Former ambassador discusses Cold War

Former Ambassador Jack Matlock had sharp words for recent U.S. policy toward Russia.

“Talk about shooting yourself in the foot,” he said of America’s decision to reject the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty even after Russia had signed the document. “I think the Senate shot us in a more vital organ.”

Matlock, who was the American ambassador to the USSR at the end of the Cold War, delivered his fourth and final address Wednesday as the 2009 Henry L. Stimson Lecturer on World Affairs. Over the past three weeks, Matlock’s talks at the MacMillan Center have addressed how Russians view contentious issues. At times, Matlock’s opinions ran contrary to both prevailing popular opinion and recent U.S. policy.

“American policies do not serve American interests,” Matlock said. “They are based on premises which aren’t based on rational American foreign policy.”

In Matlock’s first lecture, the ambassador discussed whether Russia had historically leaned east or west. Lectures two and three touched on the 1990s and Putin’s Russia, respectively. On Wednesday, he addressed prospects for American-Russian relations in the future. Matlock’s audience grew slightly between the first and last lectures; roughly 40 people, including professors, graduate students and undergraduates, attended Wednesday’s talk.

The lion’s share of Matlock’s material in Wednesday’s lecture, “Living with Russia: Prospects for the Future,” explained Russian motivations and highlighted what he considered to be American hypocrisy in geopolitical affairs. While America has claimed nearly monopolistic power in the Western Hemisphere for 200 years, Matlock said, it has increasingly denied Russia its own regional sphere of influence since the fall of the Soviet Union.

“The West has been picking and choosing which principles to uphold,” Matlock said.

In his four lectures, Matlock repeatedly critiqued America’s handling of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and President Clinton’s decision to bomb former Serbian president Slobodan Miloševic’s army after it invaded Kosovo. Matlock argued that America’s decision to prioritize protecting human rights in Kosovo over respecting Serbian sovereignty gave Russia a justification to invade Georgia.

“In their eyes, they were doing exactly what we did in respect to Kosovo,” he said Tuesday.

In that lecture —the third — Matlock sought to explain why so many Russians now look on the 1990s with such disdain.

“In calling the ’90s democracy, the word was debased,” he said.

To illustrate his point, he told the story of a Russian mayor who permitted residents of his city to swim in an area marked by signs as off-limits. Matlock asked the mayor why he allowed such behavior.

“We have democracy now,” the mayor told Matlock. “We can’t tell people what to do.”

Matlock’s frank style drew praise from some, including Constantine Muravnik, a professor in the Slavic Languages and Literature Department, who said he “subscribed to every word.”

“This was refreshing. For the first time I head something that makes sense,” Muravnik said. “I think he understands Russian position clearly, and the essential misunderstanding we have from our side.”

Other audience members, such as Will Horowitz ’12, looked on Matlock’s unorthodox views with skepticism.

“I found it curious that he had the most praise for U.S. actions when he was in government,” Horowitz said. “As soon as he retired, everything just happened to go south.”

Matlock turned to academia after leaving the foreign service. Since his retirement he has taught at Princeton and Columbia universities.

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