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U.S. Department of State

Department Seal Deputy Secretary Talbott
Address at All Souls College, Oxford University, Oxford, England, January 21, 2000
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As Delivered

The Crooked Timber: A Carpenter's Perspective

Thank you, Bob [O'Neill]. Thanks also to Tony Smith, the president of my old college, Magdalen - not only for putting my wife Brooke and me up down the road in his lodgings but also for once again making us feel so at home in this place that was so good to us a long time ago when were both here as students.

This afternoon, I'd like to make some observations about Russia. I'd like to do so from a perspective that is rooted in my experience at this university and in my exposure then and over the years since to a great man associated with this college: Isaiah Berlin. I'm taking this approach in part out of a sense of gratitude to Berlin and to two gentlemen sitting, appropriately, side-by-side in the second row of this hall: Henry Hardy and Michael Ignatieff. Henry has devoted much of his career to making Berlin's wisdom accessible and enduring on a whole shelf of books. In my study, that shelf includes Michael's biography of Berlin. It's a book truly worthy of its subject -- and that, I'd submit, is in this case the ultimate compliment.

It's a minor miracle that even though Berlin himself is no longer with us his own books keep coming -- thanks to Henry Hardy. Another collection of Berlin's essays arrived at my home a couple of weeks ago, just as I was thinking about what I'd say here today. It's called The Power of Ideas, and it captures in crystalline fashion not just the power of ideas in history but the utility of Berlin's own ideas in understanding what is happening in a country that fascinated him all of that long, prolific, and exemplary life.

I met Isaiah Berlin 32 years ago during my first visit to Oxford. It was in the summer of 1968. I was working as a summer intern in the London bureau of TIME magazine. Just before midnight on August 21, Soviet tanks overran Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring. The TIME bureau chief -- no fool he, a wonderful colleague named Jim Bell -- sent me out to Wolfson College to interview Berlin on what it all meant. I remember the conversation clearly. He talked, at great speed but with great clarity about how the invasion proved the weakness of a regime that relied so utterly on brute strength and how it revealed -- I remember to this day the word he used -- the "decrepitude" of the Soviet system and of its ideology.

I returned to Oxford the following month, this time as a student. In addition to attending Berlin's lectures whenever I could, I got to know several of his friends, including the Pasternak sisters, Lydia and Josephine. On the walls and in the attics of their homes in North Oxford they had a collection of paintings by their father, Leonid. Another member of that circle was Max Hayward, a Fellow of St. Antony's College and the renowned translator of Doctor Zhivago, who supervised my B.Litt. thesis.

With Max's indulgence, I spent much of my second year holed up in digs at 46 Leckford Road, translating the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, who was dictating them into a tape recorder while under house arrest at his dacha outside Moscow. That experience put me through a crash course in the purges, the Great Patriotic War, the Kremlin intrigues, the thaw, and the freeze that followed.

It was as a student at Oxford with long vacations that I made my first visits to Russia. On one of those trips, the Pasternak sisters put me in touch with their brother Alexander, who took me to his brother Boris's grave in Peredelkino. On another, Max Hayward introduced me to Nadezhda Mandelstam. She was then well into her 70s and working on a memoir that Max was putting into English.

Superficially, my meeting with her was full of grim cliches: an electric samovar that was more of a fire hazard than a convenience, smoky lace curtains on the kitchen window, stale cakes and biscuits, and my own personal KGB tail, ill-disguised as a waiting taxi. But the visit, which lasted nearly until dawn, helped me understand the dualism of Russian culture and Russian politics -- that is, the way in which that country combined the most admirable and the most horrific of human qualities.

Now, before I go further, let me ask: Does this anecdote sound familiar? Does it perhaps even sound plagiarized, if not from Michael's biography of Berlin then from the New Yorker excerpt? It certainly seemed to me at the time, 30-odd years ago, eerily like the story that Berlin so often told of his own all-night conversation with Anna Akhmatova more than 2 decades earlier, in Leningrad in 1945. In the years that followed, Akhmatova wrote him into her Poem Without a Hero as the "guest from the future," and he brought her to Oxford to receive an honorary degree in 1965.

