The UC Interview Series: Ambassador John Beyrle



Alexander Davydov: Alexander Davydov is a second-year graduate student at MGIMO University specializing in Russian foreign policy and diplomacy. He earned his bachelor’s degree from MGIMO in the Department of International Relations. His research mostly focuses on economic relationships among states, specifically the interrelation of domestic and foreign economic policies. His current master’s thesis is dedicated to the role of non-governmental actors in maintaining the relationship between Russia and the West. Alexander interned at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defence. In 2017-2019, he led the MGIMO German Studies Club which is part of the MGIMO Student Academic Society. Alexander speaks English, German and Spanish.


John Beyrle:  Ambassador John Beyrle served as an American diplomat. He was twice appointed to be ambassador, to Bulgaria (2005-08) and to Russia (2008-12). During the latter assignment, he led the implementation of policies resulting in improved U.S.-Russian relations, highlighted by the signing of the New START treaty and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Ambassador Beyrle’s diplomatic career included two earlier tours at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He also served as counsellor for political and economic affairs at the U.S. Embassy in the Czech Republic, and a member of the U.S. delegation to the CFE arms control negotiations in Vienna. He currently serves as a trustee on or adviser to corporate and non-profit boards, including the US-Russia Foundation.


Past experience:

Alexander :        In the 1970s you studied Russian at the University of Michigan. What pushed you to study Russian? Was your personal background – the famous history of your father, perhaps – the main reason behind your choice or did you have other reasons? Do you remember why your fellow students ended up learning Russian and was a trend among young Americans to be interested in the USSR?

John Beyrle:      I come from a small town of Muskegon on the shores of Lake Michigan, which I was born and raised in, which my father was born and raised in, which his father was born and raised in, and which his father, my great-grandfather, was born and raised in. My ancestors originally came over from Germany in the mid-19th century. I consider myself as a very typical American from not a big city. Growing up in a relatively small town in Michigan I really did not have much contact with the wider world. I did not travel very much when I was a kid. Going abroad was something that not everyone in my milieu was able to take advantage of.
My father spent his young years as a soldier in the war. His experiences, in a way, helped me and my brother and sister understand the wider world in a slightly different way. There were many Americans who were at that time veterans of World War II and that really had a defining impact on how they and a lot of their friends and families saw the world.

As a student, I began studying foreign languages in high school when I was 13 years old. I started studying French and German and discovered that I just had a kind of innate knack for learning languages. When other kids in my class had to study very hard just to get Cs or Bs on a test, I found that I could do quite well without having studied almost at all. I did study though; it just made a lot of sense to me.

As I left high school and enrolled in college at a local university, not far from my home in West Michigan, I was advised by a couple of teachers that since I was good at languages and I had studied French and German in high school, I should now look at taking a harder language, a language that wasn’t quite as common for Americans to study. I chose Russian.

It had really very little to do with the fact that my father had had an episode in which, after escaping from a prison camp in 1945, he fought with the Russian Armyfor a short period of time. It had more to do with the fact that at this time in the early 1970s, Russia was very much in the news. We were in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union was seen as America's main adversary, the main antagonist. But this was also the time when the dissident literature began to be published in the US and attracted a wider readership: people like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Bitov, Vasily Aksyonov. This all made Russian seem not quite as remote as it might have seemed even six or seven years earlier. Suddenly, we were able to read the words of contemporary Russians about what was happening in the Soviet Union.

Alexander:         In 1976, you spent a semester on an exchange program at Leningrad State University. What were your first impressions of Russia? Did they differ a lot from what you were learning in the US?  

John Beyrle:      After two or three years in college, I had an opportunity to apply for an exchange program in Leningrad. This was a program where 25-30 American students studying Russian had to live in Leningrad in a dormitory with Russian roommates for 4-5 months. Up until that point, I was very interested in studying the language and literature of Russia. I imagined that I might get an advanced degree, a master’s and maybe a Ph.D. in Russian linguistics or Russian literature.

When I lived in Leningrad as a student, I saw the daily life of ordinary people. I was absolutely fascinated by the paradoxes that I saw, because this was the country which we in the US saw as our rival, our adversary in many spheres such as space, nuclear and conventional weapons. Yet what I saw on the streets of Leningrad was a country struggling to provide basic services and products for its citizens. I wanted to unravel this riddle. How was a country that was able to put the first man into space unable to provide basic necessities of life for its citizens?

