Interview With CNN's Christiane Amanpour

Richard Stengel
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs 
Washington, DC
April 18, 2014

AMANPOUR: Rick Stengel, welcome.

Your first interview as under secretary of state. Your boss, John Kerry, announced a deal along with the Russians to de-escalate the confrontation in Ukraine. And one of those elements was that all these pro-Russian separatists had to leave the buildings that they had commandeered, et cetera.

They have refused point-blank to do it.

What happens next?

RICK STENGEL, U.S. UNDER SECRETARY OF STATE FOR PUBLIC DIPLOMACY: Well, the secretary said, Christiane, as you know, that the proof of the pudding is in the actions. It's fine to have an agreement on paper but President Putin has to show that there is some movement there. The people have to leave the buildings. They have to defuse the situation.

And in fact, the secretary, I believe, said this morning that we need to see some progress this weekend, otherwise there will be other things in the offing.

AMANPOUR: Such as sanctions?

STENGEL: Such as sanctions.

AMANPOUR: So these separatist leaders are saying, wow, Lavrov and Putin, they might have signed for themselves, not for us.

STENGEL: Well, I can't answer what they have to say. But we want to see whether Putin has influence on them and whether he can change this situation on the ground.

Again, they're fine words; it was excellent that they met. But we need to see some action on the ground.

AMANPOUR: Your job is in public diplomacy and public affairs. How do you win this war of words between the United States and Russia right now?

You interviewed Vladimir Putin years ago. You know this person.

How does one win this war?

STENGEL: Well, there are a few questions there. So public diplomacy is really about soft power, the power of ideas, of our ideas, of our actions, of our policy and how to communicate that.

Since I've been in this job and since the annexation of Crimea, I've been really amazed by the power of the Russian propaganda machine, how well organized it is, how vertically integrated, how modern it is.

In fact, I would argue that basically after the Cold War, we almost disbanded our efforts in that regard, figuring we had won. It was then that the Russians began to ramp up their efforts. So what we see with things like Russia Today with the Russian social media presence, they've been building that for 10 years.

AMANPOUR: Russia Today being their England language television news organization.

STENGEL: Yes, their English language channel ,which is -- which people can see -- and, by the way, which we of course tolerate here in the U.S. at the same time it's Moscow has closed Voice of America in Russia. So that just --

AMANPOUR: So they're winning.

STENGEL: -- discrepancy -- well, I wouldn't say that. The very fact that they have to close our service in Russia and we allow their service here is evidence that we're winning. And in the sense that in the battle of ideas, when we're talking about free expression, freedom of religion, freedom of movement, I think that demonstrates that on our side.

AMANPOUR: But they have created a very successful narrative, that we are there to help these poor beleaguered pro-Russians in Eastern Ukraine who are under threat from these fascists in Kiev, the government that you, the United States, supports. They are winning that argument.

STENGEL: Well, I don't know if they're winning it. They're making a powerful play. Their argument is pretty comprehensive. So for example, one of the things we've done just, since I've been at the State Department, is started up something called the New Ukraine Task Force, which is a social media hub in Russian to talk to Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine and to talk to Russian speakers in that area in Central Europe, who are bombarded by Russian media.

So yes, they have flooded the zone. And we're trying to figure out how to combat that. And as I say, you know, they have been -- they have a -- they'd had a 10-year plan and we're seeing the evidence of it now.

AMANPOUR: What struck you when you interviewed Putin?

STENGEL: I believe that was the interview -- it was 2007 and we had an interview, and then we went upstairs in the dacha to dinner. And it was there that he said almost in a wistful way, but a mixture of wistfulness and anger, that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the dismemberment, the dismantlement of the Soviet Union.

And of course to our ears, that's -- it's hard to even process that. But he talked very passionately about Russians who are no longer within the territorial integrity of Russia. He was in mourning for the passing of the Soviet Union.

AMANPOUR: So that was when you were a journalist.

Now as an undersecretary, you're seeing the results of that feeling playing out.