Akhmatova lived under a regime that epitomized what Berlin called monism, "the faith," as he put it, "in a single criterion." Monism holds that there is one overarching answer to who we are, how we should behave, how we should govern and be governed. It's when the powers-that-be claim to have a monopoly on the good, the right, and the true that evil arises, jeopardizing, as Berlin puts it, "what it means to be human." Monism is the common denominator of all those other -isms, including the ones that led to Stalin's Great Terror, Hitler's Final Solution and to so much else that made the 20th century in so many ways so dreadful.

Professor Berlin formally became Sir Isaiah in 1957. But he already had been, for many years, a knight in the moral, intellectual, and in the broadest sense, political crusade against monism. He was a champion of pluralism, the spirit of openness, and tolerance whereby a community encourages different and, more to the point, competing ideas of what is good, true, and right.

In pondering the struggle between monism and pluralism, Sir Isaiah rejected the idea of historic inevitability, not least because it was itself monistic. Instead, he believed in what might be called the pluralism of possibilities. One possibility which he thought and wrote about was that Russia, over time, would break the shackles of its own history.

He asserted that belief -- in a diplomatic cable, no less -- in 1945, immediately after his first meeting with Akhmatova. He returned from Leningrad to the British embassy in Moscow where he was working at the time and wrote a visionary dispatch to Whitehall. It expressed a hope that the vitality and the magnificence of Russian culture might withstand and eventually even overcome what he called the "blunders, absurdities, crimes, and disasters" perpetrated by a "most hateful despotism" -- in other words, that the best in the Russian dualism might win out over the worst.

As it happened, there was in Russia at the same time, also working as a diplomat, another great figure who would also later be associated with this college - and whom I several times ran into having lunch or dinner with Max Hayward at La Luna Caprese on North Parade Street. I am referring, as I'm sure you've guessed, to George Kennan.

In a cable of his own from Moscow in February 1946, Kennan took Berlin's hope one step further and made it into a prediction. He discerned in the U.S.S.R., even then in those bleak days -- and I quote-- "tendencies [that] must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power." In the meantime, Kennan urged the West to pursue a policy of containment.

So here we are, nearly 55 years after Kennan's Long Telegram and Berlin's somewhat shorter one, and here we are 9 years since much of Kennan's prophecy came true. American and British policy have moved from containment to engagement. The nub of that policy is to work with Russia as it seeks to become -- in a phrase that many Russians use in describing their own aspirations for their own country -- a normal, modern, democratic, and civilized state.

Russia today is already a pluralistic society and political system, not just by comparison with 1945 but by comparison with 1991, when political power was still concentrated in one institution, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Now power is dispersed among numerous competing entities at various levels. For the first time in their history, Russian citizens are voters in real elections.

In putting their Soviet experience behind them, many Russians are saying that they've had their fill of ideology -- that is, ideology per se. In fact, the ideology of needing an ideology seems to be fading in a country where, as Berlin pointed out, "ideas were taken more seriously and played a greater and more peculiar role . . . than anywhere else" on Earth.

Shortly after disbanding the Soviet Union and dismantling the Soviet system, President Yeltsin proposed and the Russian people adopted, by referendum a constitution that explicitly prohibited "a state-sponsored or compulsory ideology."

Then, in 1995, Mr. Yeltsin seemed to have second thoughts. He established, with much fanfare, a blue-ribbon commission to define Russian national identity and Russian national destiny. This was a bit of a throwback. It was yet another attempt to answer what Russians themselves have over the last 2 centuries called the proklyaty vopros, the accursed question: Where is Russia coming from? Where is it bound? In many of his essays and lectures, Sir Isaiah pondered the Russian intelligentsia's fixation with this question and he stressed how various attempts to answer it have been a curse not just for Russians but for anyone living within the ambit of their military power.

The good news was that Mr. Yeltsin's re-asking of the accursed question petered out. Why? Quite simply, I'd suggest, because Russia had already become diversified enough, pluralistic enough, and above all free enough not to want, need, or even agree upon an ideology.

Of all this I think Sir Isaiah would approve. But I'm sure he would do so with caution. He often warned that before there would be truly something new and better under the Russian sun, there would be what he called "false dawns."