In Leningrad, I was able to make friends with some of my roommates and ordinary Russians. I remember how I went to my friends’ rooms two or three times a week. Sometimes, I watched a hockey game on television with them. That part of the experience tended to humanize and regularize my impressions and put things in a better context. Although we were surrounded by Soviet propaganda, I encountered people in their homes and found that it did not define their lives. They were interested in learning as much as possible about America through me, but I found myself learning a lot about Russian people, their innate sense of generosity, basic humanity, and spirituality which differs to a great degree from the US. That had a great appeal for me.

When I went back to the US, I began to focus more on international relations than on language and literature. This is how, I think, I got into the track which led me to the State Department and diplomatic career, which was focused largely on the Soviet Union, Russia, Central and Eastern Europe. 

Alexander:         You were the US Ambassador to Russia when the “reset” was launched. In your experience, did the mood really change that significantly when Medvedev took presidential office and Obama came to power? How invested were Americans and your Russian counterparts into the idea of the reset? Did you feel there was a real substance to it and a good will on both sides or did it feel rather insufficient and fragile?

John Beyrle:      Before becoming Ambassador, I was Deputy Ambassador in 2002-2005. So, I had a chance to see how the relationship between Russia and the US deteriorated in that period largely because of actions of the Bush administration – invading Iraq and going around the UN Security Council about it, which Russian government opposed quite strongly.  When the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11 took place early in the Bush administration, the relationship between Bush and Putin was quite constructive and productive. I was actually in Ljubljana when the two men met for the first time. It was a chance to see how the personal relationship between leaders is sometimes absolutely crucial to determining the course of the bilateral relationship between the countries.

I arrived in Moscow as Ambassador in July 2008, at the end of the Bush administration. There was already a presidential election campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain going on. I didn’t expect be able to do much as an Ambassador in the last months of the Bush administration. I had experience in the State Department, and I knew that by the last six months of a Presidential administration a lot of energy that defines the conduct of foreign policy is lost, especially at the end of the second term when it is clear that the president will leave office. I thought that I would be marking time until the new administration took over and set a new policy. But I did not really get that buffer. Only a month after I arrived, the war in Georgia broke out. That immediately plunged our relations into a crisis. It seemed very difficult to imagine that we would be able to recover from the anger and hostility that characterized the relationship during those months.

                                After Obama was elected, I went back to Washington and had a round of consultations with members of the new administration, talking about what we needed to do and how we might be able to set our relationship on a better footing. In these discussions, it was clear that there was a new impetus for trying to find areas of convergence between Russia and the US. It was clear that we were always going to have fundamental disagreements about things like Georgia and Transnistria, but there were fundamental issues which both the US and Russia as two nuclear superpowers had to manage in a responsible way. From that point, it became clear that something needed to be built on the history and tradition of reducing nuclear arsenals that had been stalled since the US pulled out of the ABM treaty. As I returned to Moscow, my job was probing my Russian counterparts in the Foreign Ministry and the Presidential Administration to see if they shared our view that despite the disagreements, we could still find a way to work together to build a new arms control regime. It eventually led to negotiations over New START.

The idea of a new treaty was agreed fairly quickly at the first meeting of Obama and Medvedev in London in April 2009. It was quite clear from that meeting that we had a situation again where two new presidents sat down and found the level of commonality which allowed them to build a relationship and identify areas of cooperation at a strategic level. It was really that commonality that made the reset possible.

It took a lot of work though. There were a lot of directions given to people below the presidential level. I as ambassador, as well as Sergey Kislyak, my counterpart in Washington, worked as hard as we could to build structure to the relationship beneath the president; that way it would not just depend on whether the two of them could agree on things or give directions to their apparatus or to their administration. We wanted to build something that was perhaps more sustainable, more resilient, than a relationship characterized by cycles of ups and downs, successes and failures, which had been the state of US–Russia/Soviet relations for decades.

Alexander:         One of the aims of the reset was to improve economic ties. There was an idea that we needed a solid foundation of economic relations that could serve as a shock absorber as we went through cycles of agreement and disagreement. Can the economy still be this shock absorber? Can we find other spheres of cooperation that could fulfil this role in Russia-West relations (contacts between Russian scientific, cultural, educational institutions etc.)?

John Beyrle:      I think the economic and commercial relationship is key to a normal relationship between any two countries. It indeed serves as a shock absorber – that's a metaphor that I used quite frequently myself as ambassador when I would speak to business groups. Strong commercial relationships create a set of stakeholders who have a much colder eye, less emotional attachment, because emotions sometimes can lead to very negative outcomes. I used to be struck during meetings of the US–Russia Business Council or at commercial summits like the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, that businessmen would speak their minds quite frankly to politicians on both sides. I urged the governments in both countries to work out their differences in the way that allowed the commercial relationship to prosper. Not only because by doing so you are helping the economies of both countries and the peoples of both countries, but whatever happens, there will be a solid basis for cooperation, more or less immune to some of the viruses of political disagreement which characterize our relationship to this day.

