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200 Years of U.S. Russian Relations - and the Road Ahead
5 October 2007
200 Years of U.S. Russian Relations - and the Road Ahead

The following speech was given by US. Ambassador William J. Burns at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. His presentation was part of a series of events marking the 200th Anniversary of US-Russia Relations, which USRCCNE was instrumental in organizing. His remarks are reproduced here as frank and honest comments about the current and potential state of US-Russia relations.


200 Years of US-Russian Relations
and the Road Ahead

Remarks by Ambassador William J. Burns
to an audience at the Fletcher School
September 2007


Ambassador BurnsThank you for that kind introduction, and for the opportunity to offer a few thoughts on U.S.-Russian relations in this 200th year of our history together. Diplomats have a very well-deserved reputation for being long-winded. I'll do my best to break that stereotype today, and instead follow the wise advice of Franklin Roosevelt, who said that the secret to good public speaking was simple: "Be brief, be sincere, and be seated." I'm not a Roosevelt, but I'll try.


Let me start with the obvious. This is a moment of considerable frustration and doubt about the relationship between Russia and the United States. You can hear it and feel it every day in both our capitals. In Washington, there are significant concerns about the over centralization of power in Russia, and about how that power is used sometimes at home and abroad. In Moscow, there is a sense that Americans don't understand how difficult the last 15 years have been for Russia; that we are too quick to lecture and prone to double standards; and that the United States is fundamentally uncomfortable with the re-emergence of a strong Russia, and determined to constrain it. Russians think that Americans often tend to take Russia for granted. Americans think that Russians often tend to assume the worst about American motives.

I don't for a minute underestimate the problems between us, nor am I naïve about the road ahead. But I am also convinced that this is a moment when we both need to take a step back and look soberly at where we're headed and what's at stake. That's not going to be easy at a time when we're both moving into intense electoral cycles and political transitions, but a lot depends on it.

The truth is that the United States and Russia matter to one another in important ways -- and how well or how poorly we manage our relationship matters greatly to the rest of the world. The Cold War is history, thank God, and today there is neither an ideological nor a geopolitical basis for reviving it. For all our continuing differences, Russians and Americans are no longer enemies. While we will have moments of competition and rivalry, as well as cooperation and partnership, in the years ahead, the one thing we will not have is the luxury of ignoring one another. Russia today is the only other nuclear power in the world comparable to the United States. It is the world's biggest producer of hydrocarbons, while we remain the biggest consumer. As long as both of us sit as permanent members on the UN Security Council, few major international problems will escape our engagement. And for as long as Russia connects Europe and Asia across its vast landmass, and sits astride the turbulent Greater Middle East, its strategic importance for American interests and for global order will endure.

The challenge before us is the Russia of 2007 -- not the economically troubled, diplomatically dependent Russia of 1997, or the strategic adversary of 1987. It is a Russia full of economic potential and diplomatic assertiveness, determined not to be taken for granted, but still very much in the midst of a post-Soviet, post-Communist, post-imperial transition whose progress will be uneven and whose ultimate destination will not be clear for a generation. It is a Russia with whom a neat strategic partnership, in which we agree on every key issue, is not possible today -- but with whom a partnership on certain key strategic issues in not only possible, but deeply in both of our interests. Before I try to sketch some of the contours of such a partnership, let me first take a brief look at where we've been over the last two centuries, and at the Russia which is taking shape before us as a new century of relations begins.

I. Looking Back 

Russian-American diplomatic relations opened on a very high note 200 years ago. Our first ambassador was John Quincy Adams, later Secretary of State and eventually the sixth President of the United States. I stand before you today as a living example of how far standards have slipped. Over the two centuries in between, it was only in the last half of the last century, during the Cold War, that we were intimately (and dangerously) engaged. Throughout most of the rest of our diplomatic history, we tended to move in our own orbits, respectful of one another's development -- each suffering an enemy invasion in 1812; each finally ending the evils of slavery and serfdom in 1862; each enduring the horrors of civil war; and each building powerful frontier traditions as we expanded our reach across whole continents and multiple time zones. And while Russia's history is marked more by its geographic vulnerabilities and America's by its geographic isolation, we both emerged with ambitions and responsibilities as nations reflecting our geographic sweep.

