The diplomat chimes in

However murky the motivations, warming up to Russia is a good idea, says Jack Matlock '50, a onetime U.S. ambassador to the former Soviet Union.
March 6, 2017

Here’s an exercise to focus the mind: Imagine a new nuclear-arms race with no end in sight—except, maybe, Armageddon. And so in late January, Jack Matlock’s personal website carried his “Open Message for Presidents Trump and Putin.” As the two leaders were preparing for a phone chat, the time was right to acknowledge that their countries should be cooperating around common problems, particularly the dangers associated with nuclear weapons.

Matlock ’50 will keep making his case in conference settings and congressional testimony, in books and opinion pieces, and in the classroom. He’ll do so with an earnestness that comes from authority. After all, his open message referred to a chapter in world history he had helped close: As one of the last U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union, he says he had “advised President Reagan on how to end the Cold War.”

Now in his second year of teaching at Duke as a Rubenstein Fellow, he’s one of the first recruited as a “thought leader” to engage with the campus on global issues. His permanent home is in Booneville, Tennessee, a town settled originally by a relative of pioneer Daniel Boone and, Matlock points out, a few miles from a Jack Daniels distillery. He and his wife, Rebecca Burrum Matlock ’50, live on a farm (in her family for generations) of about 140 acres, soon to include plantings that will provide a butterfly sanctuary. Much of the land is wooded; the “working” part of the farm is rented out to a neighbor, who runs cattle there.

A point of pride for Matlock is a personal library of some 14,000 books, most of which are related to Russia. He keeps a small subset in his Duke office. On his desk are The Crimea Nexus, Should We Fear Russia?, and Return to Cold War; on the shelves, Cold War histories, Andrei Sakharov’s memoirs, biographies of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, some works by Dostoyevsky. On the wall is a scene from The Master and Margarita, by the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov. The novel was inspired by Goethe’s Faust: The devil appears and unleashes the forces of darkness and destruction, with no diplomatic solution at hand.

One January evening, just before the promised phone summit, he is lecturing to the forty or so students in his class on “The U.S. and Russia, 1991-2017.” They’re packed tightly into a lecture hall in the Languages Building that could be a Cold War artifact. As they’re settling in, they offer obvious reasons for being there: “There’s a ton happening now” between the two powers; Russia is “a really relevant topic”; and, to at least one student, the career of this longtime diplomat could be a template for a future in the Foreign Service.

A senior in the class, Peter Jenka, later identifies himself as the only current Duke student from the Czech Republic. He says he admires Matlock for his evenhandedness. That admiration comes despite the fact, Jenka adds, that many in his own country— which was part of the Soviet bloc from 1948 to 1990 and whose 1968 “Prague Spring” was forcibly ended by an invasion of Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces—are enduringly wary of Russia’s policies.

In his class, Matlock tells his students, “Be careful about asking me for more details. You’ll probably get more than you want.” Matlock has to be seen as an outlier in the age of diplomacy by tweet: He values the written word, and pithy statements are not his stock in trade. On his office desk he keeps a set of fountain pens along with a cigar box packed with small jars of ink. He occasionally makes journal entries by fountain pen.

Matlock brings personal history into his classroom lectures— for example, how he communicated word of a potential coup to the Soviet leader—along with a bit of insight into the world of diplomacy—for example, what makes a good interpreter. Reagan and Gorbachev agreed that a war between the two nations would be untenable, or unwinnable. That shared belief, Matlock tells his students, should remain a central tenet of the relationship.

And regarding some issues in the relationship currently: Did Russia, with approval at the highest level, interfere in the U.S. election? Probably, he tells the class. Did Russia want Donald Trump to win? Certainly, but it didn’t expect his victory, and it probably didn’t contribute much to it. What was the aim of the interference, then? To send a message, via document dumps, that the U.S. is not a perfect democracy; that its politics are messy and manipulative; and that, by the way, Russia has the wherewithal to break through data-security barriers.