                                I think it's still very true and it's interesting to note that even though the US-Russia relations have seriously deteriorated over the last several years, the commercial relationship between the two countries still develops. American firms are working in Russia, employing Russian staff, creating value for American shareholders, as well as for Russians. Russian companies are exporting to and working in the US. Sanctions have not touched the vast majority of commercial activity between Russia and the US, and it has continued more and less in the normal way. That also shows that both, the Kremlin, and the White House, have decided that that is an important part of the relationship that does not really need to be sacrificed.

You mentioned other areas of commonality which can help the US and Russia get through the periods of disagreement, but the commercial relationship is an absolutely vital part. It has such a long history, and there are so many stakeholders on both sides who have a say and an interest in how commercial relations develop and hopefully grow and prosper. I think that should always be a special, protected part of the US-Russia relations.


The Current Issues:

Alexander:         In the open letter “It’s Time to Rethink Our Russia Policy”, co-signed by 103 American experts and policy-makers, authors stressed the role of perceptions on both sides, noting “We must deal with Russia as it is, not as we wish it to be”. Do you believe that there are still too many misperceptions between the two sides? Can you elaborate on one or two, persistent among American politicians, which you consider especially harmful?

John Beyrle:      The entire tone of the joint letter that you mentioned is the epitome of the realism in foreign policy – seeing the world as it is and working within those parameters to further countries’ interests rather than proceeding on the premise that there is something that must be changed ab initio. The relationships need to produce value; they need to provide for the interests of both countries.

I think one of the problems that we are still dealing with in the relationship between Russia and the US stems from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s; to the efforts of the US to lend a hand to a country which, as we might say, was down on its luck. That was a time when Russia turned to the US with an appeal for support. This is something that I think has been forgotten or perhaps denied in Russia today. Instead, the perception has grown in Russia that the US pushed a lot of change that Russia had no choice but to accept. I was very much involved in the formulation of policy when I worked at the White House in the National Security Council under President Clinton from 1993 to 1995. I know that the attitude and the intention of American leaders at that point was to try to help Russia – a country with which we had a very special relationship because of the nuclear power that we both held. It was an effort to try and help Russia get back on its feet and re-establish itself as a major power in the way that would no longer pose a threat to the US.

I remember having a lot of conversations with journalists and other diplomats arguing that we should not take advantage of Russia’s weakness and should not try to keep Russia weak. My argument, and that of many American policymakers, was that a weak Russia would be our worst nightmare, because a weak Russia would be unstable and unpredictable in a way that is in no way good for American national security interests. The idea that somehow, the US was working actively to make Russia dependent on the US. That was not it; that was not the intention.

The problem that has flowed out of this period, and still bedevils Russia and the US to forge a more constructive policy, is that too many Americans got used to this period in which Russia was on its back, which fostered the idea that America had something to teach Russia, the Russian people, and the government. That obviously was a very dangerous attitude, because in time Russia would get back on its feet. We should not formulate our policy based on the presumption that we have something to teach. I think that we, in America, are still struggling with that dilemma: Russia is back on its feet, it's still trying to find its way and define exactly what her national idea is. But it is very clear that Russia is not looking to the West or to the US in any way looking for a certain instructor or mentor. That is not well understood in the US and leads inevitably to  a lot of the tension that we feel.

Alexander:         Analysing the failure of the reset, MGIMO Institute for International Studies Director Andrey Sushentsov compared main Russian and American foreign policy papers and came to the conclusion that there was great divergence of strategic interests between the two countries from the very beginning. One side was ready to make concessions only in those fields which were of marginal interest to the other. Do you agree there has been such permanent strategic inconsistency? If so, have you encountered it in some specific form during your career?

John Beyrle:      Here I have to disagree with the very premise of Prof. Sushentsov’s argument.  The “reset” was not failure.  It led to the signing of the New START treaty, which Putin and Biden agreed to extend just days after Biden was inaugurated President. The reset made Russia’s long-sought membership in the WTO a reality. If you have had a three-year multiple-entry visa in your US or Russian passport, only the reset made that possible. 

These periods of convergent interests in US-Russian/Soviet relations recur periodically, whether you call them the reset, détente, peaceful coexistence or some other label.  And the problem is not that they “fail” to produce results that serve the national interests of both countries – quite the opposite.  Look at the cooperation in space that was made possible by détente, to cite another example. The problem is that these intervals never last longer than 3-4 years.   Achieving a sustainable improvement in bilateral relations is the real challenge.

