Blast from the Past: notes on lecture ‘How to Deal with Russia: Advice for the Future President’

Below is an unedited set of notes from a lecture given by former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack F. Matlock, Jr. sometime in Fall of 2016. This was before I started blogging about lectures seriously, so the notes may seem patchy in places.

All the usual disclaimers; shadowquoted to the max.

On allegations of Russian interference in the elections

Can Russia influence the campaign? Sure! Anybody they endorse is likely to lose votes.

Ambassador Matlock is skeptical of interference allegations.

I cannot imagine that if our election system is well managed, that any external actor can hack and change the election results.

He also believes the idea that the Russians prefer Trump is shaky. Many Russians prefer Hillary due to her predictability.

What does the new president need to understand?

U.S. foreign policy is in many respects not serving the national interest.

  • trapped in never-ending wars
  • politically split at home into two antagonistic factions
  • tied to “allies” whose interests aren’t the same as ours – might be drawn into conflicts that are not in our interest
  • estranged from potential partners
  • infrastructure in need of repair – gross overspending in military, 100+ bases abroad
  • current policy threatens new nuclear arms race

Why has this happened?

U.S. foreign policy has become too concentrated on militarism and the use of force to solve problems.

The most serious threats facing the world today are:

  1. Nuclear weapons
  2. Global warming/environmental degradation
  3. failed states/terrorism
  4. Disease
  5. International crime and corruption

All are only exacerbated by military force, and none can be managed without active cooperation with Russia and china.

Ambassador Matlock says the future of the world, and indeed mankind, will not be determined by geopolitical conquest or control of territory. The greatest challenges transcend national boundaries and can only be solved through international cooperation.

How did we get off track?

  • triumphialism/unilateralism after the Cold War – the U.S. started treating Russia as a defeated nation. However, the U.S. did not defeat the USSR. The USSR collapsed due to internal pressure.
  • behavior seen abroad as imperialist
  • failure to understand others’ perceptions
  • insistence on democracy promotion/regime change. If a country isn’t a democracy, change the regime. This is based upon the assumption that democracy is the natural state of mankind. However, it takes time to develop democratic institutions, and the people must be ready for it.

Russian mistakes

  • overreaction to US/NATO/EU moves
  • military invention with neighbors
  • violation of prior agreements and international law
  • annexation of Crimea will be costly; Donbass fighting is a bleeding wound in Russia’s most important neighbor

These mistakes have costs aside from Western sanctions.

On sanctions. They don’t incentivize a Russian change in policy and allow Russians to claim that the problem lies not with their own government’s policy, but with American hostility.

Mistaken ideas

  1. Control of land and people equals strength
  2. The goal should be to maximize power (power for what?)
  3. We should not think of power as a hierarchy: Do more powerful nations have rights or privileges denied others?
  4. Rivalry for control of territory benefits nobody. It damages or destroys the area fought over.
  5. Military force cannot create democracy in another country.

Priority tasks

  1. Restore nuclear cooperation with Russia and bring China into the loop.
  2. Stop military competition with China.
  3. Stop expanding the alliance system and make clear there is no blank check to defend risky behavior.
  4. With both Russia and China, seek areas where cooperation is possible to mutual benefit.

Long term:

  1. Reduce the military component in foreign policy.
  2. Withdraw from others’ fights.
  3. Talk to everyone.
  4. End democracy promotion abroad, demonstrate its virtues at home.
  5. Give Russia and China incentive to feel part of the industrial/post-industrial 21st century world.

The situation is not hopeless.

Trump could be convinced he needs a different approach to be a “winner”. Hillary may want to overshadow the legacy of her husband and predecessor. Just as Reagan, elected on an anticommunist platform, surprised people, so could Hillary.

Matlock concluded the lecture with the following quote from Senator J. William Fulbright:

Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence.

And not one lesson has been learned since.



  1. The lecture sounds too good and logical. Way too good. Too good for it to lack a double bottom. Which made me distrust it immediately. For a ranking US diplomat to avoid American Exceptionalism and to sound all so nice? Nah, I don’t believe that.

    Surely, I’ve found what I was looking for in these two short quotes which show what it was all really about:

    “The greatest challenges transcend national boundaries and can only be solved through international cooperation.”

    “Russian mistakes
    • overreaction to US/NATO/EU moves”

    Priority tasks


    “Give Russia and China incentive to feel part of the industrial/post-industrial 21st century world.”

    Here you have it. In the end it still must be America dominated planet, with the globalism guided by the US soft power and finances rather than by bayonets. Which doesn’t change the end result of the equation by the way. There is no use to “talk to everyone” if the same old things are repeated during said talks. What’s the point of the “talks” if the West is still convinced that by graciously allowing Russia to be talked with it might give up on Crimea, throw Assad under a bus and/or backstab China?

    Not for America to grant such a wish to “give Russia and China incentive to feel part of the industrial/post-industrial 21st century world” for the world of the XXI won’t be US dominated much longer. But saying to the bright and hopeful youth that “We won’t be an Indispensible nation much longer, kids” and that multi-polar world model is going to set is… unhandshakable thing to do in the American Uni for a person who wants to remain handshakable and be invited to such events.

    I have a theory. A conspiracy theory, if you like. But hear me out! It just occured to me a couple of days ago after oh-too-much delving into the all thing officially and loud vis-à-vis Russia-West. This, and also watching/re-reading “American Gods”

    Here we go.

    It’s all one big con, really. It must be.

    If Russia has a “Regime” of sorts, then various Western countries have their own “Deep States”, which ensure that no matter what kind of disaster – like the elections – there still will be a government and that the Genera Line of policy on most important topics will be maintained no matter who’s in office. The most natural thing for such extra-governmental structures is self-preservation.

    So, I thought, they can’t be for real. No-no, they are not this stupid. They do want an imaginary Super-Villain, an Hollywood version of Russia ready to attack them “Red Dawn” style. Any moment now. The thing is – they don’t believe that. Not really. But it’s good for the marketing, it’s good for the Military Industrial Complex, it’s good for the Intelligence Services and it’s good for the parasitic class of punditocracy and think-tankers.

    In my lengthy essay on Awful Avalanche blog, I wrote that Fear, Suspicion and Violence are the chief drivers behind the progress – in the capitalist societies. So the Deep Staters maintain them on the unprecedentally high level in order for Progress to happen at all. They want eternal preparation for the war to come, but which won’t happened, because it’s really bad for business.

    It’s, like the Comedian from The Watchmen said – “it’s one fucking joke”.

    Either this, or the Powers That Be really have no bloody idea about what are they doing. Then we are all screwed.

    Liked by 1 person

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