AMANPOUR: Would you ever have thought that it would play out to this extent when he made that statement to you?

STENGEL: You know, it's funny; as a journalist, you're more observational. Now what I look at is this violation of international norms, the violation of international law, the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

I mean, those things are unacceptable in the 21st century, as the secretary said, this is 20th century behavior. And we have to respond in a 21st century way.

But it's complex. It's not easy.

AMANPOUR: The secretary said that one of the things he appreciated about you is that you will think out of the box.

You have a pretty tough challenge right now, because for the first time in a long time, a majority of Americans believe that your story or your country is not as powerful as it used to be, coupled with a spike in anti-American, anti-Western feelings around the world, in many of these countries where you're seeing crises, whether it be Russia or Egypt or wherever.

How do you tell the story, convince the rest of the world that America is not the bad guy, and convince Americans that America still is a powerful player?

STENGEL: Let's take the former before the latter. I do still -- I'm a devout believer in the power of the American brand, the power of American ideas, the power of shared values between us and people around the world. I believe that we are standing for what's going on in the future, i.e., freedom of expression, innovation, entrepreneurship, all of those things that are powerful about the American image and the American brand.

I think there's many, many opportunities for collaboration and America still is a beacon for so many people around the world. People still want to come here for higher education, which we lead the world and it's a great comparative advantage for us.

So I like our chances there. I feel good about that. I feel -- but domestically, it is a little bit of a different situation. There is a bit of a feeling of isolationism; there's a bit of a feeling that we shouldn't be so engaged in the world. I think we have to rebut that. I think the engagement of the U.S. in the world is a powerful advantage for us, powerful economically.

We spend on foreign aid and the State Department altogether only 1 percent of the federal budget. People think it's 10, 20 times that. And it comes back to us in a multifold of ways.

So I think we have to be able to tell that story. The secretary tells that story all the time. The president obviously believes that story. But we have to persuade Americans about that, too.

AMANPOUR: What do you say, for instance, to Egyptian authorities who are busy arresting journalists and violating all the kind of norms that America holds them up to, in return for American aid?

What do you say -- again, to Russians and people like that, who just say, well, America is imperialist; America is trying to do regime change in the guise of precisely what you're talking about?

STENGEL: Well, I think we are a model of anti-imperialism. I mean, if you look at even in engagement over the past couple of decades, what you have coming out of it is elections; you have people having freedom of choice to determine their own form of government.

You know, you mentioning journalism, I mean, one of the things that we're seeing that I'm very disturbed about is that actual targeting of journalists -- I mean, we've been around long enough to remember well, sometimes we just got caught in the crossfire and were collateral damage, not that that's something to be looked on positively either.

But now the actual targeting of journalists in places around the world is something new. And we really do have to combat that.

AMANPOUR: You've talked about trying to appeal to the Russian and Ukrainian people through a social media initiative that you're starting. You've tried that, or at least the State Department has in the past, with Iran, with Cuba, with varying degrees of success and in some cases outright failure, for instance, in Cuba.

How do you think what you're going to do is going to be any different?

STENGEL: Well, I think we've -- we have to be smarter about it. We are living in the age where all -- where public diplomacy is done at the speed of light, at the speed of social media. And again, one of the differences with compared to what Russia does say and what we do, I mean, the Russians don't have any -- you know, they have -- they can say whatever they want. They are preaching fictions. I mean, you see what happens in the Russian media. It's the greatest fiction since Dostoyevsky. We are --

AMANPOUR: Which they say the same about the American media --

STENGEL: -- well, but I mean, but again, I would differ. And when we look at the facts on the ground, again, I still like our chances. And I wouldn't even hold it up as a 1:1 comparison. I mean, the reach of our popular culture, the reach of the American brand of popular culture is so much greater than what Russia does. We have to remember that.

They are targeting a very specific thing. We have a much broader audience for everything that we do.

AMANPOUR: Rick Stengel, you have your work cut out for you.

Thank you very much.

STENGEL: Thank you.