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US-Central Asia: Ambassador Richard Hoagland on ISIS, The Great Game & Diplomacy


Ambassador Richard E. Hoagland, one of America's leading diplomats on South and Central Asia, discusses the role of the United States in the region, the value of diplomacy and what it means to be an ambassador. Navbahor Imamova of VOA Uzbek Service sat down with Ambassador Hoagland, as he wraps up his successful career. For the past two years, he has been Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Ambassador Hoagland, thank you so much for joining us. I know you are a very busy man, and you are actually retiring this week.

Ambassador Hoagland: You're very welcome. It's always a pleasure to do this. It's a pleasure to talk with you. There is always time to talk diplomacy and talk bilateral relations.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, you recently visited Central Asia.

Ambassador Hoagland: I did.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What kind of message did you carry this time?

Ambassador Hoagland: It's interesting you ask because this was my last official trip to several countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus. I wanted to more than anything else meet with the foreign ministers whom I have known for 10 years and more. I wanted to thank them for their partnership. I wanted to take them for their high-level professionalism, so it had a personal aspect to it. At each stop, I wanted to step back from the daily "we want to talk about this" or "we want to complain about that" or "we want to raise this issue." I wanted to take a bigger view. In each stop, I asked my very good respected colleagues, "What would you say is the ideal relationship between the United States and your country?"

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Very interesting. Well, one of the issues that they have been raising a lot lately is the threat of ISIS as they see it. How worried is this administration about the Islamic state, their presence or the impact of this group in and on Central Asia?

Ambassador Hoagland: Well, if you ask what is the worry of this American administration …?

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes.

Ambassador Hoagland: ... about ISIS, the Islamic state, sometimes called "Daesh." It's something that we have to take very seriously. It's a new formation of a threat, not just to us but to many countries in the world. How seriously worried are we about the threat to Central Asia? There is reason to be concerned because there have been a number of citizens of various countries of Central Asia who have gone to Syria to fight with ISIS. Inevitably, they're going to return to their countries. Now we would judge that while we must be vigilant while we need to pay close attention, this is not yet a major serious threat to the security and governments and peoples of Central Asia.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: But it is a factor.

Ambassador Hoagland: It's a factor. It's reality. We have to always pay attention to reality, so yes, we need to watch closely. We need to consult with our government-to-government partners. We need to pay attention to international security, but I want to emphasize, it's not like the barbarians are at the doorstep ready to sweep into all of Central Asia.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: That's not how you see it?

Ambassador Hoagland: That's not how we see it, the US government, that's right.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Well, one of the bullet points from the US diplomats has always been that America is not playing any games with Russia or China in Central Asia. We hear that a lot, but they don't think so. I mean Russia and China. They clearly want you out of the region. So the question is, are you in or out?

Ambassador Hoagland: What's the short answer? We're in. We're in for the long term. We were among the very first countries in the world that recognized the independence of the new states of Central Asia soon after the rough spot after the fall of the Soviet Union. We have been there for 23-24 years. We have built new embassies across Central Asia. We are not about to leave anytime soon. At the same time, we emphasize to our partners in each country we fully support your independence, your sovereignty, your territorial integrity, but we don't demand that you make a choice of your partners. That's your responsibility.

Naturally, Russia's going to be partner because of history, geography, everything that goes along with that. China is increasingly wealthy, increasingly active in Central Asia. In some ways, that's quite good. In fact, we have had consultations with China to see if we can understand each other's New Silk Road initiatives a little bit better. It's not a competition. I know that other countries see it as a competition. We don't. We see it as a partnership.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: In some ways, it is affecting the way, for example, Russia is working in Central Asia. It is affecting your relationship with certain countries in the region. Kyrgyzstan is a perfect example. You are going to send a new ambassador there very soon. Do you believe that that relationship can be improved in the near term?

Ambassador Hoagland: In the near term, I think we need to be strategically patient, which means it'll take a little bit more time, but let's look back over 20 years. We have seen not only with our diplomatic relationships in Central Asia but in many parts of the world, it's natural. Relationships rise, and then they fall, and they rise, and they fall. Diplomatic relationships are very much like personal family relationships. There can be big problems, but you have to want to surmount those problems. You have to want to get back to a positive, even, respectful keel with each other. That's very important, and I firmly believe that that's what's going to happen with our relationship, for example, in Kyrgyzstan. Are we in a little bit of a difficult period right now? Yes. No one can deny that, but we have had a long relationship, and I firmly believe that as time goes by, we will find ways to make that a mutually respectful and mutually positive relationship again. I have no doubt.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have served as US ambassador to three countries in Central Asia...

Ambassador Hoagland: Yes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.

Ambassador Hoagland: Turkmenistan as Charge d'Affaires for one year...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes, Chief of Mission.

Ambassador Hoagland: ... to be fair.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have also worked with Uzbekistan and with Kyrgyzstan in various capacities.

