes, I think it’s a very normal and very healthy development.
RT: In general, do you think politics and politicians have changed?
J.B.: No, I don’t think politics and politicians have changed. I think politics is pretty much, it’s going to continue to be what it’s been in the past, it’s going to continue to be practiced the same way as it’s been practiced in the past with plenty of variations from country to country.
RT: Because some tend to believe that politicians of your generation were driven more by ideas rather than interests of large corporations.
J.B.: Well, we are not driven by …I don’t think politicians have.. recent politicians are driven by interests of large corporations. I don’t know about that if that’s the hypothesis of your question. I think all politicians are driven by ideas, ideals and interests; principles and values and interest. It takes both.
RT: You were born during the Great Depression, right?
RT: Do you think you are facing something similar in terms of depth?
J.B.: Let’s me tell you, Sophie, I don’t remember the Great Depression, because it ended when I was two years old. But I don’t think we are facing a depression but I think that we are facing a significant recession, and it is a global recession, and I ,for one, don’t think that we are going to see the end of it until about the middle or end of 2010.
That’s just my own view, that’s a purely personal view. You know, that and a dollar may get you a cup of coffee that may not be worth it. That’s my own personal view. This is a very, very full-blown recession. I mean it’s a global recession and that’s why I said what I said earlier: you know, you are going to have the G-20 meeting, on the First of April I think it is, and you are going to have the first meeting ever between President Medvedev and President Obama.
What a wonderful opportunity for the two countries to cooperate in terms of coordinating economic policies and the kind of things that are going to have to happen if the world is not going to get out of this mess. We’ve got a big mess on our hands, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. And I’ve just finished saying in a speech that, you know, bankers and politicians and regulators in the United States have to own up to a share of that blame.
RT: Will the recent trillion dollar injection guarantee sharp economic recovery?
J.B.: Well, it will certainly help. The Fed and the Treasury in the United States are doing everything they can to pervasion as much liquidity as possible into the system. That’s what you have to do when you have a downturn like this. The other thing you have to do is to make sure that you are on the same way of link with other economies around the world and coordinate your responses. And that’s what they are going to talk about at the G-20 meeting.
I was a secretary of treasury and on August 19, 1987 when the stock market collapsed in the United States – we lost over 20 percent of the value – and it was a similar type of thing such as we’ve seen here recently- and we immediately threw as much liquidity into the system as we could, printed money and injected cash but we coordinated our approach with other major currency countries. And it was quite successful and we began to come out of the…, began to come out of the problem very quickly then. We need to do a similar thing today.
RT: What are some of the Fed Reserves’ moves that you don’t agree with.
J.B.: Well, I cannot think of anything the Fed has done recently that I don’t agree with. I do think and I authored an article in the Financial Times recently which says I think we need not make the mistake which Japan made back in the late 80s and the early 90s when they let their banks just muddle along and muddle through and become, in effect, zombie banks which put them into a ten-year period of economic decline. We need to deal with the problem as far as the U.S. banks are concerned.