ďYou Measure Change in Terms of a Generation...Ē
US Ambassador Bill Burns and his wife Ms Lisa Carty, also a career diplomat, took up their positions in Moscow in August this year. They were kind enough to find time in their busy schedules to talk to Passport Magazine about their interests, their new home, Spaso House, and US policy. After the interview, Ambassador Burns left for the Kremlin to present his credentials to President Putin.
Interview by John Harrison
Q Ambassador Burns and Ms Carty, welcome back to Russia.
Ambassador Burns: Thank you. We lived here from 1994 to 1996 and weíre delighted to be back. It has been a very fast pace over the past few months, but I really enjoy getting reacquainted with Russia, and it is truly an honor to serve as the American Ambassador in this great country. The last time I was invited to Spaso House, there were about 1,000 women here at the International Womenís Club meeting in September. How possible is it to treat this building as a home? Or is it not a home, more a part of the Embassy?
Ms Carty: I think itís both. First of all, itís a wonderful, beautiful building, and a place that is a privilege for us to be in, there is so much history here. The downstairs part is certainly more formal, but there are areas upstairs which we can make a lot more homey, and weíre working on that. It takes time, but in another couple of months weíll be there, I think. Itís wonderful to be able to use this house as a place to bring both Americans and Russians together. I think the first event we had here, when we had only been here I think a week, was a concert of the Russian American Youth Orchestra. It was just such a wonderful event. There were about 40 young musicians here, many of them didnít have a common language, apart from the language of music which brought them together. A couple of weeks after that, we had a group of teachers from all across Russia, who were actually going to the US on collaborative exchange programs, a number of whom had never even been to Moscow. It was incredible to meet with them and it certainly helps us to keep things in perspective.
Ambassador Burns: It is the first time I think for 40 years that there have been kids living in the house. Generally our predecessors had kids who were a bit older. Our daughters are 13 and 16 years old, and theyíre getting used to the expanse of the house and are enjoying it quite a lot. Weíve added things like a ping pong table, and a basketball hoop. Just to reassure the State Department, the basketball hoop is not in the ballroom Ė itís outside the house!
Q How do you find living in Russia now, has it become more like other countries?
Ambassador Burns: Moscow itself has changed in some very obvious ways over the last ten years. The city is much better off economically, at least it appears that way to an outsider. There is a great deal of life and energy in the city, not just commercially, but culturally, in terms of how people live their lives. I know very well, having traveled a bit, and Lisa did as well, when we lived in Russia before, that Moscow is not always representative of the rest of the country, and there are still gaps that are too big between the very rich and the very poor in this country. I look forward very much to traveling around the country, which I think is the only way to develop a better understanding of Russia. Itís also the only way to be able to convey to people in the United States how this society is changing, what it is going through today, and what it has gone through over the past fifteen years. Itís really quite remarkable when you take a step back and think of all the changes that have taken place here in that period of time. Clearly you see things which are quite striking, the emergence of a middle class for example, which ten years ago you really didnít see. Itís a long process. You measure it in terms of a generation, not just a few years, and I think it shows the potential that clearly exists within this society. I think in terms of the younger generation you see great openness to the world around them, which is partly a product of the Internet and the information revolution, and lots of opportunities to travel and learn which were not possible before. Itís wonderful to be back.
Q Does the knowledge you gained as an Arabic speaking diplomat in Jordan and other parts of the world, as an accomplished academic, make it easier for you to present American foreign policy in Russia, in a time of international tension between Islam and non-Islamic states?
Ambassador Burns: It helps. So does my earlier service in Moscow. Thereís obviously a lot of skepticism about American foreign policy, something which I lived with when I worked in the Middle East, and when I lived in Russia before too. There is a tendency for Americans or American officials to come across as preachy or patronizing. The truth is that listening sometimes seems like an unnatural experience for Americans, and itís probably something that we ought to do more of. The real challenge is to try to understand as best you can the kind of challenges that people in this society are struggling with, how they see their best interests, and then try and identify the common ground between us, between Russians and Americans. And I still think there is a considerable amount of common ground between Russians and Americans. This is a process that involves a fair amount of listening, of patience. That involves trying to explain as best as you can what the United States stands for, what our policy is, to acknowledge that we make mistakes sometimes just like everybody else does, and that weíre going to have differences sometimes too, and then to try and build upon common ground between us.
Q As I understand, the State Department has not yet managed to extinguish the role of the individual in the diplomatic service, what changes do you personally think you might bring about to Russian-American relationships?