Ambassador Hoagland: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And Pakistan, of course, yes, as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Pakistan and Afghanistan. So you know the region. You are somebody who clearly knows Central Asia here in Washington. As you just pointed out, diplomacy sometimes can be about personalities.

Ambassador Hoagland: Oh, yes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have, let's see, two new ambassadors going the region, one being Ian Kelly to Georgia and then Sheila Gwaltney to Kyrgyzstan. Briefly, who are ambassadors? What should people expect when they are seeing in a new ambassador from Washington?

Ambassador Hoagland: There is almost always what we call a "honeymoon period," like after a wedding. For the first several months, people put aside the differences. Everything is positive. You look for ways to establish the best possible relationship for the future. That's what new ambassadors normally do. I think that's going to happen. We have chosen, our government, our administration, our president has chosen very good new ambassadors for Kyrgyzstan and for Tajikistan. This is not because we're removing old ambassadors. It's just part of the normal rotation in diplomatic life.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You are always very diplomatic and you're always very kind. You're kind of a cool guy. You're always smiling. You're incredibly professional. Has there been any time during the talks and discussions when you lost your cool? What is unacceptable for you during the diplomatic conversations, for example?

Ambassador Hoagland: I think maybe a little bit more in the future I can answer more candidly. I do remember one diplomatic give-and-take where I got so exasperated with my partner on the other side of the table that I picked up my papers, threw them over my shoulder...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Wow.

Ambassador Hoagland: ... and said, "You come back when you're going to be serious," and I walked out.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: That's like in the movies.

Ambassador Hoagland: It's like in the movies, but I only did that once. More importantly, what is essential is to find a way to establish a human relationship. What is that point where you can connect, because as soon as you begin to build a human relationship with another world leader, senior officials in another country, then you can have candid conversations, then you can talk honestly. That's when you build really solid diplomatic relationships.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: One of major criticisms that we hear very often about US policymakers, diplomats specifically, is that, "Well, they don't know the region, they don't know Central Asia, they don't get it," and we criticize the regional officials too saying that, they don't really understand America. How true is that?

Ambassador Hoagland: There is some degree of truth on both sides, okay. Unless you have grown up in a culture, unless you have native use of a language so that you know what each word means at several different layers, then it's rather hard to totally, 100%, always understand, but...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do you have to be a regional/country expert?

Ambassador Hoagland: What I was going to add is our diplomats, especially our younger diplomats, are so committed to being good, to being good social scientists, to being good sociologs, things like that, that they soon learn to understand a country very well. I wish I could give you copies of some of the diplomatic reporting that I have seen recently from our embassies in Central Asia.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I would like to read them.

Ambassador Hoagland: I know. Everyone would. It's not that people are saying, "This is wrong. That is wrong." No. What they're saying is, "This is how we understand the country. This is how we think people live. This is how we think the government works." I am very proud of our diplomats because they help us understand. Now do we always get it right? No. That's part of diplomatic bureaucracy, but I'm very proud of my diplomatic colleagues. I think they are superb.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I should add that you also worked with the Caucasus, right? For several years. You also focused on that region in your career.

Ambassador Hoagland: To a degree. I have traveled and worked with the countries of South Caucasus, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In fact, in my most recent trip, I stopped in Baku for a day and had some very positive meetings there too.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: What kind of challenges will Ambassador Ian Kelly [Georgia] and Sheila Gwaltney [Kyrgyzstan] face when they go to these countries? If they were, I guess, to ask for your advice.

Ambassador Hoagland: If they were to ask for my advice, and a few already have, I would say be patient, don't jump to conclusions, get to know the country, don't stay inside your bubble, get outside of the golden cage, travel around the country, meet people, and be a little bit humble. We're not always right, but we want to understand things properly.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: As someone who's been very much involved in US policy toward Central Asia for the past quarter of a century, are there things that you could look back and point to as success? For example, if we were to go country by country, in each country, major success, achievement in your view.

Ambassador Hoagland: I think that the major successes and achievements would be really small things that wouldn't register in the pages of world history, having dinner with a family in Bukhara for example, traveling through the Pamir Mountains, things like that. If you want to think of more traditional diplomatic achievements. I was the US government's director for Central Asia and Caucasus at 9/11, the great attack on the United States. In the following months, I helped negotiate. I was the lead negotiator for the framework agreements between the United States and Uzbekistan, the United States and Tajikistan, and the United States and Kyrgyzstan, and I'm still very proud of that. I think that was an important moment when we came together with the support of Russia, I would add, and even though it was a tragedy, it was a great moment in diplomatic history, I think.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Looking forward to the future, what worries you most as someone again who knows the region?

Ambassador Hoagland: I just had lunch... I was hosted by Uzbekistan's Ambassador Gulyamov, and he asked the same question. I said, "Absolutely honestly and transparently, at this moment, I have no concrete plans." I want to step back for the first time in many years, take a little bit of time for myself, I want a little bit of space and then re-engage in a new way. What that new way will be for my interests in Central Asia? I don't know, but I'm certain there will be something.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Any major issues that your colleagues should be looking at in the region that they should keep their eyes on other than the usual problems we have?