He was very much a realist not just about Russia but about human nature. The quintessence of realism was, for him, contained in an epigram by Immanuel Kant: "Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made." Henry Hardy made that phrase, "the crooked timber of humanity," the title of a volume of Berlin essays. What those five words mean, to me at least, is this: Not only are utopias impossible over the long run, but mistakes, cruelties, and disasters are inescapable in the short run, especially when political leaders seek to straighten the timber of humanity. In bending it to their needs, to their ambitions, even (and perhaps especially) to their sense of the greater good, they are all too apt to break laws, wills, and lives.

Again, witness Russia: In many ways, Russia is a self-liberated country, but it's also in many ways an unhappy, confused, and angry one. That's partly because almost every good thing that has happened there over the past decade -- and there are many -- has had its dark underside.

For example, the implosion of the monolithic police state has left a vacuum of the kind that nature -- especially human nature -- abhors. In place of the old, bureaucratized criminality there is a new kind of lawlessness. It's what my friend and colleague, Bronislaw Geremek, has called "the privatization of power" and it has quite literally given a bad name to democracy, reform, the free market, even liberty itself. Many Russians have come to associate those words with corruption and with the Russian state's inadequacy in looking after the welfare of its citizens. For all these reasons, Russia's first decade as an electoral democracy has been a smutnoye vremya or "time of troubles."

That brings me to Chechnya, which is the most visible and violent of Russia's troubles. That republic is one of 89 regions in Russia; it constitutes less than one-tenth of 1% of a landmass that stretches across 11 time zones. But with every passing week, the horror unfolding there becomes increasingly the focus of Russia's attention and the world's condemnation. In just the last few days, Russian forces have renewed their onslaught against Grozny, where thousands of civilians remain trapped, unable to flee to safety. There are reports of Chechen rebels using civilians as human shields, of Russian military units using incendiary devices and fuel-air explosives.

What we are seeing is a gruesome reminder of how hard it is for Russia to break free of its own past. Indeed, Chechnya is an emblematic part of that past. The region has been a thorn in Russia's side for about 300 years. Leo Tolstoy served in the Czarist army there and wrote about the often losing struggle to make those mountain warriors loyal subjects of the Russian empire. In 1944, the year before Berlin called on Akhmatova, Stalin had the perfect totalitarian solution to the problem: wholesale deportation of the Chechen people -- or what we would call today ethnic cleansing.

In this decade, Chechnya has been a recurrent obstacle to Russia's movement in the direction that we and many Russians hope will mark its course. While elsewhere across the vastness of Russia reformers have been experimenting with what they call new thinking, the seemingly intractable conflict in the North Caucasus has brought out the worst of old thinking: namely, the excessive reliance on force and the treatment of entire categories of people as enemies.

And by the way, it's not just the old-thinkers who are to blame for this relapse. From 1992 through 1993, a reformist government in Moscow left Chechnya largely to its own devices. The combination of Moscow's neglect and miserable local conditions whetted the Chechens' appetite for total independence. Had Chechnya attained that status, it would immediately have qualified as a failed state. Kidnaping, drug trafficking and every other form of criminality were rampant. It was an anarchist's utopia and any government's nightmare.

When Russia tried to re-impose control, the result was a bloody debacle. The first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, ended in significant measure because it was so unpopular. Boris Yeltsin wanted the fighting over before he faced re-election, so he ended it on terms that granted the Chechen authorities even more autonomy.

But once again, Moscow having extricated itself averted its gaze. The central government made virtually no effort to help establish Chechnya as a secular, peaceful, prosperous polity within the Russian Federation. The deteriorating conditions and free-for-all atmosphere became an even stronger magnet for secessionists, Islamic radicals, and other extremists, many indigenous but some foreign as well. Last summer, some of these elements used Chechen territory as a base of offensive operations against other parts of Russia.

Now, here's where the irony is most acute: Unlike the one 4 years ago, the current war has had broad popular support. That's primarily because most Russians have no doubt that this time rather than their army being bogged down in some remote and basically alien hinterland, this time it's defending a heartland that is under attack from marauding outsiders, including outsiders within -- that is, non-Russians living in Russia.

