In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents
Anatoly Dobrynin is by all odds the most conspicuous diplomat of this century. For twenty-five years of cold war tension he was the representative of one of the two superpowers in the capital of the other. Remarkably, he managed not only to satisfy a succession of Soviet leaders whose ignorance of the United States was matched only by their suspicion of it and hostility to it but also to ingratiate himself into the confidence of one American president after another. In this respect, his achievement has no parallel in modern diplomacy.
Readers of his constantly fascinating memoir will learn much about his relations with American statesmen and something of his attitude toward his own government, but little about his secret of staying on the perilous diplomatic tightrope stretched between Moscow and Washington during the years of confrontation. It is easy to understand how an ambassador can please both his own and his host governments when both perceive an interest in close relations. It is much less obvious how this can happen when both view their relationship as one in which every gain for one country inflicts commensurate damage on the other.
Dobrynin managed a close and often confidential relationship with every American president from Kennedy to Carter even though occasionally his own government, for instance during the Cuban missile crisis, used him to feed false information to his Washington contacts—an abuse of diplomatic communication which would normally destroy an ambassador’s effectiveness, but which Dobrynin had the skill and guile to overcome. Or maybe it was his American hosts who were so eager to use him as a tool in their domestic political squabbles that they were willing to overlook occasional mendacity, particularly when he could credibly disclaim responsibility.
In any event, thoughtful Americans will read with both interest and dismay of the penchant many American political leaders had for playing politics with the Soviet relationship. President Johnson, for example, was so enamored of the idea of a summit meeting in Moscow that he failed to react when Dobrynin reported to him personally in August 1968 that the Soviet Union had invaded Czechoslovakia. Instead of expressing outrage, Johnson pressed for Soviet consent to announce his planned trip to Moscow. Dobrynin plausibly attributes the Soviet decision, some eleven years later, to invade Afghanistan in part to the weak American reaction when the Prague Spring was crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks.
Toward the end of his time in office, overwhelmed by Watergate, President Nixon also used Dobrynin as his private “channel” to plead with Brezhnev for expressions of support. Nor were such appeals always private. I personally recall the state dinner in Moscow during Nixon’s visit in 1974, when he stressed in his toast the importance of “personal relationships” in preserving the peace, only to have Brezhnev reply with pious generalities about the weight of “principles.” As an American, I was embarrassed as I listened to my president toadying to the likes of Leonid Brezhnev. If I had been aware of his desperate pleading through Dobrynin, my embarrassment would have yielded to a feeling of utter humiliation.
President Carter, like Nixon and Johnson, made it clear that he considered summitry useful for electoral purposes, thus making it more difficult to obtain agreements acceptable to the United States. In this he was no different from Nixon and Johnson, but in another respect he and other Democratic leaders were. To judge from Dobrynin’s testimony, Republicans never tried privately to undermine the negotiating position of Democratic presidents. But Carter and some other leading Democrats carried their partisan passion to that extreme. For instance, Speaker Tip O’Neill described Reagan in 1984 as “a dangerous man” who could bring us to the brink of “a major armed conflict.” Carter told Dobrynin in January 1984 that he was “utterly convinced” that there would not be a single agreement on arms control as long as Reagan remained in power. This was two weeks after Reagan’s speech outlining a comprehensive approach for dealing with the Soviet Union, which in fact led to an end to the cold war. (Dobrynin observes dryly that Carter proved to be a “poor prophet.”)
Either statement, if made in public before an election, might be understood as campaign rhetoric. Expressing such opinions privately to the representative of a foreign adversary, however, can hardly be considered either appropriate or responsible. But such was Dobrynin’s charm that many seemed to forget who he was and what he represented when they talked to him.
Although Dobrynin is sometimes critical of his Soviet superiors—Gromyko is portrayed as rigid and secretive, Mikhail Suslov as doctrinaire, and Brezhnev as incompetent following his stroke in 1977—he offers few unexpected quotations from his exchanges with them, and his assessments will come as no surprise to anyone even modestly familiar with the Soviet politics of the period. He points out from time to time some of the misperceptions the Soviet leaders had about the United States: their failure to appreciate the role of Congress in foreign affairs, their habit of viewing problems through the distorting lens of ideological stereotypes, and their inability to grasp why issues such as emigration and human rights were important to the American public. He gives us few clues, however, to his efforts, if any, to correct these misperceptions. But that, of course, was not his primary duty, though some of his American interlocutors seem to have assumed that it was.
