“We Set Out to Make the World a Better Place”

Former diplomat Daniel Fried on how American leadership enriched the nation, and the globe.

Daniel Fried attends a high-level sanctions meeting at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul on March 21.

Lee Jin-Man/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Daniel Fried, whose Foreign Service career lasted through four decades and seven presidencies, retired from his job as coordinator for sanctions policy at the State Department. A former ambassador to Poland, Fried is known for his work ensuring European stability during and after the Cold War. His farewell address to his colleagues was striking. “We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood,” Fried stated, in what appeared to be a none-too-veiled message to the incoming administration. “The option of a white man’s republic ended at Appomattox.” He went on to warn that Vladimir Putin’s Russia was intent on undermining the Western alliance, which Fried sees as one of the foundations of worldwide stability.

I spoke by phone with Fried, who has worked on sticky foreign policy issues ranging from North Korea to the relocation of Guantanamo detainees. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Donald Trump’s strange respect for Vladimir Putin, how America’s behavior during the Cold War looks today, and the role of diplomacy in protecting America’s national security.

Isaac Chotiner: Why did you decide to retire?

Daniel Fried: I didn’t relish the thought of going through another administration starting from scratch. I thought I would have more interesting challenges on the outside. But I didn’t resign, nor was I asked to leave.

I ask because your farewell speech seemed like a shot at the incoming administration.

I gave that speech because I thought it was important to step back from the immediate and acute concerns that many people have expressed about personnel, or style, or even Russia. I thought it was important to talk about what American interests are and how we have seen those interests in a broader historical sense. I tried to argue that for over a hundred years, both parties have taken a broad view of the American interest and American grand strategy. I wanted to make that defense against a counter-narrative that we simply ought to be a short-term, transactional great power, grabbing whatever we can and maximizing near-term profit at the expense of long-term power and influence.

The critique of that idea is that we have had too broad a conception of our interests and as a result have gotten into some horrible messes and done some horrible things.

I’m aware of the argument. It isn’t just the Trump administration. It has been argued for some time from the left and the right. When I was young, it was mainly the left [saying] that the United States should not try to be everywhere at once, that we were trying to be the world’s policeman. You remember those arguments, especially in the aftermath of Vietnam, but I think that taking a narrow view of American interests does a disservice to the role our country has played in the world and the advantages to our country of a broad role. I believe that we understood from clearly 1900 on that our interests and our values were linked and that in an open world, not only would our values advance, but our interests, including our business interests, would advance as well. Moreover, we also understood that in an American system there had to be something for other countries as well as for us. It couldn’t be zero sum where we were simply advancing our influence and power at the expense of others.

To put it bluntly, we set out to make the world a better place and get rich in the process, and we largely succeeded. That’s without prejudice to the argument that we need to pay more attention to the people who have suffered, including the last generation, because of trade patterns. Yeah, more needs to be done. I’m not arguing that things are perfect.

It may be broadly true in the case of Europe that our interests and our values were aligned, but in the Cold War, was that true with our engagement elsewhere in the world?

If you’re referring to America’s support for, let’s say, right-wing anti-communist regimes … That record is mixed, and there’s some decisions we made that were clearly wrong, and we had to figure out a way in which to balance short-term interests and the interests of fighting the Cold War with our longer-term values. Look, we can’t reduce foreign policy to a formula. We did make mistakes. We made choices. We got things wrong, and sometimes badly wrong. I’m not arguing that it was a triumphant procession of good, but what I am arguing is that, taken as a whole, America’s record does look pretty good, and not just in Europe.

Consider Asia, all right? We have aligned ourselves in Asia with that region’s great democracies, Japan, Korea, farther afield, Australia. We’re working with the Southeast Asians. That’s worked out remarkably well considering the 1930s.

Korea was not a democracy for most of the Cold War, but OK.

But, it became one. OK, North Korea and South Korea. You choose where you want to live.

You worked on sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. You’d been working on that for the last couple of years. What have you learned from that process?

The U.S. and Europe decided that sanctions would be our principal tool for pushing back against Russian aggression against Ukraine, and, by the way, this is the first time a European country, Russia, has seized the territory of another European country, Ukraine, since 1945. This is a serious act of international aggression. The Russians made war on their neighbor rather than see it sign a modest association agreement with the European Union. Let’s remember what was at stake and why the West decided to resist this act of aggression. We chose sanctions. We might have chosen differently. We could have had a broader menu of resistance. The Obama administration debated more military assistance to Ukraine, and we stayed at the lighter end of that. But we did choose sanctions, and they did have the effect of blunting Russian aggression, possibly deterring additional Russian aggression, and pushing the Russians into agreeing to a framework, the Minsk package of accords, by which this could be settled.

