Cameron Munter Interviewed by RIAC

News | July 07, 2015

In an interview with the Russian International Affairs CouncilEWI President-elect and former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter discusses the changing nature of diplomacy and the role EWI plays in addressing the biggest challenges facing the world today.

Given your extensive and challenging diplomatic experience, what are you planning to give EastWest Institute in the future? How do you see the work of the think-and-do tank under your guidance?

I’m glad you don’t just call us a think tank because we are different. We don’t have the focus as much on analytical studies and pronouncements as other traditional East American think tanks have. We’re not like Brookings or Carnegie. We try not only to set forward the ideas or judge them but also to listen. One of the key elements of a think-and-do tank is that we’re pronouncing less what we think should happen, but rather we try to understand the context so as to allow others to come together and find solutions. It’s a search for common ground, not just an analysis. We continue to do a lot of networking, widening existing scope of contacts brought together in the past four decades. For my part I want to see that our institutional structure is stronger throughout the world. In the broader sense the old-fashioned East-West track of EastWest Institute is truly becoming East-West, building on ties with China and India. It’s not as it was years ago when the line was drawn only across Europe. Now it’s the question of how do you deal with institutions throughout the world.

Russia and the US are going through an arduous period in bilateral relations which has a profound impact on the international relations system. How do you see the future of the Ukrainian crisis? How long will it take to settle the disputes and end hostilities? What is the profound reason for such deterioration in bilateral relations, up to you?

It is an exceptionally difficult issue. It illustrates the contribution we’d like to make. We are hoping not so much to come in with a magic solution, but to use the trust built both at the highest and local levels to avoid mistakes, to start a better discussion. The focus should be not only on settling the crisis and ending hostilities. Our point will be to say who are the people that need to talk? How can we help them talk? How can they frame the question in a way that’s most constructive?

Speaking about bilateral relations, I would emphasize that in the 21st century it is essential not to limit ourselves to looking at things bilaterally. Let me give a parallel that I’ve studied recently. The United States and Pakistan have a long bilateral relation which I would say was fairly sterile. We kept making the same mistakes over and over again, even when I was ambassador there. And I noticed that the Pakistanis and the Indians have the same problems. They kept having the same discussions over and over again because the structure of their diplomacy was bilateral. The way to manage problematic issues, such as those I have mentioned or even Ukraine, is to realize that there are not only traditional multilateral arrangements and actors. There are other players who can approach these issues differently. They don’t necessarily have to be governmental. They can be from business or from civic organizations. Are there ways to approach these non-traditional questions in bilateral relations often have? Not addressing these issues means limiting our abilities in conflict management.

As the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it, EastWest Institute is always challenging the way international relations are traditionally perceived. Now the system is obviously going through a great shift, possibly to be transformed irrevocably. How do you see the new system? What will be in its center?

I don’t expect that we’re going to see one system replacing another system. Some people have talked at many levels about the end of a Westphalian diplomatic system. I don’t think it is the correct way to put it. It’s just that other kinds of diplomacy and other issues grow up around it. Here ties throughout society, business, philanthropy, government matter the most. Of course, we take very seriously high-level state-to-state links. I hope we will be able to move from a traditional perception of diplomacy in relations. What I think Ban Ki-moon is saying that we are not witnessing the demise of one system and another replacing it but rather a profound change.

Right now EWI is working with Chinese expert groups. What are the main tracks of cooperation and dialogue?

We have a high-level political party dialogue. It’s the only party-to-party dialogue that we know of between America and China where the Democratic and the Republican parties speak with the Chinese Communist Party. We have been meeting quite regularly recently discussing issues like anticorruption. We facilitate such cooperation so that these institutions understand each other better. We also have the US-China Sanya initiative which brings together retired flag-level military officers from both countries. Here the participants discuss such topics as Taiwan, cybersecurity, maritime tensions in the South China Sea. That will hopefully prevent misunderstandings at high level. We also meet once a year in Beijing and have discussions on the Asian-Pacific region issues in general. We try to rebuild trust at high levels. That doesn’t mean that we only care about what high-level people think. It is a search for creative solutions, new ideas and third parties in a broader way.

In 2015 EWI celebrates 35 years of its existence. What is the main achievement of the organization? Do you think that think tanks are efficient for the big game politics? Can they give solid and valuable advice for politicians?

The EastWest Institute started out rather modestly as an institution that sought to jump over the Iron Curtain and tried to see whether the changes that were taking place in the 1980-s and 1990-s could be understood, talked about, and what ties could be made. Especially the contribution to the peaceful reunification of Germany was something that EastWest really worked at. I’m proud of EWI’s even-handed reputation at a global level. The things we’re doing now allow us to make a contribution to greater projects (e.g. in the Middle East, in South Asia, and most recently between Russia and the West).

Have the goals changed since the creation? What are the aims for the future?

The goals are the same because we are still bringing together people to talk, to build high-level trust, to address regional issues, to look at some functional issues. However, though the goals are the same, the scope is different. Now we are truly of a worldwide nature. If we’re dealing with a broad variety of countries we’re going to hear a lot more different ways of managing problems. It’s not going to be easy. Even though we’re based in the United States we consider ourselves a global organization. So our effort is to be very independent.

Many people in Russia and the West are very anxious about the ongoing political crisis. I’d like to think that situations like this are precisely when an organization like ours becomes useful where the problems are challenging because they are new. And it’s precisely at that time that coming together allows us to find concrete solutions that people in power can take.

Cybersecurity is one of EWI’s strong points. Now you are on the final track towards another cybersecurity conference in New York. What is the most challenging part of dealing with cybersecurity issues?

When we started working on cybersecurity we were ahead of the curve in the study of these issues, pioneers of sorts. Since that time a lot of experts have emerged and are working on it. Now we have to find added value, where we can contribute and others don’t. Part of it is in setting the agenda. One of the difficulties that one sees when studying cybersecurity is that many institutions and states define the problem differently. Some are focused on physical security, others on financial transactions, others on classical questions about warfare. We are working on finding those areas in which the rules, if there are going to be rules, can be made acceptable to all players, and I mean not just states but also large financial institutions. Finding that common ground is the key to what we do, and this topic desperately needs that. Cybersecurity desperately needs to be defined and institutionalized in ways that people accept, so that there aren’t misunderstandings that lead to real conflict. We are trying to be the people who don’t so much solidify cybersecurity and become the ultimate experts but rather those who are helping define the way a problem can be solved so that others can work with us. The fact we’re working in a lot of different places, in the West and East coasts of the United States, in Europe and Asia, indicates that we are on the right track.

Click here to view the interview on the RIAC website