Jack Matlock Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Collapse of the Soviet Union and the End of the Cold War: A Diplomat Looks Back; Conversation with Jack Matlock, 2/13/97 by Harry Kreisler

Photo by L. Carper

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The Work of Diplomacy

Looking back at your career, what do you think are the key elements in making diplomacy work? What sort of skills does a diplomat have to have?

Oh, you know it's hard to enumerate all of them because they are so many. When it comes to guiding your own country about what's happening in the country where you are accredited, there is no substitute for knowing that country's culture, knowing that country's language. Although occasionally we have had some outstanding diplomats who haven't had a good knowledge of the language and who have developed an ability to understand without that, that's pretty rare. It can happen, but it's pretty rare.

At the same time, you have to do this while understanding how things work in your own country. You can't forget that. A good diplomat uses diplomacy with his own government as much as he does with other governments. I think an effective diplomat is one who is very attuned to political, social, and other needs at home, the country he's representing, and also has a deep knowledge of the country where he is and can mediate. Because it's surprising how often the disputes are over things that really don't need to be disputed.

In other words, once one country formulates a given group of desiderata or policies that appear to be at odds, they begin almost to reify these positions. When you begin to look behind them you find that what we really want is something quite different from what they want and you can develop a win-win strategy. This gets very hard if the negotiations are totally public and the press and the media are constantly looking at everything as if it's a football game -- who is winning points, who is losing them. Because if you do it that way, you end up usually with a compromise that's unsatisfactory to both, if you can compromise at all. If you look at it the other way -- let's analyze on both sides, what the interests are, the common interests -- getting back to the formula that Gorbachev, Yakovlev, and Shevardnadze came up with, I think this has profound importance and we ignore it sometimes. We ignore it here at home when we get advice that we don't need the rest of the world, we don't need the UN and so on, because you can only be truly effective if you begin to formulate your interests in a way that other countries can see them also in their interests. And there are ways you can do that. Everything doesn't have to be confrontational.

Soviet Prime Minister Eduard Shevardnadze's first visit to Washington, September 1987; Matlock, Reagan, Bush, George Schultz, and Shevardnadze; with Kenneth Adelman, Director, Arms & Disarmament Agency; Rosanne Ridgeway, Asst Sec of State for European Affairs; Soviet Ambassador Dubinen; and A. Bessmertnykh

I think the skill in seeing that and in conveying on both sides in a proper way -- a diplomat has to be disciplined. When you talk to another government, whether you agree with what your government wants or not, you've got to be faithful to it. After all, they care much less about what you think personally than about what your government thinks, and until you can convince your government to change its policy you darn well better represent it faithfully with the country where you are. But also to keep sufficient lines open that you know when it is a good time to get in your policy recommendations. I used to tell my class that if you want to be effective as an advisor, you have to be a good reporter, you have to understand the situation, you have to have all of those things. But most of all you have to have a sense of timing. So just as in real estate, I hear that the three most important factors are location, location, location; in policy recommendations the three most important factors are timing, timing, timing.

You know, if Kennan's long telegram, which we talked about earlier, had been sent two years earlier it would not have had any effect. That was the height of the war, nobody was going to change the policy then, a lot of the evidence he used hadn't accumulated. He sent it at the right time. And besides being sound advice, that's what made it effective. If the political constellation at home is one in which the political leaders are not prepared to look at alternatives, you only undercut your effectiveness if you're constantly hammering at them to change when you know they're not going to. When you reach a point where something happens to make it necessary to change, that's where you come in. This is much more art than science.

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