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Last US Ambassador to USSR Makes Case for Cooperation
Photo by Kevin Matthews

Last US Ambassador to USSR Makes Case for Cooperation

Ambassador Jack Matlock says that, on the most pressing global issues, the United States still needs Russia. Speaking ahead of parliamentary elections, he calls U.S. discussion of Putin's autocratic tendencies "overblown."

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

We need a treaty on how you use space, not to put weapons in it.

An audio podcast of this lecture is now available.

Whether it's disease, global warming, the prospect of nuclear terrorism, or the arrival of weapons in space, all of the gravest threats to the United States are beyond its power to face down without help. They are threats to humankind, just as the nuclear arms race was, and so will require meetings of minds to address, said former Ambassador Jack Matlock at UCLA on Nov. 19, 2007. His lecture was sponsored by the UCLA Center for European and Eurasian Studies, the Burkle Center for International Relations, the UCLA Department of Policy Studies, and the Los Angeles World Affairs Council.

"When you begin to look at what are the most important threats to the United States and to Russia—they are the same threats," he said.

Speaking in advance of Russian parliamentary elections carried this Sunday by President Vladimir Putin's political party, Matlock said, "The idea that Putin is another autocrat and is being a dictator is overblown." At several points in the presentation, Matlock noted that Putin had indeed engaged in "progressive muzzling of the media" in his second term and expanded his powers at the expense of provincial leaders and oligarchs. Putin's public approval ratings have been very high, around 70 to 80 percent, putting U.S. critics of Russian democracy in a particularly "difficult position," Matlock said.

Matlock observed the conclusion of the Cold War as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, the last of that line. For him, the victory then achieved was a victory "for everybody" that stands as an example of what only cooperation can do.

He regards the Cold War's end as separate from two other "seismic" events: the withering of Communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. U.S. leaders get joint credit for the first, of course, but not for the other two. That's important to understand, he said, because rhetoric about U.S. "hyperpower" and "unipolar" hegemony, too readily embraced in this country from the 1990s, has been counterproductive. And the rhetoric was founded on "myths."

America's supposed "defeat" of the Soviet Union, and "all the talk of the sole superpower ... have contributed on both sides to the problems that we have today," Matlock said.

His wide-ranging talk covered the economic pain experienced by ordinary Russians following the breakup of the Soviet Union and peaceful strategies for restraining nuclear proliferation. (He touched on Iran, of course without the benefit of the National Intelligence Estimate released Dec. 3 [pdf].)

On both sides of the U.S.–USSR divide late in the Cold War, the best leaders "had a vision that we had to move the world towards the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons," Matlock said. "As long as you have them and you use them for military purposes, other people are going to insist on having them."

Matlock advocates the collaborative development of an antiballistic missile defense system—U.S. plans involving third countries are currently a sore point in bilateral relations—on the grounds that it could "devalue" nuclear arms in the eyes of non-nuclear states.

On the other hand, he said, "We need a treaty on how you use space, not to put weapons in it. If we get into a race there, China and Russia can eventually bring a very dangerous situation."

Center for European and Eurasian Studies

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