Is there a fundamental conflict between the two countries? Not according to Matlock. But in class he reads out a letter from Vladimir Putin’s political partner, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The letter blasts U.S. foreign policy for its interventionist tendencies, and it echoes an earlier statement that “we have slid back to a new Cold War.”

The Cold War was just beginning when Matlock began as a student at Duke in 1946: The Yalta Conference, just the previous year, had awarded control of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, and Stalin had declared that communism and capitalism were incompatible. Russian wasn’t part of the Duke curriculum. On his own, and just by chance, he read a translation of Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. He says Russian literature would impress him with its psychological depth, that it would transport him into a very unfamiliar world. Later, when Duke added Russian, he registered for the first course. From there he added courses in Russian history and literature.

In his first book, Autopsy on an Empire, he writes about his instructors admiringly: One would “convey the nuances of Russian historical development without skewing the evidence to fit some particular theory or national bias”; another would lecture with “spellbinding gusto.” While at Duke, he and Rebecca met at a gathering of the World Federalists, a group committed to world government as an answer to the scourge of nuclear weapons. (They married in their senior year.) Once the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons, he says, it was clear that diplomacy rather than world government was a more workable solution.

After graduating with a history major, Matlock attended The Russian Institute at Columbia, where he earned a Ph.D. His dissertation looked at issues surrounding literary translation. The project required him to veer among English, Russian, French, and German in his writing, and so to keep switching out one IBM Selectric type ball for another.

It’s almost trite to observe that words are the indispensable tool for the diplomat. But Matlock is a wordsmith across a spectrum of languages and technologies: In the 1980s he designed a Georgian font (that is, a typeface with a particular size, weight, and style) for a dot-matrix printer, using a program called Fancy Font. At the time, Georgian fonts were not available off the shelf. He used it to print out the Georgian text of a speech he gave in Tbilisi. Later he designed a set of Cyrillic fonts using a different program, Metafont. For a few years he wrote his journal in a mix of his Cyrillic font and a compatible modern font.

He taught Russian language and literature at Dartmouth, then entered the Foreign Service in 1956. His first assignment was writing reports on internal Soviet developments. After a tour at the American Embassy in Moscow, he spent seven years in Africa. He writes in Autopsy on an Empire that he had requested the assignment because “I wanted to witness the formation of new nations out of the colonial empires which were disbanding. I understood that the Soviet Union itself was an empire and sensed that what happened in Africa in the 1960s might someday be relevant to the Soviet Union itself.”

In the 1970s he re-engaged with the Soviet Union, first as director of Soviet affairs in the State Department, then as deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Moscow. He was ambassador to Czechoslovakia and then went back to Washington, in 1983, to work on the National Security Council staff. There he would develop a negotiating strategy with the Soviet Union that, if it wouldn’t end the Cold War, would end the arms race.

Reagan and Gorbachev convened in Geneva in November 1985. Thirty years later, Matlock took part in a retrospective conversation at Duke. Reagan “knew that he had to convince Gorbachev that we did not want an arms race,” Matlock said, “but if Gorbachev did want one, he would lose.” Today he notes that Reagan’s training as an actor may have encouraged him to discern “what made Gorbachev tick,” to try to understand his character and the context in which he operated. And so it may have helped Reagan as a negotiating partner.

Two years before the summit, Kremlin leaders had come close to concluding that NATO war games in Western Europe heralded a likely nuclear first strike on Russia. Earlier Reagan had characterized the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire,” and—true to his cinematic past—had unveiled a vision for defense against nuclear attack that was quickly dubbed “Star Wars.” Such were the twists, turns, and misunderstandings that Matlock witnessed in his Cold War phase. The summit produced various exchange agreements; it did not produce a formal arms-reduction agreement. But one outcome, as Matlock recalled, was a statement “that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and that therefore no war could ever happen between us.”