Both of us are blessed with immense natural resources, but what sets us apart is our greatest resource, our people. Over the last century, Russians and Americans have been at the forefront of human creativity. Whatever their differences, and despite the terrible cost of totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union, Pasternak and Hemingway, Sakharov and Martin Luther King, Gagarin and Neil Armstrong, Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington, Microsoft's Bill Gates and Google's Sergey Brin helped define and propel the 20th century. I can't imagine that Americans and Russians won't continue to play a similar role in the decades ahead -- a moment in history powered by innovation and the flow of information, in which human success will be measured less in hydrocarbons and metals, and more in the intellect and creativity of our citizens.

Another of our similarities, ironically, is the diversity of our societies. We are both multiethnic, multiconfessional states -- and today the United States and Russia have the two biggest immigrant populations in the world. According to the latest Russian census, a Russian citizen can be one of 140 nationalities and 40 ethnic groups, enriched by 150 languages. That a Tatar Moslem and a Ukrainian Orthodox Christian share a Russian passport is appealing to Americans, since our own identity is built on the bloodlines and beliefs of our millions of immigrants. And we both face the huge challenges that come with such diversity: the importance of building tolerance, of fighting chauvinism and xenophobia, of remaining open to immigrants while protecting our security.

For most of our diplomatic history before the Cold War, the United States and Russia tended to float in our own separate patterns, with few substantial conflicts and relatively infrequent intersections. Then came the profoundly adversarial relationship which dominated world politics for half a century. And now, after an immediate post-Cold War period characterized mainly by Russian weakness and dislocation, comes a new era in which Russia is emerging as a more traditional Great Power -- driven by national interest, sometimes hypersensitive about its role and prerogatives, and with whom our interests are likely to collide at times and connect at others. The past will be an imperfect guide to this new era, at a time in history when more and more problems, from energy security to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to global terrorism to infectious diseases, spill beyond the borders of individual states.

II. Russia Today: Not the Soviet Union 

The Russia that we face in this new era is not the Soviet Union. And it is not the country I left a decade ago, after my last tour in Moscow, a Russia that was flat on its back economically. It's tempting sometimes to leap to crisp conclusions about this big and complicated society, to reduce its future prospects to headlines like "Russia's Wrong Direction." The Russia I see today produces lots of impressions, but crisp conclusions are rarely among them. The Russia I see today -- after two years as Ambassador and some forty trips outside Moscow, from Kaliningrad in the west to Chukotka, 11 time zones to the east and 30 miles across the Bering Strait from Alaska -- is going in a lot of different directions, some very troubling, some very promising, and many much too early to tell.

 Ambassador Burns presents at the Fletcher School
William Burns speaking at the Fletcher School. Photo courtesy Deborah Guido-O'Grady

On the positive side of the ledger is an economic revival that was simply impossible to imagine in the 1990s. Fueled by soaring energy prices, but also benefiting from a budget discipline that Americans can only envy, economic growth in Russia has averaged 7% over the last eight years. Russia's trillion dollar economy is now the ninth largest in the world -- bigger than India's or Brazil's. In the first six months of 2007, net private capital inflow into Russia was over $67 billion, more than during the entire first decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia has built up a stabilization fund of $140 billion, part of more than $400 billion in hard currency reserves, the third largest in the world.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russians are connected to the world today in powerful ways, and young Russians wake up every day with choices their parents could only dream of. Russia is among the top ten countries in the world in total number of Internet users, ahead of India and Brazil. Russians, some 14 million of them last year alone, are traveling abroad more often and more widely.

While the gap between rich and poor is still much too big, the number of Russians living beneath the poverty line has been cut in half over the past decade. Most boats are rising economically across Russia, and real incomes have more than doubled in the Putin era. Most interestingly, a middle class is beginning to emerge, perhaps as much as a quarter of the population. It's not yet the tax-paying, politically-engaged, self-aware middle class that has developed over time in other countries. But this well-educated, well-traveled, property owning class is the beginning of the core constituency for modern economic and political institutions, a growing group of people with a real stake in how decisions are made, how their money is spent, and how the rule of law can protect their equities and those of their children.

That's the good news. The not so good news is something that Russians themselves need to face up to, and for which Americans do not have all the answers. Let me stress that a little humility is a good thing in offering judgments about huge and complex societies like Russia. We Americans have our share of problems to contend with, and we've made our share of mistakes. I think it was Churchill who once said that "the thing he liked most about Americans was that they always did the right thing in the end ... they just like to exhaust all the alternatives first." Having said that, it doesn't do anyone any good to gloss over the problems that Russia faces today. Corruption is among the worst of these dilemmas. It has a corrosive effect on rule of law, crippling law enforcement and judicial independence. State control of most of the electronic media, and pressures against freedom of expression and civil society, are growing problems. Demographic decline is a serious impediment to Russia's revival. It's obvious that sensible investment in the energy sector and diversification beyond it are keys to Russia's long-term economic success. How do you do that, however, without predictable and transparent rules of the road? How do you protect Russia's greatest resource -- its remarkably creative and well-educated people -- without investing much more aggressively in education and improving health care? And how do you do any of that without a healthy civil society to complement the role of government?

