James Baker exclusive for IPESE


For the first time after 32 years after he tried to prevent a civil war in the former Yugoslavia, the former US Secretary of State James Baker speaks for the Serbian public, in an exclusive interview he gave for the Institute for Politics and Economy of Southeast Europe (IPESE). The occasion for this conversation is Diana Negroponte’s book “Master Negotiator – The Role of James Baker at the End of the Cold War”, which was published by the Institute for Politics and Economy of Southeast Europe (IPESE) and Club PLUS.

Although his name may not sound too familiar to the general public today, those who are knowledgeable on the subject know that he is perhaps the most important Secretary of State America has ever had. Under his foreign policy leadership, the Cold War ended and an era that was believed to bring peace and prosperity to the entire planet began. We spoke with the former Secretary Baker at his home in Houston about why this did not happen, whether we are now witnessing the end of the “post-Cold War era”, and what kind of agreements were made on the expansion of NATO.

One of Baker’s prominent Cold War missions was an attempt to persuade the then-leaders of the Yugoslav republics to give up splitting the country and not to enter the country into war in 1991, but he did not manage to achieve this. During the conversation, James Baker was interested in the situation in Serbia today and its perspectives, following the idea he would like to identify space for the activities of his institute.

IPESE: Back in the time, President Bush mentioned “building a New World Order”. What did he mean when he used that term? 

Baker: Well, I can’t answer that, because that wasn’t my phrase, and he is not around to answer it anymore. But I think it was primarily a hope and an expectation that now that the Cold War, which existed for 40 long years, had ended peacefully, there was a possibility of a new beneficial relationship, between former adversaries. That’s what he meant.

IPESE: Secretary of State Blinken recently said that we’re now facing the End of that post Cold War World Order. Is that true? 

Baker: Well, that’s the position of the current American administration. I suppose it is true. I have no reason to doubt it. And it would be very good if it weren’t true. I don’t have proof that it is. 

IPESE: Speaking for German television a few weeks ago Mr. Kissinger said that the events in the Middle East now are the biggest threat to the World Order. 

Baker: They are a huge threat. A big threat to the world order. But so is Russia’s occupation and invasion of Ukraine. That’s a big threat to the World Order. There are a number of threats out there, like China’s aggressive posture in the South China Sea. All of these are major issues confronting American policy makers.  

IPESE: What can the USA do facing all the threats like Russia, the Middle East, situation with Taiwan and China, etc. can we maintain any kind of World Order in this moment?

Baker: Well, I would just remind You that many, many people in the past have underestimated the ability and the commitment of the United States to freedom and democracy, and they have done so at their peril. So, I happen to believe, and of course I am biased as I am a former Treasury Secretary and the Secretary of State, but yes, I think that America can do that, and that America will do that, if it’s required. 

IPESE: I just want to remind you about your trip to Belgrade in 1991. How did that happen and what do you keep in your memory about that trip?

Baker: Well, my memory is that the United States had just negotiated a peaceful end of the Cold War. We had unified Germany, something nobody thought would happen, in peace and freedom, and as a member of NATO. We had taken care of Saddam Husein’s unprovoked aggression against Kuwait. So the United States had many things on its plate. The Europeans wanted leadership in the response to the issues in former Yugoslavia. And the United States was very glad to give the Europeans the leadership there. And they took it, but they never approached it unified. They all fell back on their prior positions… Germany supported Croatia, the Brits and French were supporting Serbia…

IPESE: President Bush said a couple of times that the United States will not agree with secession, that the United States does not want unilateral moves…

Baker: He not only said that, but all of these countries had signed the Helsinki accord, which said “borders cannot be changed except through negotiations”. That was an agreement that all parties had signed on to. 

IPESE: You sent your deputy, Lawrence Eagleburger, to Belgrade. And he was a part of the so-called “Yugoslav mafia”, as Diana Negroponte wrote in her book. What was that “Yugoslav mafia” in the State Department?

Baker: Well, I am not sure what Diana Negroponte means by that, but Larry had been the ambassador to Yugoslavia, and he was well known to Milosevic and the Serbs. Serbia was really the most important of the former Yugoslav republics. Serbia was the biggest, Milosevic was sort of running the show, so our idea was it would be good to have someone who knew him in charge of what we’re going to do in the former Yugoslavia. 

IPESE: Also, Brent Scowcroft was an attached with George Kennan, in Belgrade. 

Baker: I had forgotten that. That’s right, yeah. 

IPESE: We all remember your green tie which you wore during the visit. Do you keep that tie?

Baker: Oh sure, I still wear it. I call it “freedom tie”. 

IPESE: My conclusion is that you succeeded in maintaining very careful relations with Russians, Soviets, at that time, and that type of relations in the end had brought the Cold War to an end. What was your judgment, thinking of maintaining that kind of careful and sensitive relations to Moscow and Russia? 

Baker: I think it’s a lot like what’s happening today. We are arming Ukraine, and we are doing so very, very carefully and judiciously, in a manner that does not require us to go to War against the Soviet Union. The same principles are at work today that were at work then. We wanted to maintain what was at that time a reasonably decent relationship with the Soviet Union. We didn’t want to go to war. We fought enough wars recently, and we didn’t need to fight anymore. 

IPESE: What was said about the expansion of NATO at that time, really? 

Baker: Oh, a lot was said about it. We negotiated it, it was a subject of long negotiations. I can’t tell you what we said, it was every day we discussed that…

IPESE: But it was said that NATO will not expand to the East?

Baker: That’s not true. Gorbachev himself had said that. Gorbachev is on the record as saying “we got everything we were promised in that negotiation”. Shevardnadze is also on the record saying that. So that’s a narrative that comes from a story that a scholarly researcher wrote, and it’s wrong. Simply wrong. And now most people understand that it’s wrong. 

IPESE: Now we have a militaristic, aggressive Russia. But Putin’s Russia, from the beginning, from the 2000 and during the US War on Terror, until 2007, was very cooperative…

Baker: It was, yes. That’s why I say that I don’t think there should be no second guessing about what we did in ending the Cold War. For almost 15 years there was a good relationship between the United States and Russia, as a successor of the former Soviet Union, and it worked well. And then, Putin got in political trouble domestically, and he needed a whipping boy, and the United States and the West, NATO, were the whipping boys. That’s what’s happened. And now he’s rolled his tanks into a peaceful neighbor, into Ukraine, in a very aggressive way. And it’s not right. That’s not what ought to be happening between countries. And so that is why the United States is furnishing a lot of our money to arm Ukraine. 

IPESE: What do you think, how does that war have to be ended?

Baker: That’s a 94.000-dollar question. If I knew the answer to that, I would be a genius. I don’t know how it’s going to end. But the resolve of the Ukrainian people is quite strong, and they are doing a good job of protecting their country. And we are doing a good job in supporting them in that effort.

Watch the full interview in the video below:

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