How the U.S.-Russian Relationship Went BadBreaking News
tags: Cold War, Russia, Putin, diplomatic history, international relations, Trump
William J. Burns is the president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy secretary of state. He is the author of The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.
the old caucasus spa town of Kislovodsk was in terminal decline, much like the Soviet Union itself. It was late April 1991, and Secretary of State James Baker and those of us in his bone-tired delegation had just arrived from Damascus. We stumbled around in the evening gloom to find our rooms in the official guesthouse, long past its glory days as a haven for the Communist Party elite. My room was lit by a single overhead bulb. The handle on the toilet came off when I tried to flush it, and what trickled out of the faucet had the same sulfurous smell and reddish tint as the mineral waters for which the town was famous.
I walked down to Baker’s suite to deliver a briefing memo for his meeting the next day with the Soviet foreign minister. The suite was bigger and better lit, with similarly understated decor. Baker smiled wearily and glanced at the paper I handed him. It was covered with notes on all the issues before us: Germany’s peaceful reunification in the fall of 1990, the military triumph over Saddam Hussein little more than a month earlier, the increasingly precarious future of the Soviet Union.
Looking up from the memo, Baker asked: “Have you ever seen anything like this?” I assured him that I hadn’t, and started to tell him about my handleless toilet. “That’s not what I meant,” he said, unable to restrain his laughter. “I’m talking about the world. Have you ever seen so many things changing so damn fast?” Embarrassed, I acknowledged that I hadn’t. “This sure is quite a time,” he said. “I bet you won’t see anything like it for as long as you stay in the Foreign Service.”