Colin Powell: “When You Have Lost Your Best Enemy”

At a recent meeting of the U.S.-Russia Business Council, I heard Secretary of State Colin Powell share his perspective on the “expanding U.S.-Russia partnership.” He began his remarks with the observation that “never in 300 years since [Peter the Great ‘hacked a window’ through to the West] have the prospects for such commerce been more promising than they are today, because never before have the prospects for enlarging that window been better.” Powell went on to argue that Russia continues to advance aggressively in the direction of democratic reform and market economics.

Soldier’s Stories

Secretary Powell’s insights were especially moving to me because of his distinguished career as a military officer, a soldier charged with protecting Western Europe from a Soviet invasion. Powell said that “as a soldier, which I still consider myself, and a soldier who spent most of his adult life preparing for war with the Russians, a war with the Soviets – a war that, thank God, never came – I still find myself astonished at the reality of this new situation.”

In sharp contrast to those days when American and Russian soldiers, armed to the teeth, faced each other across militarized borders in Europe, Secretary Powell noted that he now talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov almost daily. What do they talk about? “We talk every day about [world political] issues because we want to be this close.”

Powell told us that he and his Russian counterpart had recently spent countless hours discussing chicken exports, popularly known as “Bush Legs” in Russia. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that a soldier, a hard and courageous jungle fighter, a warrior from the central plains of Europe, would become an expert on chicken exports. But that’s exactly what I became. And I want to tell you, they never taught me how to fight a chicken war at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in infantry school. But this four-star general, now retired, would rather fight a chicken battle any day with a democratic Russia than a nuclear one with the Soviet empire.”

At the end of his speech, Secretary Powell told us a story about an experience he had when he was serving as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He was invited to a meeting in the office of then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, a meeting with the new Soviet Minister of Defense, Dimitri Yazov, and his closest military advisors. During the introductions, Powell immediately recognized General Colonel Vladislav A. Achalov, former commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army, which had faced Powell’s V Corps in Germany.

Here were two former enemies now meeting each other for the purpose of working together to make the world a safer place. Two soldiers who had once studied how to kill each other were now beginning to build a partnership. Powell said to General Achalov: “You know, I used to keep your picture on my desk in Frankfurt.” Achalov smiled and responded: “Yes, and I kept your picture on my desk.”

A Poignant Observation

In Powell’s autobiography, My American Journey, he shared this story and many more about the dynamics of the new Russian-American partnership. There was one especially moving story about the visit of General Mikhail Moiseyev, Chief of the Russian General Staff, and his wife, Galina Iosifovna. After spending days together touring the United States, the two wives were traveling to the airport together in a limousine that followed the lead car in which Powell and Moiseyev were seated.

As they approached their destination and prepared to depart for Moscow, Galina said to Alma, Colin’s wife, “I do not envy anything I have seen in your country. I am not jealous. I am just sad. We wasted seventy years. We lost the opportunity to do what you have done. And it will not be fixed in my lifetime.” With those words, she boarded the plane with her husband and departed.

Over the last twelve years of my work in Russia, I have heard similar comments many times. “I am sad.” “I am humiliated.” “I am ashamed.” Not anger, not jealousy, not a desire to take away what we have, but a sense of disappointment and frustration. For us, the key is to help our Russian friends turn this disappointment and frustration into a commitment to turn things around, to build a democratic society, to develop a nation where there is the rule of law.

As Powell’s autobiography noted in one of his chapter titles, “When You Have Lost Your Best Enemy,” it takes time to readjust, but the benefits of these astonishing developments have changed the world in ways we could not have imagined a few decades ago. Now is the time to seize this opportunity and to build lasting friendships.