It's natural that Russians, as well as outsiders, are often transfixed by the "who" questions: Who is the new Prime Minister? Who is going to succeed Putin? But as important as the answers to those questions are, it's the answers to the "what" questions that will shape Russia's future beyond the 2008 transition, and determine whether Russia will grow and prosper, or whether its current excesses will eat up its successes. What is Russia going to do with its hard-won stability? What is it going to do with the moment of energy-driven economic opportunity that lies before it? What is it going to do with the chance to diversify beyond oil and gas? What is it going to do to anchor its progress in the rule of law and the modern market and democratic institutions needed to sustain it? What is it going to do with its reborn role in the world? Only Russians can answer those questions, but how they do so will have profound implications for the rest of us.

III. A Look Ahead 

Shaping an effective relationship with Russia at the beginning of our third century of diplomatic ties is bound to combine cooperation with competition, and the management of differences with the creative expansion of areas of common ground. A Russia still in transition will remain something of a moving target, as it sorts out its domestic institutions and finds its place in the world. It's a world in which neo-containment makes no more sense than turning a blind eye to our problems or rote recitation of the virtues of an idealized strategic partnership. For some years to come, we're going to have to try to keep a sense of perspective, keep a careful eye on our priorities, keep pushing back when Russian behavior threatens our most important interests, keep working to expand partnership wherever we can, and keep paying attention to the value of making our relationship a genuine, mutually respectful two-way street. That's surely enough to keep diplomats on both sides busy for the next 100 years of our relations -- and while the U.S.-Russian relationship is not going to matter in exactly the same way that it did during the Cold War, when the fate of the world literally revolved around it, much of the history of the 21st century is going to depend on how well and how responsibly the two of us pursue a very complicated agenda.

To restate the glaringly obvious, as State Department bureaucrats are wont to do, let me repeat that we have more than our share of tough issues before us. The United States and Russia have considerable differences over questions like Kosovo, whose future has significant implications for European stability, and missile defense, and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. None of them are going to be easy, and some of them may cause even greater friction in the months ahead. There are probably going to be other sources of difficulty too, related to problems in Russia's neighborhood, or perhaps to the question of challenges to the democratic process in Russia itself. But what I'd like to highlight briefly are five areas in which we can do more together, in which we can demonstrate real leadership to the rest of the world, in which we can serve our own interests, and in which we can provide some ballast to a relationship that is likely to go through some rough waters in the year ahead.

First and most crucial is nuclear and global security. Russia and the United States, more than any other countries in the world, continue to have unique capabilities and unique responsibilities in the nuclear field. At their meeting in Kennebunkport, Maine, last July, President Bush and President Putin affirmed their commitment to jointly developing civilian nuclear energy, and making it available to developing countries in a way that guards against the dangers of nuclear weapons proliferation. We've initialed a so-called "123" agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation, and are on the verge of a new understanding on Russian access to the U.S. uranium market. We've launched an important new global initiative against nuclear terrorism. We're working hard to demonstrate responsibility in the management of our own remaining nuclear arsenals, with negotiations underway on how best to maintain strategic stability and pursue further reductions after the expiration of the START Treaty in 2009. We're heavily focused, as Senator Lugar and former Senator Nunn underscored during their visit to Russia last month, on successful completion of safety and security upgrades at nuclear facilities by the end of 2008. We're working with Russia to try to turn differences over possible missile defense sites in Central Europe into a strategic opportunity for joint early warning and missile defense. And, not least, we're cooperating very effectively with our Six Party partners on the North Korean nuclear issue, and despite tactical differences, continuing to work together to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability. Nothing in our relationship with Russia matters more than how we handle this whole set of security issues.

