This article was originally published by Defusing the Nuclear Threat.
Three days ago, I posted excerpts I had found in news articles from an important but overlooked speech by Ambassador Jack Matlock. Today I found both a full transcript of his speech and its YouTube video. Matlock was our Ambassador to Moscow under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.
I compared the transcript to the video and found the transcript to be accurate. Other than cleaning up some verbal comments to make them more readable, I only found a few, inconsequential errors. I’ve attached what I saw as the most important parts of Ambassador Matlock’s speech below my signature line.
If you think this speech deserve greater attention, please let friends know of this post via email, Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, or other social media. This speech by one of America’s most respected experts on foreign relations – Matlock represented us in key negotiations to end the Cold War – still has not been covered by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, and I suspect most other major American media. (An OpEd in the Washington Post did mention it, but only in passing and in derogatory terms. Another OpEd in the Post reported on the speech in favorable terms.)
=== BEGIN EXCERPTS FROM AMBASSADOR MATLOCK’S SPEECH ===
… as things have developed, and as I see debates now as to whether the United States should supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, I wonder what is going on.
I see all these debates, and saying, “Oh, Russia’s only a regional power.” … I think the elephant in the room, which nobody is referring to, is the nuclear issue. No country which has ICBMs … is a regional power.* …
The most important thing we did in ending the Cold War was cooling the nuclear arms race. If there are any issues for this country to face that are existential, that’s it. …
If the United States gets further involved in what is, in the minds of the Russians, territory [Ukraine] which has historically been part of their country, given the present atmosphere, I don’t see how we are going to prevent another nuclear arms race. And that’s what scares me.
… when we ended the Cold War, we had a coherent policy … Our goal, and that of our allies, and that of the Soviet leaders, and their successor Russian leaders, was a Europe whole and free. …
Now, there’s been a lot of debate as to whether President Gorbachev was promised that there would be no NATO expansion to the East. There was no treaty signed saying that. But as we negotiated an agreement to end the Cold War, first President [George H.W.] Bush, at a Malta meeting in 1989, and then later, in 1990, almost all the Western leaders, told Gorbachev: If you remove your troops from Eastern Europe, if you let Eastern Europe go free, then we will not take advantage of it.
Now, there’s no way, by moving an alliance that was originally designed to protect Western Europe from the aggression of the East, you move it to the East—how are you going to keep a Europe whole and free? If you have a Europe whole and free, Russia and all the others have to be part of the system.
So later, not out of design, but simply, I think, largely because of domestic politics, and the East Europeans wanting protection against a threat that at that point didn’t exist, but [which] might in the future, we started expanding NATO.
The Russian reaction at first was not that negative, but then other things began to happen. After 9/11, then President Putin was the first foreign President to call President [George W.] Bush, and offer their cooperation and support. And we got it when we invaded Afghanistan. We got their vote in the UN. We got intelligence support and other support, logistics support, in getting there.
What did they get in return? … We walk out of the ABM Treaty, which was the basis of all of our arms control treaties, and the one in which we could deal with each other as equals. We keep on expanding NATO, and not only expand it, we begin to talk about bases there [in Eastern Europe], about deploying anti-ballistic missiles, for no good reason at all. Supposedly it was to defend the Europeans against the Iranians—the Iranians at that point didn’t have missiles that could attack them, nor was it apparent to many of us why the Iranians would ever want to attack the Europeans. What are they going to get out of that? …
We didn’t set out … to stick it to Russia. I don’t think there was any intent. We had a lot of reasons, mainly domestic political reasons, to follow these courses. But, we were simply ignoring the Russian reaction, the inevitable Russian reaction.
And so what we began to get was a reaction from what you could say was, at best, inconsiderate American actions, to a Russian over-reaction. And you know, when you set up these vibrations, they can be amplified. …
But the process was, that we developed an atmosphere, which, even before this Ukrainian crisis broke upon us, was one of … perceived hostility … between us. Something that we had [ended], when we ended the Cold War. …[When President Reagan was working to end the Cold War, he wrote a memo that] said we’re much too upfront on human rights. We will get a lot of cheers from the bleachers by beating up on them on human rights, but it will not help the people involved. In fact, it could hurt them. And he went on to say, we’ve got to go private. It’s too important to confront them.
And he concluded this memo by saying, whatever we achieve, we must not consider it victory, because that will simply make the next achievement more difficult.
