Henrik Liljegren, an Atlantic Council board member, served 42 years in Sweden’s diplomatic corps, including stints at Ambassador to the United States, Turkey, East Germany, and Belgium.  I had the opportunity to get his thoughts on some key issues of interest to our community.

1. During your time in Washington (1993-97) you were instrumental in negotiating the withdrawal of Russian forces from the Baltic States. What do you expect from this weekend’s meeting between President Obama and President Medvedev  in Moscow?

I think the Russians will be pleased to have the publicity that inevitably surrounds meetings of this kind. It will project the image that Russia is a global player whose views count. In addition, bilateral arms control talks with the US creates the impression that Russia and the US are of equal superpower status just like when the Soviet Union and the US negotiated SALT during the Cold War. 

For the Obama administration it might be the beginning of a long testing period where it  will find out whether the Russians can be encouraged to see the advantages of behaving like a responsible stakeholder in the international system. Who knows, maybe people in the Kremlin will one day see the advantage of having free, peaceful and democratic countries on their borders. And perhaps one day they will see the advantages of genuine cooperation based on mutual trust.

2. What are the chances that this will happen?

I am not optimistic. Russia suffers from post-imperial withdrawal syndrome.

Many people have forgotten how powerful this empire seemed to be only some twenty years ago. I was ambassador to East Berlin when West Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany and a potential hostage of the Soviet Union. At Embassy receptions all the ambassadors of the Warsaw Pact countries flocked around the Soviet ambassador to East Germany to pay their respects in a rather servile way. It was a spectacle somewhat painful to observe but heady days for the Soviet officials.

Those were the days when Putin was a young KGB officer in East Germany and Dmitri Trenin, nowadays director of the Carnegie Moscow Center and of the most influential commentators on relations between the West and Russia, was an officer in the Soviet Army at Potsdam outside East Berlin. I am sure that their experiences are deeply ingrained in their respective mindsets. It must have been a terrible shock when the wall came down and the Soviet empire rapidly dissolved.

What we are observing today is how Russia under Putin and Medvedev try to use all means at Russia’s disposal to gradually regain some influence over territories it acquired during the last three hundred years. Right now it seems that Russia also tries to block the United States wherever it can globally. It has been said many times before, but it is worth repeating; the Russian leadership perceives it its relations with the US as a zero sum game. So if it is able to block the US anywhere on the global chessboard it probably will.

3. What would you like to see happen in US-Russian relations?

I hope of course that the new and very constructive approach by the Obama administration towards all its partners will have a positive impact on the leadership in Moscow.  Since the people in the Kremlin have a tendency to mistake a polite posture for weakness I think it is important that the Obama administration reaffirms what Vice President Biden already said, i.e. that it will not accept the concept of a sphere around Russia where Moscow has legitimate or privileged interests. The administration should also provide the countries in what Russian calls its “near abroad” with support in appropriate forms whenever they come under pressure.

4. To what extent does the West bear a responsibility for ignoring Russian concerns, such as in recognizing Kosovo’s independence and expanding NATO up to its borders?

I don’t think that the West is to blame. During the first year of the Russian Republic the Yeltsin government adopted the positions of the West on practically every important international issue and in response Washington had adopted the “Russia First” policy and paid a lot of attention to Russian views. However, when I asked a member of the NSC in the middle of April 1993 about Russia the answer was that a change had occurred in Russian foreign policy and that they had started to spring some nasty surprises on the West in the Middle East, North Korea, Georgia and the former Yugoslavia. The American honeymoon with Russia was over already in 1994 and it was not the fault of the American partner.

5. You spent the last years of your diplomatic career in Turkey and still have a home there.   What context should we view recent disputes with the West over energy, the Armenian genocide, NATO leadership, and EU membership?  How do we reconcile Turkey’s critical role in NATO and geopolitics generally with its political behavior?

Turkey, like Russia, constitutes what remains of a great empire. An important difference is that Turkey has been more successful than Russia in overcoming its huge loss of territory. In fact Turkey has turned it into an advantage.

The current Turkish Foreign Minister, Prof. Ahmet Davutoglu, writes that Turkey’s geography gives it “a specific central country status” and “an optimal place in the sense that it is both an Asian and European country.”  Davutoglu adds that “in terms of its area of influence “Turkey is a Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea country.”  

If you look at Turkey with this perspective in mind you understand that the Turkey of today might be tempted to act according to what it perceives are its own basic interests in relation to the EU and NATO. In the view of leading Turks probably the advantages that Turkey can offer NATO and the EU outweigh what these institutions can offer Turkey in return.

Turkey is rapidly changing, sometimes at a faster pace than foreign observers can keep up with. The Turkish leadership of today does not feel closer to the member countries of these institutions than to, let us say, Iraq.  Opinion polls show that most Turks nowadays feel that being a Muslim counts for more than being a Turk. If Muslims are killed in distant countries Turks feel as if their close family has been attacked regardless of the circumstances.

Add to that the strong emotional element of Turkish foreign policy. Turkey is a proud nation and reacts strongly to what it often sees as unfair and prejudiced treatment on the part of the West. During my two tours of duty in Ankara I witnessed how Turkish views were ignored or vilified while the not quite so objective historic accounts and arguments by groups that murdered Turkish civilians and waged war on the Turkish state were readily accepted as the ultimate truth by the media and public in Europe and the US.

Turkish foreign policy, which used to be reactive and cautious, has lately become proactive and creative. Instead of trying to achieve a dominant position in the territories of the former Ottoman Empire, Turkey nowadays conducts a policy which tries to achieve maximum advantage and” zero problems” in the relations with its partners at the same time as it tries to assist ongoing negotiations between adversaries like Syria and Israel.

However, Turkey has not yet come to terms with its own identity. Turkey is torn between a desire to rid itself of the secular system imposed by Atatürk and a wish on the part of what looks like a more and more beleaguered minority to stick to secularism. My own hope is that Turkey will one day find its own model for combining the population’s predominantly Muslim faith with the secular structure needed both for the efficient organization of the affairs of state and a successful relationship with the West.

You can read about Ambassador Liljegren’s fascinating life story in his memoir, From Tallinn to Turkey – as a Swede and Diplomat

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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