 Ambassador Burns at Massachusetts State Ceremony
William Burns took part in several events that day, including this official ceremony of the State of Massachusetts marking the 200th anniversery US-Russia relations.
Photo courtesy Deborah Guido-O'Grady

A second priority is economic cooperation. Our bilateral ties are rapidly expanding. American direct investment in Russia increased by more than 50% last year, and 40% of total Russian investments outside Russia in the first half of 2007 went to the United States. ConocoPhillips, with its 20% stake in Lukoil, is a good example of America's role in Russia's energy sector. Boeing, which sold some $6 billion worth of its new 787 Dreamliners to Russia last year, and which benefits enormously from the work of the 1400 Russian engineers at its Moscow design center, is another impressive model. Alcoa, International Paper, Citigroup, Ford, GM and IBM are only a few of the other major American companies finding considerable new opportunities in Russia. At the same time, we continue to support Russia's integration into global economic institutions, especially the World Trade Organization, which is an essential ingredient in the continued growth and diversification of the Russian economy. Our bilateral agreement on Russia's accession to the WTO last November was the biggest single achievement in our economic relationship in the last decade, and sets the stage for Russia's completion of multilateral talks. That step will help consolidate Russia's remarkable economic gains in recent years, and not only provide the foundation for further progress and diversification, but also bolster more promising domestic trends like the emergence of a middle class and respect for the rule of law. Continuing efforts to fight the piracy of intellectual property, build stable and predictable investment and regulatory regimes, and improve transparency are not favors to the United States or any outsider -- they are deeply in Russia's own self-interest, and in the interests of its own talented people.

A third area of common ground involves our efforts together to resolve some of the world's most difficult regional conflicts. Russia and the U.S. work closely with our partners in the Quartet, which also includes the European Union and the United Nations, to bring the Arab-Israeli conflict closer to resolution. As I mentioned before, our cooperation in the Six Party talks on North Korea is producing results. And we continue our crucial diplomatic collaboration with other key countries to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. There is more we can do together to help stabilize Afghanistan, and especially to combat drug trafficking. Our record of cooperation on regional conflicts is not perfect, and it does sometimes involve real disagreements, but it represents a huge leap beyond the zero sum competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

Fourth is growing partnership in dealing with many of the other global challenges which dominate the new century before us. President Bush has made the fight against HIV-AIDS and other deadly infectious diseases a critical priority for the United States, and Russia is also doing more, both to overcome its serious domestic problem, and to work with us in vaccine research and strengthening of laboratory capacity in East Africa. We share many common views about how best to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, and Russia and the U.S. are joining the other major economies of the world in an important conference on climate change and energy security in Washington this week. Russia and the United States continue to lead efforts in space exploration, as we have since Sputnik was launched, almost exactly fifty years ago.

And finally, it's in our mutual interest to find new ways to build structure into the relationship between our governments, and make our interactions more systematic. In the 1990s, fitting a different era in our relationship, we had an elaborate government-to-government mechanism, known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. In the years ahead, it'll be important to develop new structures appropriate to a new period in our relations. One example is the "Two Plus Two" mechanism, announced by our Presidents in Maine last summer, which will bring Secretary Rice and Secretary Gates to Moscow next month to meet with their Russian counterparts.

At the same time, we both have a stake in expanding ties between our societies, outside formal relations between governments. I would be the last person to argue that every piece of advice that the U.S. offered to Russia in the 1990's was sensible or wise, but one of the smartest investments we made during that period was in innovative exchange programs. We now have more than 70,000 alumnae of American exchange programs in Russia, and their experiences do as much as anything in our relationship to stay connected to the next generation of Russians. We are working to make exchanges more of a two-way street, with Russian institutions like the Alfa Bank launching programs to bring young American professionals to Russia. There is much more that we can do, and it would be a huge mistake to lose sight of the value of such programs at this pivotal moment for Russia, and for our relationship.


I know that I'm now dangerously close to violating our 32nd President's advice on the virtues of brevity in public speaking. I hope I've given you something to think about, as we all try to navigate relations with a country whose behavior and future are not easy to predict, but whose importance to our own interests is not easy to ignore.

I've been an American diplomat for 25 years, and I have divided my career roughly between Russia and the Middle East. Dealing with those two crucial parts of the world has certainly never been dull, and it has stripped me of most of my illusions. But I remain an optimist about Russia, and about the long-term future of our relationship. Whenever I say that, one of my Russian friends invariably reminds me of one of the many Russian definitions of an optimist -- someone who thinks that tomorrow will be better than the day after. I mean something a little different than that. I think tomorrow will actually be quite complicated in our relationship, with more than our share of concerns and troubles. But, if we keep a sense of perspective, and keep focused on those areas in which partnership benefits both of us, as well as the rest of the world, I am convinced that we can lay the basis for an enduring new relationship with Russia, at the dawn of our third century of diplomatic ties. I can think of few challenges that matter more to America in the years ahead.

Thank you.


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