Diplomatic Relations with Lesser Powers

By Curtis Kamman

Some of my diplomatic colleagues have written fascinating memoirs about their role in major foreign policy breakthroughs — Nixon in China, the Dayton Accords ending fighting in Bosnia, the Iran nuclear accord. My own 40-year career was marked by smaller initiatives, nonetheless meaningful to me.

In the summer of 1959, just after my Yale graduation, I went to Moscow as one of 75 “guides” at the American National Exhibition (think Khrushchev-Nixon kitchen debate). At the end of the summer, I hoped I might visit some seldom-seen places on my return to the U.S. I had already made one such visit during the summer, to Riga, Latvia, which had only recently allowed foreign visitors just 19 years after its forcible incorporation into the Soviet Union.

I went around to the Albanian Embassy, but they refused even to let me speak with anyone. I was more politely received at the Mongolian Embassy, but they told me I would just have to apply to Intourist. I knew this would be expensive and probably fruitless. So I went back to the U.S. on the charter plane with all the other guides.

After joining the Foreign Service in 1960, I flagged my interest in serving in Mongolia if we should ever establish diplomatic relations. As I was issuing visas one day in Mexico City, I received word that the State Department would be sending two diplomats to a year of Mongolian language training at the University of Washington in Seattle. I was one of them. At the end of my training, I was able to visit Mongolia, a recent new member of the United Nations, for a UN seminar on the status of women in Asia. I hoped the U.S. would soon recognize Mongolia and set up an Embassy, but Taiwan still claimed sovereignty over the country and this political obstacle blocked U.S. recognition.

In 1972, I met in Washington with the Mongolian Ambassador to the UN (later Foreign Minister) and had to tell him that objections from Taiwan still prevented relations (Taiwan was unhappy with us that week, as Nixon was visiting Beijing). Later, it was Moscow that stood in the way of relations, worried about an American presence near its Siberian landmass. But in 1985, while I was serving in Havana, the Mongolian Embassy sent an invitation to a showing of children’s artwork. I went one evening and chatted with the senior Mongolian diplomat. He wondered when we might have diplomatic relations. I said we were waiting for a green light from his government, since we knew Moscow had vetoed any U.S. relations. The diplomat in Cuba reported my comment, and with the ascent of Gorbachev, Moscow’s veto was dropped. Mongolia negotiated with our UN mission in New York and relations were established in January 1987.

The U.S. had relations with Albania until Fascist Italy took power in 1939. After the war, we sent a mission to resume relations, but it was rebuffed by an isolationist Communist government. By 1989, as Communist regimes fell all over Eastern Europe, Albania remained Communist, but sought to end its isolation. In 1990, I negotiated with Albanian diplomats accredited to the UN in New York, and in March 1991, relations were restored. In June of that year, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker received a tumultuous welcome as he made a brief visit to Albania. Our newly established Embassy gave its first July 4th reception in Tirana since 1939, and I was present for the occasion. The still-Communist President of Albania attended the reception. I was able to introduce him to the widow of an Albanian employee of the Embassy who had attended the last reception in 1939. Soon afterwards, Albania chose an opposition President in a free election.

Later in 1991, as I was still in Washington preparing to take up my duties as Ambassador to Chile, I was asked by President Bush to travel to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to restore diplomatic relations that had been broken off when the Soviet Union invaded in 1940. The three countries had declared their separation from the USSR, but it was not altogether clear how Moscow would react. So the White House needed someone not too senior, not too junior, to show U.S. support for the Baltic republics. On September 6, as I was meeting with the President of Lithuania, an aide brought in a ticker item from TASS that reported action by the Supreme Soviet in Moscow approving the separation of the three countries from the Soviet Union. By December, the Soviet Union itself had been dissolved.

We now have active Embassies in all five countries, which have remained friends and have maintained their sovereignty with democratic forms of government. It took a few years, but my insignificant aspirations in 1959 eventually came to fruition.