What Difference Can a Diplomat Make?

AP Wide World/Sergei Grits

For the rocket scientists who gathered in Pavlograd, Ukraine, to witness the historic demolition, it was a bittersweet moment. They had labored for years in this industrial town to perfect the SS-24, an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering 10 nuclear warheads straight to the United States. Now, with the help of American funding, 46 of these giants of the Soviet arsenal were about to be scrapped.

Carlos Pascual, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was there at the March 2002 ceremony. “It was very emotional for the Ukrainian engineers,” he recalls. “They were once at the very top, and now they live in a world of uncertainty. While they understand the need to dismantle these weapons, they are wondering about their future and how they are going to apply their skills.”

Helping Ukraine find peaceful work for its sidelined rocket scientists is one of the tasks Pascual, ’80, has taken on in the three years he has spent in Kiev. In some respects, he says, the country has a lot going for it. Roughly the size of Texas, Ukraine has a fairly well-educated population of 50 million, abundant coal and natural gas, and some of the best farmland in Europe. Its broad industrial base includes much of the former Soviet Union’s space industry. Ukrainian engineers are now working with Boeing to launch commercial satellites more efficiently from offshore platforms along the equator. Other Western multinationals, including McDonald’s, Nestlé and Philip Morris, are building factories and establishing economic footholds in Ukraine.

Yet the nation has had a particularly hard time distancing itself from its communist past. Since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, its standard of living has declined more than 50 percent. Most Ukrainian trade is still with countries of the former Soviet Union, and while the parliament has passed laws encouraging Westerners to purchase businesses and property, foreign direct investment—at $4.9 billion, one of the lowest levels in the region—has been hampered by complex regulations, shaky legal protections and government corruption. Internal political squabbles have not helped, either. Although Ukraine held parliamentary elections in March 2002, the process favored parties loyal to the president. And during the last year, suspected illegal arms transfers to Iraq, government crackdowns on media, and the highly publicized murder of an “opposition” journalist have taken a toll on U.S.-Ukraine relations.

“It’s one challenge to tear apart a former empire. It’s a much greater challenge to build a new society based on the principles of freedom and openness and competition,” Pascual said in an April phone interview from his office in the embassy—a decaying Stalinist-era building in central Kiev that once housed the local Communist Party headquarters. “Ukraine is certainly moving forward, but there is a phenomenal amount of competition internally over the control of resources and the control of power.”

Pascual inherited a passion for democracy from his parents, Cuban refugees who fled the Castro regime after his accountant father was detained briefly for passing out flyers at a political meeting. The family caught one of the last flights off the island just weeks before the United States severed all diplomatic ties. Carlos was 3 when they left. Eventually, they settled in El Monte, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles.

He entered Stanford thinking he would major in economics, but switched to international relations after participating in the Structured Liberal Education program, taking political science courses, living at Casa Italiana and studying at Stanford’s campus in Florence. Poli sci professor Coit Blacker, who taught Arms Control and Disarmament during Pascual’s senior year, remembers the dark-eyed Toyon resident assistant as eloquent, intense and “a born problem-solver.”

When Blacker served as President Clinton’s special assistant for national security affairs, he hired his former student. By then Pascual’s résumé included a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and 12 years working in Washington with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), focusing on economic reform in Africa and the former Soviet Union. One of his initiatives under Blacker was an innovative plan to reform Ukraine’s struggling power industry, traditionally reliant on nuclear energy (think: Chernobyl). Five years later, Clinton tapped Pascual for the top job in Kiev.

On the day of the phone interview, two weeks into the war with Iraq, the ambassador’s calendar was packed. He had just come from a lunch with several members of the Ukrainian parliament, talking about the U.S. perspective on the conflict. Earlier, he had met with the head of the Ukrainian space agency to discuss how leftover missile fuel might be converted into mining explosives. Television and newspaper reporters had been trying to get a word with him all day.

Pascual speaks publicly and to reporters as often as he can. “Ukrainians appreciate openness and straight answers,” he says. “They admire our country and our accomplishments but are increasingly uncertain about how America will use its unique place in the world. From their experience with the Soviet Union, they fear unchecked power. So they often ask if this [war] is what America wants and whether the United States has a commitment to an international rule of law.”

One diplomatic imbroglio in 2002 involved allegations that the Ukrainian president had approved the sale of two sophisticated aircraft-tracking systems to Saddam Hussein. Although investigators found no evidence that the systems were delivered, the United States declared a “crisis of confidence” in Ukraine’s government and suspended $54 million in federal aid, about a fifth of its annual assistance to the country. Speaking later before a university audience in Kiev, Pascual said, “The main challenge will be to reestablish trust [between the two governments].” At the same time, he assured students and faculty that the United States would continue to help Ukraine secure and eliminate leftover Soviet weapons of mass destruction, like the old SS-24. He also pledged continued U.S. support for local and regional government and small-business development, as well as grants to monitor human rights and freedom of the press.

Fortunately, he says, Ukrainians seem more willing than ever to step up and play a role in their nation’s future. In recent years, the country has seen significant growth in grassroots organizations—from human rights and environmental groups to business associations—pushing for political reforms. “Eventually, I think, democracy and the rule of law will prevail,” he says.

In the meantime, his own role will broaden. In September, under a new Bush appointment, Pascual will return to the States to coordinate all U.S. support to Europe and Eurasia, with particular focus on the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. “We will make sure that the assistance we provide to transition countries in the region reinforces our policy goals for their development as democratic and market-oriented states,” Pascual told Stanford in June. He also will coordinate security assistance, with an eye toward stemming sensitive technologies and strengthening export-control systems.

“I think it speaks to the esteem in which he is held that he would be appointed to key positions by both a Democrat and a Republican,” says Blacker, deputy director and senior fellow at Stanford’s Institute for International Studies. The post of assistance coordinator, created in 1992 after the Soviet downfall and expanded in 2001, is particularly important now “because we’re about to ‘graduate’ a number of these countries out of the assistance program,” Blacker says. “Carlos is uniquely equipped to make the call as to which countries should be graduated and when.”

The job will also call upon Pascual’s nation-building expertise, as he helps the countries forge democratic laws and institutions and encourages the development of civil societies that will keep governments accountable. He hopes to tackle the region’s AIDS epidemic as well. “The base is low, but the rate of infection is arguably the highest in the world,” he says. “These countries, with our assistance, need to mobilize now to avoid a human tragedy.”

This fall, as a Bush-appointed ambassador (under congressional review at press time) moves into the embassy in Kiev, Pascual will resettle in Washington, where his wife, Aileen Marshall, works with the World Bank. Between frequent trips abroad, the new ambassador-at-large will spend a lot of time in consultation with Congress, USAID and the Defense, Energy and Treasury departments.

“It will be hard to leave Ukraine,” Pascual says, although he will continue to help shape that nation’s future. “The Ukrainian people are extraordinarily warm, ready to open their homes and lives.... They are beginning to define the kind of country they want for themselves and their children. The small-business sector is starting to thrive. The gross domestic product is growing. In the end, the development of a middle class and a strong civil society will drive the policies that will allow Ukraine to be recognized in practice—and not just geography—as a European state.”

Theresa Johnston, ’83, is a Palo Alto writer and frequent contributor to Stanford.