Thus, Chechnya has fanned the resurgence of another -ism -- nationalism. That phenomenon was the target of particular passion and eloquence on the part of Sir Isaiah Berlin. He saw nationalism as inherently conducive to intolerance and friction both inside states and between them. He recognized that national consciousness exists, by definition, in all nations, but he warned that when the nation in question feels afflicted by the "wounds" of "collective humiliation," nationalism becomes what he called "an inflamed condition."

Russia today suffers from just such a condition. Chechnya has generated fears, resentments, and frustrations in its own right. But it has also come to symbolize for many Russians a more general sense of grievance and vulnerability after a decade of other difficulties and setbacks, real and imagined -- most conspicuously the enlargement of NATO and the Kosovo war.

But while there are these ominous trends, they haven't by any means won. The political environment of their ebb and flow is still pluralistic. Atavistic voices and forces are contending with modern ones that advocate an open, inclusive society and an open, cooperative approach to the outside world.

When I was in Moscow last month, I heard the word zapadnichestvo. It might loosely be translated as Russia's pursuit of its Western vocation. Zapadnichestvo is not an -ism: it's in some ways the opposite; it's an endorsement of a liberal antipathy to -isms. Moreover, I heard this word used in a favorable and even optimistic context by at least one of Vladimir Putin's erstwhile political allies on what Russians call "the right" of the political spectrum there -- that is, what we would call the liberal-democratic end. Zapadnichestvo derives from the 19th-century debate between the westernizers and the slavophiles. It was part of the vocabulary of one of Berlin's heroes, Alexander Herzen.

There was at least an echo of the concept of zapadnichestvo in what Mr. Putin himself told me when I saw him on that same trip: He said he wants to see Russia as "part of the West." Granted, he has sent other, quite different signals to other, quite different audiences.

He's been doing so rather dramatically in recent days. We can speculate together -- and that's all we can do at this point -- on exactly what he's up to in his recent parliamentary maneuvers. But one theme that he strikes consistently, whomever he's addressing, is a desire to see Russia regain its strength, its sense of national pride and purpose. In and of itself, that goal is not only understandable, its achievement is indispensable. No country can succeed without those ingredients. It all depends on how Russia defines strength, how it defines security. Will it do so in today's terms or yesterday's -- in terms that are proving successful elsewhere or in terms that have already proved disastrous for Russia under Soviet rule? Will Russia recognize that in an age of global and regional interdependence, the porousness of borders is a necessity out of which a viable state must make a virtue? Or will it fall back into the habit of treating this and other facts of life as a vulnerability to be neutralized, or -- that most Soviet of all verbs -- to be liquidated? Will Russia understand that indiscriminate aerial attacks, forced movement of populations, and civilian round-ups - no matter what the original provocation and ongoing threat - are the acts of a weak and desperate state, not a strong and clear-headed one?

This is the vexing question, not just about Mr. Putin but about his country as a whole. It's a genuinely open question. Moreover, the answer will probably be evolutionary, not revolutionary. Russia has had its revolution and its counter-revolutionary. The last thing its people want or need is another upheaval.

Evolutions by definition take a long time -- surely a generation or more. In the final analysis, it's the Russians themselves and no one else who will decide on the character of their state.

What about us? What can we do to affect the outcome? We can and must be steady about our own objectives, our interests, and our values; we must be clear and consistent about what we can support and what we must oppose; we must use such influence as we have, even if it's at the margins (as it tends to be), to encourage Russian democratization at the grass-roots level through exchanges and technical assistance programs that support elections, party-building, and civil society.

Now, I should acknowledge that Berlin had his doubts about the promotion of democracy as a key feature of American foreign policy. I know because he told me so. It happened a little over 5 years ago, in November 1994, when I last visited Oxford and last saw Sir Isaiah. I was here with Brooke as a guest of Tony Smith's to give a lecture on, precisely, democracy as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. Berlin was there in the front row in the University lecture hall, fully gowned, his eyes riveted on me, his brows arched. It was highly unnerving. After I finished, he came up to me and along with several courtesies offered his favorite piece of advice from someone who was not, I suspect, his favorite statesman: Talleyrand. "Surtout pas trop de zele," he said. I had the distinct impression that he was not so much reproving me as letting me in on what he felt was a home truth about pretty much everything American, notably including our foreign policy.