Matlock recalled that period in 1997, for an oral-history program at the University of California at Berkeley. During the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan “had very harsh things to say about the Soviet Union, all of which in my opinion were true, and they may have seemed undiplomatic,” he said. “But they had a purpose. One was to delegitimize the system. The second was that he felt he had to build up—in poker terms you might say he wanted to have more chips on the table—to negotiate effectively. Thus, his arms buildup. But at the same time, he always intended to negotiate and to negotiate the best deals he could.”

In his Berkeley oral history, he offered this advice to students aiming for a career in global affairs: “Number one, get as wide a liberal-arts background as possible. Everything human is important to the diplomat. You’re dealing with human beings; you’re dealing with cultures. Second, make sure you’re comfortable in cultures other than your own.” An “optimistic nature” would also be an asset, he noted. “Finally, for heaven’s sake, don’t come in with some idea that you’re going to change the world. You’re not.”

The world did change with the end of the Cold War. In November 1989, East Berlin’s Communist Party announced that citizens of East Germany were free to cross borders, making the Berlin Wall, long the ultimate Cold War symbol, a meaningless barrier. Matlock had returned to Moscow two years earlier as U.S. ambassador. (His Duke office wall pairs the two framed certificates that made official the ambassadorial appointments, with Reagan’s signature on both.) He felt it important to visit every republic in the Soviet Union, and so on that day he was traveling in Armenia, where tensions appeared to be brewing with another Soviet republic, Azerbaijan. The fall of the wall didn’t surprise him, he says; by that point it had seemed to be a historical inevitability.

One observer of Matlock’s diplomatic tenure is longtime commentator on Russian (and Soviet) affairs Dimitri Simes, now president of the Center for the National Interest. The center was established by former president Richard Nixon LL.B. ’37 to serve as “a voice for strategic realism in U.S. foreign policy.” Simes, a native Russian, says Matlock, as ambassador, was adept at balancing American interests and American values without seeming “patronizing or offensive” in his dealings with Soviet officials. “What was also helpful is that he spoke good Russian. He gave interviews to Soviet newspapers and he could explain the American position in a very articulate manner on Soviet TV, where, unlike his predecessors, he was allowed to appear.”

Simes contrasts that record with other U.S. ambassadors who, as he describes them, saw themselves as “social engineers” in the “democracy- promotion business,” obliged to “explain to Russians their imperfections.” All of that “made them totally ineffective in terms of conducting meaningful diplomacy with the Kremlin.”

According to Simes, Matlock had unparalleled access not just to the foreign ministry but to the top Soviet leadership as well. From his work on the White House National Security Council, he was considered “not just another career ambassador but Ronald Reagan’s personal representative.” Reagan was looking for a new beginning with Russia, even as Gorbachev was supporting the idea that the U.S. should no longer be viewed primarily as an adversary. “There was clearly a window of opportunity. But Ambassador Matlock knew how to walk into this window. Even around Gorbachev, people associated with the security services were quite suspicious of American intentions, and quite suspicious of a new American ambassador who used to work for Reagan, an American president who was seen as a hardliner.”

After he completed his ambassadorial stint in 1991, Matlock was surprised by the return of hardline thinking. In 1997, he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations against the expansion of NATO. He argued that expansion would “convey to the Russian nation, and particularly their military, that we still consider Russia at least a potential enemy, unsuited for the same security guarantees and the same degree of cooperation that countries in Central and Eastern Europe are being offered.” He added that “Europe is not divided today,” but if Russia were to perceive a threat on its borders, that could change.

Today he says, “The breakup of the Soviet Union along with the demise of communism was seen as a victory for the West. Liberal democracy was seen as the future of the world, the proper path forward for every country. I’ve never heard a more absurd non sequitur.”

Such a triumphalist attitude, says Matlock, contrasts with the decision by the World War II Allied nations to build strong ties with the defeated Germany and Japan. He says it was predictable that Russia would lash out defensively, including sending fighters into Ukraine, right on its border, and annexing the chunk of Ukraine known as the Crimean Peninsula. Matlock says Ukraine is deeply divided between nationalists and Russian speakers who identify strongly with Russia.