Ambassador Burns: Thatís a tough question. After 23 years as a diplomat, Iím still clinging to my individuality. I certainly do not pretend to have a monopoly on wisdom on Russian-American relations, much as I love Russia and enjoy working here. The main line for any ambassador in any embassy is set by the president and others, so youíre going to see a lot of continuity in terms of policies that we pursue. I am fortunate to be surrounded by a wonderful group of people in the American embassy and our consulates. I look forward as best I can to try to connect with people in Russia, to try and convey a sense that the United States appreciates what Russia has gone through, what it has to offer as one of the worldís most talented societies and Great Powers, and what it can be in the years ahead if it builds strong economic and political institutions. Iíll try my very best to produce practical results whether in increased trade and investment or stronger diplomatic cooperation.
Q A lot of Russians I know sense a kind of arrogance on behalf of the United States towards Russia, they donít like the Ďeverything America does is rightí.
Ambassador Burns: Itís not an attitude that is peculiar to Russia. It is prevalent in other parts of the world, in particular the Middle East. I think the only answer to that, as I said, is to be honest with ourselves, to show that when we as a society make mistakes, or expose flaws, we try to address them. We donít pretend to have a perfect system, but itís a system that works pretty well for us. We want to do what we can to help others around the world, partly in our own interest, but partly in theirs, to build the kind of institutions, for example economic institutions, which are going to open up more opportunities for Russians. Now those are decisions only Russians can make, and as I said before, I think there is sometimes a tendency for Americans to listen less and preach more, and thatís something that they ought to avoid.
Q Thank you. It is pointless to try to be magicians and predict what is going to happen in ten yearsí time, but what are your gut feelings, as to what sort of place this country will be then?
Ambassador Burns: My gut feelings are quite positive. You see a younger generation, which I began to see emerging ten years ago and I see much more vividly today, that wakes up in the morning to lots of choices, both economically and socially, that they didnít have before. At the same time Iím not naive, Iím aware of the enormous challenges which this society faces too. Whether itís demographic decline or health or corruption, these are issues that need to be dealt with. So, to answer your question, Iím an optimist and Iím quite positive about where I think this society can be in ten yearsí time. People so often focus on energy as being the main resource of this country, but I think it is the human resources which have always impressed me the most.
Q Please tell me more about your interests outside of work?
Ambassador Burns: I love sports. Itís one of the things I enjoyed most in my previous experience in Russia, because sport occupies such an important place in the lives of people here. Iím sort of past the point where I play any of them very well, but I love basketball and hockey; weíve been to a track and field competition between the United States and Russia teams; weíve been to Russian Federation Cup tennis matches. I look forward to as many such opportunities as I can find. Iíve been very lucky, Iíve met some of the real legends of Russian sports history, like Vyacheslav Fetisov, the hockey player. For me, thatís as enjoyable a part of this job as anything else.
Ms Carty: Since heís a sports lover, the rest of the family is forced to become sports lovers as well, but we all enjoy it. I think if you ask any working couple with kids how much free time they really get, they may answer that it is a bit of an alien concept; but it is terrific to reconnect with parts of Moscow that we remember from before, but which our daughters, who were 10 years younger, definitely donít remember. This city has so much to offer.
Q What other interests do you have here, Ms Carty?
Ms Carty: I am a career diplomat and I spend a lot of my time focusing on humanitarian issues. When I worked here 10 years ago I was involved in a very interesting program which the U.S. Agency for International Development funded, in the area of maternal and child health, and itís great to come back and see the fruits of that program still unfolding. We had locations across Russia in places as far removed as Vladivostok and Ekaterinburg. While Iím here, I hope to continue working in that area as well as the HIV/AIDS area. There is an opportunity for the US and Russia to work together on this issue, as global leaders and on a local level. I think President Bush has stepped forward in a very positive way with the program that he has recently instituted. I have been working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a couple of years, and I hope to carry on working with them here.
Q One of the difficult parts of your jobs must be the fact that you have to move on after three years?
Ambassador Burns: One of the great things about diplomatic life is the variety of challenges, the variety of societies in which you can live and about which you can learn. But youíre right, as you get older, as your kids start growing up; it gets more difficult. We are extraordinarily lucky; our girls are remarkably adaptable; but it can be complicated sometimes too.
Ms Carty: I think that the downside is more than compensated for by the fact that you have incredible experiences getting to live in different cultures, and connecting in ways that you never could as a tourist. Yes, the packing and unpacking every couple of years is the less pleasant part, but you take away so much from every place you go to ó it is profoundly life-changing.