I sensed that because of a theme that runs through his work. It's one that has struck a chord in my mind over the 7 years that I've been in government. I see it as a kind of corollary to pluralism, to liberalism, and certainly to an acknowledgement of the crooked timber of humanity. It's what Berlin termed "the unavoidability of conflicting ends" or, alternatively, the "incommensurability" of values. He once called this "the only truth which I have ever found out for myself . . . Some of the Great Goods cannot live together. . . . We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss." In short, it's what Michael Ignatieff summarized as "the tragic nature of choice."

There are rarely final or perfect answers to the questions that arise in public life or, for that matter, in private life, either. All interesting issues are almost by definition dilemmas; the only thing worse than making a mistake is thinking you can't make one -- that you've got the only answer or all the answers. We must face the inevitability of undesirable, potentially hazardous consequences even if we make what we are convinced is the right choice.

Had Berlin taken the matter that far and no further, he would have left all of us, including those of us in the foreign-policy-making business, in a cul-de-sac, a state of moral paralysis. But he did not leave us there. He argued that the difficulty of choice does not free us from the necessity of choice; recognizing a dilemma is no excuse for equivocation, indecision, or inaction. We must weigh the pro's and con's and decide what to do. If we don't, others will decide and the ones who do so may well act on the basis of one pernicious -ism or another. All in all the making of choices, especially hard ones, is, he believed, an essential part of "what it means to be human."

It is also, I might add, the essence of statecraft. There are numerous examples in the conduct of policy toward Russia. I'll elaborate on two that I've already mentioned in passing: NATO enlargement and the Kosovo war.

Seven years ago, at the beginning of this Administration, we faced a choice about the future of NATO. Given most Russians' fears that NATO is irredeemably hostile to their interests, many in Europe and in the U.S. felt that we should retire the Alliance with honor. But we said that would leave us without the means of deterring or if necessary defeating threats to our common security. Okay, said others, then we should keep NATO in business but freeze it in its Cold War membership. But we said that would mean perpetuating the Iron Curtain as a permanent fixture on the geopolitical landscape and locking newly liberated and democratic states out of the security that the Alliance affords.

So instead, we chose to bring in new members while trying to make real a post-Cold War mission for NATO in partnership with Russia.

Then earlier this year we faced another tough choice in the most troubled part of Europe, the former Yugoslavia. Diplomacy and sanctions failed to bring Slobodan Milosevic to heel; he launched the seventh Balkan war of the century and the fourth of this decade. Given Russian neuralgia about NATO and Russian affinity for Serbia, many in the West warned that the Alliance's resort to force would lead to an irreparable breach in our relations with Moscow and perhaps even risk a cataclysmic conflict. We chose to use force anyway. But we succeeded in enlisting Russia in an all-out diplomatic effort to end the bombing on terms that would also end Serbia's ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

If either of these matters had been up to you, I suspect several would have chosen differently. But had President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair, and the other leaders of the Alliance accepted your advice, we'd be here today discussing a whole different -- and I believe worse -- set of difficulties.

That's my point, and it's deeply Berlinian:Yes, the timber of humanity is crooked. But that doesn't change our responsibility to do our best with the raw material at hand. We're all engaged in carpentry, and good carpenters do not blame their tools or, for that matter, the nature of the wood.

Carpenters do, however, sometimes blame the architects -- the grand strategists and the purveyors of all-encompassing and uncompromising answers. And rightly so. It's their blueprints, after all, whether simplistic or grandiose that cause monstrosities to be built. Sooner or later, it's a job for the carpenters to break out their tools, tear down these firetraps and start over.

That, in a nutshell, is what's happening in Russia, the land of Stalin and Akhmatova -- the land that Berlin fled at the beginning of the past century as a little boy and where he returned mid-century as a guest from a better future that is, for all that big country's big troubles, a little easier to imagine in the new century just begun. I hope Sir Isaiah would agree. I wish he were here to say. But I'm glad he's on our shelves and in our minds to help us along that way. With that, Bob, I look forward, in whatever time is left to us, to what I know will be a thoroughly pluralistic discussion. Thank you very much.

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