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Politics & Government

Longtime Diplomat Looks Back At 40 Years On The World Stage


Diplomat Daniel Fried cleaned out his desk the other day. He was retiring from the U.S. State Department. Fried was ending a 40-year career. In his final job, he coordinated sanctions policy, like U.S. sanctions against Russia. And he left just as a new president was talking of ways to lift those sanctions - to the dismay of many foreign policy specialists. Last week, Daniel Fried came by our studios and recalled how his career started.

DANIEL FRIED: I started in 1977, and I was basically a Soviet hand. I got lucky.

INSKEEP: Lucky, he says, because he'd been posted to the Soviet Union at a time when communism began to stumble. He was living in the Soviet seaport then known as Leningrad and then moved to Soviet-dominated Poland.

FRIED: Most of official Washington thought the Iron Curtain was eternal, the Soviet empire was going to last forever and that the fate of Eastern Europe was sad but really nothing could be done. And that's not what I felt. History was about to turn. And what America had fought for in World War II, which was a liberated Europe - all of Europe - was at hand.

INSKEEP: Were you a fan of Ronald Reagan?

FRIED: Ronald Reagan got one big thing right. He was right about communism, that it was doomed. And he was right - the converse - about democracy, that we really were a superior system. And therefore, he was ready to understand that Gorbachev was serious. Gorbachev was no fool.

INSKEEP: The last president of the Soviet Union.

FRIED: That's right. And Reagan understood - if communism is doomed, then an intelligent Soviet, like Gorbachev, would also recognize it. And he, Reagan, was willing to work with Gorbachev. With Reagan, we had the best Soviet policy we ever had.

INSKEEP: Because he was defiant but, at the same time, trying to work with them and pull them in the direction that the United States wanted.

FRIED: He was - exactly. He was doing two things. He believed in democracy and believed in freedom. And yet, he was willing to work with Gorbachev. And Reagan nailed it.

INSKEEP: Was your experience as a young diplomat living in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg again, part of your conclusion that democracy was better?

FRIED: Well, it was - it drove me to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was just awful. It was a system based on lies and a system which ultimately was going to fail. You could see it. You could feel it. In those years - in the early 1980s, Soviets were beginning to whisper - we can't go on like this; something's got to give. But they had no idea what to do.

And you can hear, by the way, similar whispers in Moscow today. If there is...

INSKEEP: With Vladimir Putin having been in power so long.

FRIED: There is the sense among many educated Russians that things are not going in the right direction, that they've reached a period of stagnation where all they seem able to do is pick fights with their neighbors and do nothing at home, which reminds me a bit of the early 1980s, pre-Gorbachev.

INSKEEP: I read the speech that you gave on your way out of the State Department. And your description of America's role in the world reminded me of a phrase that I learned in school, enlightened self-interest. What's it mean?

FRIED: It means that as we think of America first, as we should, we should understand that our interests are best served when other countries also prosper. We realized long ago that our prosperity and our security at home was advanced when other nations felt secure and were more prosperous.

INSKEEP: That was the Marshall Plan after World War II.

FRIED: That was the great example. Look at the difference between what we did and what the Soviets did. They stripped every piece of factory equipment they could out of East Germany. We helped build up West Germany. We didn't do it simply out of charity. We didn't do it out of charity at all. We did it because the world we would create would be better for us - and better for the Germans and better for the Europeans. And it was fabulously successful. That success is fading from memory, unfortunately.

INSKEEP: Some people looking back at the Cold War will also remember some of the less-than-savory governments that the United States supported. How did that fit into that vision of the world?

FRIED: Life is pretty complicated, and we made a lot of mistakes during the Cold War. It was not a triumphant pageant to inevitable victory. You've got to make tough calls - how much human rights, how much realism, how much do you deal with a strong man because, as Franklin Roosevelt said, you know, he's our strong man? In the end, we discovered that human rights was not a nuisance or a luxury, that it was critically important. And that paid off for us.

INSKEEP: What's it been like walking around the State Department since the inauguration?

FRIED: Foreign service officers want to support the administration in power. There is concern about the budget. People want to see the new team in place. And, in particular, I think Secretary Tillerson captured a lot of support with his arrival statement. People want to back him.

INSKEEP: Is there a reluctance to back foreign policy that doesn't support the American values you've been describing?

FRIED: I think that the case needs to be made for how this administration will act in the American tradition. I think the president needs to make that case. I think Secretary Tillerson needs to make that case.

INSKEEP: There's a line from your speech that so struck me I can almost quote it - I may get a word or two wrong. You said, support Secretary Tillerson - he deserves it, and he needs it. And then you said, support the president. Put your backs into it.

What do you mean by that? What are you saying?

FRIED: Don't be grudging. The president was elected by the American people. And it's our job as diplomats to help the president realize he's - his objectives in the smartest way possible. But do so keeping in mind your oath of office to the Constitution and to the principles that lie behind that Constitution. Our nation was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That's the founding principle of this country, and that lies behind our oath of service.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Fried, thanks for coming by.

FRIED: My pleasure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: Daniel Fried is retiring after 40 years at the State Department.

(SOUNDBITE OF KISHI BASHI'S "CAN'T LET GO, JUNO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.