You have, in a nutshell, a description, I would say, of what, in the last 15 years at least, we have been doing the opposite. And I think what Reagan understood … was human relations. And he also understood, unlike many of the people on his staff, that the other side are made up also of human beings, with their own politics, their own requirements. And number one, you’ve got to deal with them with respect, and you’ve got to deal with them in a way that you don’t expect them to do something that is not in the true interest of their country.
So, our effort then was simply, that we needed to convince the Soviet leader—and in this case, eventually, Gorbachev—that their past policy was not serving their interests. And it was not! …
Now, what do we see has happened [today to make a new Cold War possible]? … I would say it’s not just the President—in fact, the worst offender by far is the U.S. Congress. And what Russia has been reacting to is what they consider insufferable arrogance and humiliation for several years. … we’re reading op-eds right now—to save the world system of peace, we must provide arms to Ukraine so that they can defend themselves. …
Let me add another element now, which I find particularly disturbing, and that is the personalization of the whole relationship. It’s hard to read anything in most of our press that doesn’t attribute all the Russian actions to one man, and that man is usually characterized in the most unflattering terms, with various names. This is true both of the media, which, of course, can call things as they wish, but also, of our officials. You know, it seems to me that if you really want to settle the situation, you don’t set up, in effect, a public duel between your President and another person, particularly when the other President has most of the marbles in the nation at issue.
When President Putin says we’re not going to allow the Ukrainian situation to be resolved by military means, he means it. And no amount of shouting about this is going to change that. And for the President of the United States to appear to challenge him to do other things, simply has a negative effect. …
So, I think that one thing that we need to do, is to get this personal debate at the top of the government out. We really have to stop that, because it’s got a negative effect! When you say, “I’ve isolated him, he’s losing. Look, you didn’t like what I was doing, but this guy’s losing.” What’s his reaction? “I’ll show him if I’m losing!”
So, who wins from that sort of exchange?
But the biggest problem really hasn’t been the President. He’s been much better on many of these issues than Congress. And I would say one of the most outrageous things, that did much to create the atmosphere that we are in, which is one that nobody is going to benefit from, was the Magnitsky Act. [Search this blog on Magnitsky and Jackson-Vanik (its predecessor) for details.]
Here you have the United States Congress, which, in that year , could not even pass a budget, passing a law about a court case in Moscow, where it was alleged that the lawyer was mistreated, and he died while he was in detention. That was potentially a real scandal in Moscow.
So, what does the U.S. Congress do? They pass legislation requiring the Administration to identify publicly, and take action … [against] specific people who might have been involved. One of the things, when I was ambassador in Moscow, I would talk about a lot, is how we really need to respect the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Here we have a case, in another jurisdiction—there may have been a scandal there, there may not have been—a law is passed, limited to Russia, by name, and when one Congressman was asked about it, he said, “Oh, it’s not about Russia, it’s about human rights.”
If it’s not about Russia, why did you limit it to Russia? And I would point out, this was at a time when the United States had torturers and was not prosecuting them. Was that any concern to the American Congress? It was a time where, since then, we have learned that were several prisoners on death row who were proved to be innocent. … It would seem to me that the U.S. Congress should pay a little more attention [to those violations of human rights]. … human rights are important, very important. But you do not protect them by public pressure on another country, particularly when you are unwilling to judge yourself.
The State Department, now for decades, has to report on human rights in every country in the world, but one—want to guess which one that is?
… it seems to me when I really looked at what our policies have been … what we have gotten has been action/reaction, insults followed by insults answered, and so on. I wonder, when I think about how the policy is made, I was wondering, how do you characterize this?
We’ve heard a lot recently about autism, and whether there’s any connection with vaccination and so on. And suddenly, I said, you know, we have an autistic foreign policy! Let me read you—I went back and looked at the actual definition of autism:
“Autism is characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.”
When the Congress of the United States votes over 30 times in a legislation they know is never going to become law, I would say that is restricted and repetitive behavior, and our problem is really an autistic foreign policy.
* Ambassador Matlock was referring to President Obama’s March 25, 2014, speech at The Hague, in which he said: “With respect to Mr. Romney’s assertion that Russia’s our number one geopolitical foe, the truth of the matter is that, you know, America’s got a whole lot of challenges. Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength, but out of weakness.”