While Dobrynin’s account is entertaining and in many ways insightful, it can also be read as a cautionary tale, for it makes clear some of the traps in the brand of secretive, “backchannel” diplomacy practiced by the Nixon, Ford, and—to a somewhat lesser extent—Carter administrations.
One disadvantage is that negotiations without notetakers or interpreters produce ambiguous records. Dobrynin disputes Henry Kissinger’s account of some of their conversations regarding Vietnam and the Middle East; and Kissinger has been quoted as saying that his own accounts were accurate and it is Dobrynin who is confused. We should not expect such disputes to be settled by official documents once they are declassified. Unless tape recordings were made surreptitiously by one of the parties, any official record will be that made separately by the disputants following the conversation. It is unlikely that either negotiator would make claims in his memoirs which conflicted with the official record he had made. Both Kissinger and Dobrynin had access to their own reports when they wrote their memoirs.
Inasmuch as final, signed agreements can be verified, it is sometimes largely of academic interest how the early private negotiations were conducted. But if the private exchanges do not result in an agreement, they can burden future negotiations if both sides are not clear about what was said. When Secretary of State Cyrus Vance came to Moscow in March 1977 with new and radical proposals for nuclear arms reduction, Gromyko and his lieutenants accompanied their rejection with vehement charges that Carter’s proposal violated understandings made with Kissinger when Gerald Ford was president. The record available to the Carter administration bore no trace of such commitments, but given the habits of hypersecrecy and incomplete documentation which had prevailed in American diplomacy from 1969 to 1976, it was impossible to be certain that the Soviet claims were totally without foundation.
The need for secrecy in the early stages of many negotiations is so critical that historians and the public at large should be willing to tolerate some conflicting testimony as long as there is no confusion about what was finally agreed. For example, the 1993 agreement between Israel and the PLO could not have been reached without complete secrecy during the earlier talks. It will not be surprising if there are some discrepancies in the future memoirs of participants, but this should in no way diminish their achievement. Nevertheless, anyone who compares Dobrynin’s account of his conversations on key questions with those of his interlocutors will be struck by how often there are discrepancies and will be forced to wonder whether, in fact, the demand for secrecy justified what seems to have been very sloppy habits of record keeping on both sides.
A second aspect of backchannel diplomacy is even more questionable: the practice of using the representative of one country as the sole confidential interlocutor between antagonistic governments. At first glance, the practice seems so preposterous in principle that one might assume that any government answerable to a sophisticated public would avoid at all costs the appearance of fatuous gullibility that it inevitably gives. After all, any party to a civil suit would be considered mentally defective if he hired (or accepted without fee) the opponent’s attorney to represent him as well. And yet this is precisely what was done during the Nixon and Ford administrations, when Dobrynin was used for the most sensitive communications between the US and Soviet governments, to the exclusion of the US representatives in the Soviet Union and US delegation chiefs, who had been appointed by the President and confirmed by the Senate for that explicit purpose.
The excuse offered, both by Dr. Kissinger, the most enthusiastic American practitioner of backchannel diplomacy, and by Dobrynin—that no American could have conducted a confidential dialogue with the Soviet leaders—does not withstand close examination. American representatives, particularly those who spoke Russian and understood the Soviet Union, always had access to the Soviet leaders when their own government desired it, as was shown by the experience of Averell Harriman and George Kennan during World War II, Llewellyn Thompson during Khrushchev’s heyday, and the American ambassadors during the Reagan and Bush presidencies.
Dobrynin indirectly confirms this when he remarks that Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko was annoyed when, following a long conversation with US Ambassador Jacob Beam, Kissinger sent word that all communication should go through Dobrynin. Rigid and unbending as he usually was, Gromyko would certainly have preferred a situation whereby both ambassadors were in the loop and he could play a role comparable to that of his American counterpart. A persuasive American ambassador authorized to meet frequently with him might well have induced greater flexibility on his part, since Gromyko would have had the possibility of taking credit in the Politburo for reaching solutions to some contentious issues instead of always deferring to Dobrynin Certainly, he would have received more precise insight into American thinking than his own man in Washington, however well integrated into that capital’s gossip circuit, could have offered.
We cannot escape the suspicion that the reason for conducting backchannel diplomacy exclusively through Dobrynin had little if anything to do with the need to have a secret dialogue with the Soviet leaders. Rather, it seems to have been the result of turf fights within the US administration, most notably Kissinger’s desire (with Nixon’s support) to cut Secretary of State William Rogers out of the process. Even after Kissinger became secretary of state the practice continued, partly out of habit but (one suspects) largely because it allowed him to claim personal credit for any achievements and to blur the responsibility for failures.