Ambassador Hoagland: Other than the usual problems, day-to-day problems, day-to-day diplomacy… I would say that in American diplomacy, one of the most important things we can achieve is mutually respectful relations with our partners, mutual understanding with our partners, and you know what? That's not always possible because governments can be difficult. Foreign governments, from my point of view, can be difficult. My government can be difficult. We know that. The most important thing is to establish the people-to-people relationships because all over the world, people are much the same. They want a good life. They want a better life for their children. They want a successful life. As we establish people-to-people relationships, we understand each other better, and that then can cushion some of the more difficult periods in high-level diplomatic life.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: produce professional diplomats? You have dealt with various generations of diplomats by now.

Ambassador Hoagland: I think they've done extraordinarily well.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Really?

Ambassador Hoagland: Extraordinarily well.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Do they have Foreign Service at this point? What do you think?

Ambassador Hoagland: Yes, of course. Every country has its own diplomatic service. As I said, I now know almost all the foreign ministers in the region. I've know them for many years with only a few exceptions. I have the highest respect for them. I look at their younger colleagues and think, "Oh, you're going to be good. You really know how to do this." I have no doubt that in a very short period of time, in 20, 23 years. Each country has established a very strong, positive, diplomatic service.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Has the US helped in the process?

Ambassador Hoagland: We have from time to time, but I wouldn't say we have been dominant. We have offered training, of course. We have offered capacity-building. I hope that we have, by example, helped people understand how international diplomacy works. There are good diplomatic services in each country because the people are good.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You have served, if I'm not mistaken, under six presidents, right? Did you start during President Carter or earlier?

Ambassador Hoagland: Nineteen-eighty-five, so...

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: So Ronald Reagan, Reagan period.

Ambassador Hoagland: That would be President Reagan, I believe.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Yes, so you have served under five presidents.

Ambassador Hoagland: Well, yes.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Before the world knew of Central Asia to the extent that it does now.

Ambassador Hoagland: True.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: If you were to look at your career and analyze, obviously each President had his own unique approach when it came to the region, right? The priorities, the attention level. Anything that stands out? Who do you think had the best strategy? You don't have to compare, but you could tell us about some unique approaches that, for example, President Bush had when the Soviet Union broke up and then came the Clinton period, which was also very critical as it relates to Central Asia and then Bush and now Obama.

Ambassador Hoagland: Well, I'm not going to make any political statements because one of the hallmarks of an American diplomat is that we are nonpartisan. We serve whatever president is in office regardless of political party. We serve the American people. We serve the American government. I think the question you asked would open another hour of conversation because I think of many moments-

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You could write a book about this.

Ambassador Hoagland: Oh, many people have said that, but who wants to read a former ambassador's books?

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Oh, you would be surprised. A lot of people would.

Ambassador Hoagland: We'll see. We'll see.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: If I could make any suggestions, I would start with your childhood in a small town, Indiana. I know where you come from because I went to school in a small town, Indiana. I am a graduate of Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. I know that not many people have a lot of knowledge about the world in that part of the world. It is a small world when you are in those towns. When you go back to your hometown, how do you explain to them what you do for a living?

Ambassador Hoagland: Oh, my goodness. You know what? I'll tell you in reality, most are not very interested. I learned very early in my career when I'd go back and I'd be very proud and say, "I work for the State Department." They would say, "Oh? Which state?" I would say, "I'm a diplomat," and it was just beyond their understanding. Good people. Educated people, but a different way of looking at the world.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Why? Why do you think they're not as interested? You would think that with America having something to do in pretty much every part of the world and you have Americans in towns like Fort Wayne, for example, where you come from, they don't seem to care?

Ambassador Hoagland: Well, you know there are always people who do have a broader perspective on the world, and I can't deny that, but we are a very large country. We have been, to be blunt, a dominant country for a long time, but we tend to look inward. We look at our everyday lives. We aren't as focused, in general our population, in other parts of the world. I'm not criticizing. It's just part of the reality, I think.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: It's not unique just to the United States.

Ambassador Hoagland: It's not unique just to the United States.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: You can find it anywhere, of course.

Ambassador Hoagland: Certainly… Go to a small village in United Kingdom, go to a small village in Japan, go to a small village in Siberia, Russia, and how much do they know about the world? A little bit. A little bit.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: I'm sure the people of Fort Wayne are very proud of you. The people of Indiana – Hoosiers - are very proud of you.

Ambassador Hoagland: Well, thank you.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: And we hope that you remain engaged and involved in Central Asia so that we get to talk to you.

Ambassador Hoagland: I hope so too. I want to. Let's see. Posmotrim.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Posmotrim. Thank you so much for talking to us.

Ambassador Hoagland: My pleasure.

Navbahor Imamova, VOA Uzbek: Thank you so much for being here.

Ambassador Hoagland: Thank you so much.

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