And Russia, as it happens, has its only Black Sea naval base in Ukraine. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, and even the earlier U.S. involvement in Serbia, had less rationale and produced worse outcomes, he says. “It’s easy to say that one nation should not grab the territory of another, even though we haven’t kept to that principle ourselves. We don’t have to approve the methods. But if most of the people in Crimea genuinely want to be in Russia, shouldn’t that be a factor in our consideration?”

Matlock says he’s no apologist for Putin; he sees the Russian leader as someone whose machinations help keep a fractured country together. In response to a question (from Czech Republic student Peter Jenka) in class, he says he has no doubt that in Putin’s Russia, journalists have been targeted for assassination. He questions, though, whether Russia is a “totally centralized dictatorship” in which such decisions are made at the very top.

Noting the broad criticism that Putin has let loose anti-democratic forces, he says, “Russia has never had a functioning democracy,” but Putin has preserved the most basic freedoms, including the freedom to travel. Russia’s elections “are pretty much fixed,” he says. “But even if they weren’t, Putin probably would be winning them.”

He tells his students that the greatest gift that the U.S. and the West in general can give Putin is the stigmatizing of Russia. “Russians can put up with enormous deprivation if they think it’s required for their honor or their patriotism. More than anything else, they fear chaos and anarchy. When they did not have a strong leader, things got decidedly worse. So any attempt by the U.S. to reduce Russia to subordination helps keep Putin in power. That’s something our political leaders have had a hard time understanding.”

A couple of years ago, Matlock and Putin shared a platform, along with the former president of the Czech Republic and the chairman of the Iranian parliament, at a conference in Sochi, Russia, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Matlock reminded the audience that he had not been giddy with joy over the breakup of the Soviet Union: He knew it would produce economic hardship, social pressures, and security challenges for the shrunken empire. Putin, in the presence of the former ambassador, attacked the U.S. plan to install a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Does Putin want to rebuild the old Soviet Union? Matlock scoffs at the thought. He cites a Putin statement that anyone who does not mourn the Soviet Union has no heart, but anyone who wants to put it together again has no brain.

By December 1991, when the Supreme Soviet recognized the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it had already become something quite different from the communist-ruled totalitarian state. Not only had it given up its “external empire” in Eastern Europe and recognized the independence of the Baltic countries; it was also in the midst of supporting democratic reforms throughout its internal empire. This past June Matlock wrote in the New York Review of Books that Gorbachev had tried to democratize the communist system, only to be overwhelmed by political forces within the U.S.S.R. that were unleashed by his reforms. “Rather than representing a Western ‘victory,’ the dismemberment of the Soviet state illustrated the dictum that a serious attempt at reform can be the most dangerous threat to an autocracy.”

As he looks at the world today, Matlock is skeptical of American exceptionalism. He writes in his book Superpower Illusions that the Soviet Union “failed as a state because it was based on an ideology that caused its leaders to look at the world in theoretical rather than realistic terms. The Soviet ideology divided the world into opposing camps and postulated that only communist- ruled states could be reliable allies. It was permissible to impose communism by force because, as Marxist doctrine made clear, communism was the inevitable future.”

In his view, it’s not much of a stretch to see similar hubris in the American urge to impose its own standards—even, as he describes it, to carry the banner of an American empire—around the world. He says it’s fine to see U.S. foreign policy as pursuing a moral course. But in the spirit of good old-fashioned American pragmatism, policy decisions should reckon with the likely consequences. “The first principle is the physician’s admonition: Above all, do no harm. Part of morality is also having enough humility to realize we don’t have the prescription for good behavior for every country in the world.

“How well does our democracy work at home? We are not exactly setting a model for the rest of the world.”

  • As editor, Bliwise has overall responsibility for editorial direction and content and for representing the magazine to its various constituencies. He also teaches a seminar in magazine journalism through Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.