Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Foreign Minister of Russia Igor Ivanov Discuss U.S.-Russia Relations

March 28, 2017
by Aislinn McNiece


On March 24, 2017, the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies (CERES) hosted a conference, “25 Years of US-Russia Relations: From Cold War to New Cold War?” The event brought together speakers from academia, the policy community and the business world to discuss historic, diplomatic, and economic relations between the United States and Russia. The keynote panel was a conversation between SFS professor and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and former Foreign Minister of Russia Igor Ivanov. Jill Dougherty, a Russia expert and former foreign affairs correspondent for CNN, moderated the discussion.

Albright and Ivanov served in their respective positions during the late 1990s, during which they worked in tandem to manage post-Cold War relations. The biggest challenge of that time period, said Albright, was the Balkan crisis and the Kosovo War in particular.

In their positions, Albright and Ivanov invested many hours in their diplomatic relationship. They agreed that this time spent together, and the working relationship they formed because of it, was critical to their ability to work toward solutions for the Balkan crisis of the 1990s.

“While it’s clear that we have differences, we tried to understand each other and find some solution to help us go further…You cannot buy [trust]. Madeleine and I had trust based on respecting each other’s interests,” said Ivanov.

Both Albright and Ivanov pointed to this respect for the other’s national interests; it took diplomacy and trust to problem-solve without doing harm to those interests. Ivanov said that the longer they worked together, the better their relations — and the decisions they were able to come to — became. Predictable positioning and diplomatic etiquette were two key features in maintaining this trust, and Albright added that developing post-Cold War relationships with Russia also depended on “creative diplomacy” and flexibility in the problem-solving process.

A notable example of this creative diplomacy was Ivanov and Albright’s trip famous to the Moscow opera, where they saw La Traviata. During intermission, Albright told Ivanov that the U.S. was considering the use of force in Kosovo; by the end of the opera, he had agreed not to oppose American air strikes.

Albright said that something that many of her students in her class on diplomacy ask is what makes diplomacy work. Her answer does not change: diplomacy only works if its participants are willing to put themselves in the shoes of the other party. For example, when presenting policy decisions publicly, she said it was important to be clear and firm while ensuring that she was not provoking Ivanov so that they could still work together one-on-one.

The Role of NATO and G20 for New World Order

These lessons in U.S.-Russia diplomacy during the Balkan crisis are still relevant today, particularly in regards to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Group of 20 (G20).

Albright said that it was a mistake for the United States to claim itself the “winner” of the Cold War; rather, everybody lost the Cold War because the bilateral system of the period “did not work.”

The disintegration of the USSR was unpredictable even for the Soviet leadership, explained Ivanov, and this unpredictability continues to cause confusion in Russia and in Russian foreign policy. The new role of the G20 in this situation, he said, was to address this disorder and find a way to bring Russia into the new world order.

This new world order, at least in regards to the U.S. and Russia, is largely defined by the role of NATO. In the 1990s, Albright said that the expansion of NATO was regarded as a more “positive” issue; now, it is a controversial topic among Americans and Russians alike. Ivanov added that after the fall of the USSR, it was clear from the Russian perspective that it would be impossible to prevent the enlargement of NATO or even to become a NATO member itself. However, the exclusion of Russia from NATO continues to motivate Russian foreign policy.

Albright called NATO “the most important alliance in the history of the world,” as it survived the Cold War and became the organizing principle for a new world order. Now that NATO has enlarged, Albright said that the emergence of a new NATO and a new Russia require different strategies so that the NATO-Russia relationship “creates political mechanisms instead of problems.”

A new NATO mandate is especially important now, said Albright, considering both changing methods of warfare, including cyberattacks, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which she said “changes everything.”

U.S. Russia Relations During Trump Administration

Another challenge to contemporary U.S.-Russia relations is the new presidential administration’s inexperience with the diplomatic dynamic, according to Albright. However, Albright, an outspoken supporter of Hillary Clinton in the 2017 election, said that “the world would have been very complicated even if Secretary Clinton won.” She called the world today “a mess,” and confusion surrounding unpredictable American foreign policy compounds the problem.

In that light, she and Ivanov both had several pieces of advice for diplomacy and foreign policy in the new administration. Ivanov said that it was most important to organize a meeting between Trump and Putin with support from the experienced American bureaucracy. From there, the U.S. can start diplomatic dialogues about U.S.-Russian relations and the big problems, notably Ukraine.

Those dialogues depend on the signals given by both the Russian and the American sides, according to Albright, but the Trump administration should work to “signal from the top, not by tweet.” Furthermore, she criticized the “America First” initiative, arguing that global cooperation is necessary to protect the U.S., and is not a sign of weakness but rather of strength. Calling back on her experiences with Ivanov, she recommended that the administration implement “rules of the diplomatic road” such that people from various departments with different experiences can input their advice into the system.

Some of that experience, Albright added, comes from an education like SFS students receive. She explained that her international relations degree was much more limited than the Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service degree, and recommended that SFS students “study it all,” from health policy to economics, and engage with their fellow students while they are here.

“A school like SFS has an international student body. Make those connections and build that international network. Ask each other questions and think critically about the answers, but respect each other in the process,” said Albright.

That theme of trust and respect is just as important in the classroom as it is in diplomacy. Albright’s pins have become the stuff of diplomatic legend, as she matches her pins to the occasion. Her pin at this specific occasion was given to her by Ivanov: a knot of friendship, because despite their differing interests in post-Cold War U.S.-Russian relations, their diplomatic relationship worked because of their underlying understanding.