My takeaway is as follows: The United States and Europe, and our G-7 partners and allies, showed more determination than many at first thought possible. Secondly, we showed ourselves capable of resisting aggression without getting into a war. We found that sweet spot of effectiveness without an escalation risk, and we set ourselves up, if we stick with this, for a successful outcome. Again, if we stick with it.

Have you been able to glean anything about where you think the new administration wants to go on sanctions?

Well, our policy remains intact until changed. It is true that there is a tremendous amount of, let us say, speculation. I was in the administration. I only left 10 days ago. What I learned about the administration’s intentions doesn’t lead me to believe we’re likely to make a sudden change. I don’t quite understand, and I never understood, why the Trump campaign was so determined never to criticize Vladimir Putin or Vladimir Putin’s Russia. That’s a different issue. You don’t need my voice adding to the chorus.

Did you have any dealings with the Russians the last couple years?

Well, I haven’t been exactly popular with the Russian government. I know Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. I haven’t met with him recently but met with him frequently when I was assistant secretary for European affairs. He’s a capable, A-grade diplomat. He represents his own country, his own government position, with energy and determination.

There have been a lot of news reports about the State Department being gutted in this new administration’s budget. What would that do to American security?

Well, I certainly believe, as many have said, including Defense Secretary [James] Mattis, that a strong foreign affairs presence in the world and a strong budget is part of national security. Again, that’s not the secretary of state; that’s the secretary of defense. Moreover, Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates thought much the same and said so. Diplomacy is a tool of national security.

As someone who served for 40 years, what do you make about all this talk about a “deep state”?

Well, all transitions involve a dynamic in which the political, the incoming team looks at the permanent government and the so-called bureaucracy with a degree of skepticism.

Yeah, but come on. This is different, right?

Well, sure, it is … it is much more intense this time, but my point is it isn’t new. I remember in the early period of the Reagan administration there were some tensions as well, and it turned out to be successful in foreign policy. I remember in the Bush administration there were a lot of people at the State Department who didn’t particularly support the Bush administration, but they supported Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice. The State Department would have marched a hundred miles barefoot through snow for Secretary Rice and for the Bush administration, because politics in the end doesn’t have anything to do with it. People responded to leadership, and they responded to the national interest, and Secretary Rice and George W. Bush were able to take advantage of that for the good of the country.

It seems that a lot of people in the federal bureaucracy, and in the State Department in particular, feel that this administration does not have the national interest at heart or are not pursuing it, and they’re very, very scared about that.

I think a lot of people have been, let us say, puzzled by the Trump campaign’s approach to Russia, and by some of the things that have been said.

Have you ever been more scared for America than you are today?

I haven’t used the word scared. You have. There is a near-term emphasis [in the Trump administration] on counter-terrorism and combating ISIS, and perhaps a longer-term emphasis on managing the rise of China in a way that does not damage the interests of the United States or of the West.

That seems to be a reasonable set of priorities, and there seems to be a gap between those reasonable set of priorities and some of the language about America first, or a narrow definition of America’s interests in the world, or a kind of scorn for the trans-Atlantic alliance, or contempt for Europe, which doesn’t seem to make sense even in terms of the Trump foreign policy priorities as I understand them.

In your time as a diplomat, was there one country where your personal experience of the place gave you a totally different impression of the place than just reading the newspaper would have?

The foreign country I dealt with the most in my career was Poland, and in 1989 there were clichés about Poland: that Poles were quixotic, they were emotional, they were good at hopeless causes but not very good at the prosaic world. That was the mindset of many in Washington who had internalized the clichés, and it turned out to be absolutely flat, dead wrong. When it came to the test, the Poles were brilliant at actually designing a new post-communist system to introduce the best parts of a free market economy and minimize the worst.

It was an astonishing, almost miraculous accomplishment and it ran counter to the stereotypes. It made me realize that stereotypes in international affairs are a dangerous guide. They are the lazy person’s shorthand, and it can take you in the wrong direction. Look deeper, I learned.