As for the strategic inconsistency argument, were US-Soviet/Russian agreements on nuclear arms control of “marginal interest” to either Moscow or Washington? This was the central achievement of the post-war era that prevented the Cold War from escalating into World War Three. Of course these two continental powers will always have divergent interests, but that’s, in my opinion, a long way from declaring some sort of permanent strategic inconsistency. 

Alexander:         In your 2010 speech at the University of Michigan you pointed out the cyclical nature of the relations between the US and Russia. You say that “there are times when the disagreements between Russia and the United States are dominant, and there are other periods in which the points of agreement are more powerful than the things we're arguing over”. Do you expect that one day points of agreement will become more powerful again? Do you see any obvious or hidden reasons for this to happen?

John Beyrle:      I think, analytically, if you look at the course of relations between Russia and the US, two major continental powers, the two largest nuclear powers on earth, then it would be hard to anticipate that the relationship would converge to the point at which the agreements we had were more dominant than disagreements. I am afraid that this cyclicality of the US–Russia relationship is not likely to subside anytime soon.

The cycles will probably not be as sharp as they were. When I arrived as Ambassador to Russia in 2008, public opinion polls showed that only 28% of Russian had a positive view of the US. Within two years, by the middle of 2010, following Medvedev’s talks with Obama in the US, that number had risen to over 50%. That is a pretty steep climb. There was also an improvement in the view of Russia among average Americans.

The US and Russia are fated to have better relationships for one simple reason: Both countries tend to be ruled more by a pragmatic view of their interests than an ideological view. Pragmatism inevitably leads countries to search for areas of common ground and to believe that it is possible to find them. Ideology sets a very stark framework which says: these are things that can never be compromised and should not change. That restricts the ability to make progress in areas in which there are natural common interests. American natural interests coincide with Russia’s in very important areas, ranging from nuclear non-proliferation and counterterrorism even to climate change.

The US and Russia have much more in common and can serve their national interests better if they work together than separately. I think that in time we will find a way – as we have consistently in the past – to look together for common good on both sides, even as we agree and disagree on other issues. That’s the essence of diplomacy and the spirit that has characterized US–Soviet and US–Russian relations for as long as I’ve been working on and historically even before that.


Message to the Younger Generation

Alexander:         If you now met yourself at the age, you were when you just started your diplomatic career, what would you tell yourself? After so many years in service, having had great experience and a solid background, what would you advise yourself regarding your work, the role of a diplomat, and your overall attitude towards your foreign colleagues?

John Beyrle:      People who are charged with formulating policy and carrying out foreign relations have a special responsibility and a special obligation, even beyond bilateral relations.

If I were speaking to a young diplomat starting his career or if I were speaking to myself in 1992-1993 when I first joined the State Department, I would say two things, and this advice applies both to Americans and Russians, because in some ways our two countries are very much alike in terms of being large, powerful, decisive countries on the world stage.

First, find an area or a part of the world in which you intend to specialize and become the deepest, most well-informed, and experienced expert you can. This requires a great investment of time in learning language, culture, history, and the area of the region. You should also seek to spend as much time working in this country in your young years both for experience in culture and operational peculiarities, but also because you will be building relationships with your counterparts on the other side and those relationships of trust and understanding are in many ways the lubricant that can help avoid tensions in the future. The understanding, the trust that I had in my counterparts in the Russian Foreign Ministry, Presidential Administration, and their trust in me was something that made it easier to move forward and build a period like the reset. It also helped during the times when relations were not as productive to avoid some of the worst outcomes, because both I and my counterparts could see that the direction that we were heading was not good for either country. By working together, trusting each other, and being able to take risks, we were able to head off some of these less desirable outcomes. The idea of specializing in a country or an area to become really conversant with that is absolutely important.

The second thing – though it is almost paradoxical – is equally as important. It is to gain as much experience as you can in other parts of the world. The one thing that I regret in my diplomatic career was that it was so focused and located in one part of the world.  Those of my colleagues who spent a long time in the Middle East, in Asia, Africa, South America, they experienced encounters with ways of doing business quite different from the way that Americans and Russians conducted their relations. Those are sometimes very instructive and help to find ways out of dead ends that bilateral relations sometimes inevitably get into, simply because they are too internal and self-contained. The fertilization of ideas, practices and habits that you gain from exposure to the wider world outside your area of expertise only enriches the expertise that you have developed in that particular area. Go local, but at the same time go global.