New U.S. ambassador is nuclear-savvy and experienced in the region14 november 2011, 18:21
One of Kenneth Fairfax’s most important duties as a career American diplomat was helping Ukraine shut down the last working reactor at Chernobyl in 2001 and 2002.
“The disaster had taken place 15 years before, but Unit 3 was still on – it was still being used” to generate electricity and heat, said Fairfax, who is the new U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan.
“Two of them of course were destroyed completely in the initial disaster” in 1986, he said in an interview. The third was shut down after a fire, “but one unit was still operating.”
Fairfax’s work with Ukraine, Russia and Vietnam on nuclear issues is one reason he’s a good fit for his new job in Kazakhstan, his first ambassador’s posting.
Kazakhstan has wrestled with nuclear-materials control and storage issues since President Nursultan Nazarbayev made two courageous decisions in the early 1990s. One was to shut down the longtime Soviet nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk in August of 1991. The other was to rid Kazakhstan of the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal.
The United States has worked closely with Kazakhstan in anti-nuclear-proliferation efforts, and Fairfax’s nuclear background will be helpful in any follow-up. (Click on this link for the ambassador’s Facebook page)
Fairfax, who said the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship has matured into a partnership of equals, brings background besides nuclear issues that should also be helpful to Astana.
He studied physics as well as government at Oberlin College in Ohio, was a U.S. State Department science and technology officer in Russia, and started his own software development and systems integration company in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s.
Those credentials should be helpful in Kazakhstan’s quest to develop innovative high-tech industries, one of the government’s economic priorities.
Fairfax’s postings with the U.S. National Security Council in Washington and at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad should be helpful in Kazakhstan’s internal-security efforts and in its pledge to work with other countries in the region to assure a stable Afghanistan after international-coalition forces withdraw in 2014.
Photo by Ilya Cherednichenko
Fairfax began working on nuclear nonproliferation efforts in Moscow in 1993.
The break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 had left countries around the world, including Russia, fearful that nuclear-weapons-grade material from former Soviet republics would end up in the hands of rogue states or terrorists.
The Russians agreed to work with the United States to secure such materials, and when President Nazarbayev decided to get rid of Kazakhstan’s nuclear weapons, the three countries agreed to cooperate to accomplish it.
Fairfax admires Nazarbayev’s anti-nuclear efforts, but he said the Russians’ nonproliferation efforts deserve high praise as well.
He pointed out that when the Soviet Union disintegrated, “the (nuclear) weapons, the facilities down here (in Kazakhstan) and even the guards were Russian.”
That meant that Russian cooperation in Kazakhstan’s anti-nuclear efforts was essential, he noted.
Much of the United States’ work with the Russians has involved modifying university research and medical reactors so they can operate with “low enriched fuel,” he said. That means that the reactors “can do the same research” without the worry of bomb-grade fuel falling into the wrong hands.
Fairfax was posted at the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, between 2007 and 2010.
He remembers “a celebration in my home involving American and Vietnamese scientists who had worked together on removing the highly enriched uranium fuel from a research reactor in Dalat, Vietnam. All the fuel was packed up and shipped back to Russia with full Russian cooperation on a Russian jet.”
The Russians also cooperated with the United States on shutting down the fourth Chernobyl reactor, which Fairfax said was a major challenge.
The Soviets never built back-ups for their power-generating reactors, he said.
“If you turn the reactor off, it’s not just that people don’t have power, but the reactor doesn’t have power,” he said. “Supplying alternate power, alternate heat, dealing with the social consequences – it’s actually an amazingly complex job to turn off a reactor.”
Asked for his priorities in Kazakhstan besides ongoing nuclear cooperation, Fairfax responded: “I view our relationship with Kazakhstan as being one that’s maturing and growing, and that means we’re not focused on one or two issues any more. We have so much in common in so many areas.”
An example of how the U.S.-Kazakhstan relationship has evolved into an equal partnership, he said, is the way that American development cooperation with Kazakhstan has changed.
In the early days of Kazakhstan’s independence in the early 1990s, the U.S. Agency for International Development would suggest a development program for Kazakhstan, put together a program design, obtain Kazakh officials’ buy-in, then fund the program in its entirety.
Today, Kazakhstan is a “full partner in program design” and pays two-thirds of the cost of the flagship Program for Economic Development, Fairfax said.
“This partnership arrangement is really quite unique in the world – and it’s wonderful and it shows how the relationship has changed,” the ambassador said.
Designing development programs jointly with a host government is “what we really wish we could do in many places,” he said.
In many countries, the United States is “trying to convince the host government that they need to do something, trying to convince them that these various steps will help. Well, in Kazakhstan, we’re well beyond that.”
Recent U.S.-Kazakhstan development efforts have included such fields as economics and trade, health care, education and judicial-system development, Fairfax said.
The two countries’ discussions of such programs are in the context of “here’s what Kazakhstan needs as it continues in the process of its trajectory toward development and wanting to move toward being a fully developed country,” he said.
Fairfax said the United States now sees its development role as answering the questions: “What do they need in order to do that, and how can we assist them?”
Nazarbayev University, the ambassador said, is a perfect example of how the U.S.-Kazakhstan partnership has evolved.
The university has several American partners, including the University of Wisconsin, Duke University and iCarnegie, a subsidiary of Carnegie-Mellon University.
Although the partnerships are with U.S. universities and not the U.S. government, Fairfax said, “that is to me a wonderful and natural progression (of the U.S.-Kazakhstan partnership) that shows maturity.”
Fairfax said Kazakhstan stands to benefit “quite significantly” from the New Silk Road Initiative that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed this fall.
The initiative is aimed at helping Afghanistan stabilize and prosper by creating roads, rail lines, pipelines and other links with neighboring countries. The hope is that the links will help ignite Afghanistan’s economy.
As the “trade and finance center of Central Asia,” Kazakhstan will reap economic rewards from a New Silk Road, Fairfax said.
If there is “a corridor of liberalized trade and transportation that stretches from the (Southwest Asian) subcontinent through Central Asia, clearly it’s going to help Afghanistan, but it’s going to help Kazakhstan, too,” he said.
Kazakhstan is already forging transportation links with neighbors, including a 1,300-kilometer stretch of the Western China-Western Europe highway, a rail link to Turkmenistan than can be extended to other countries in the region, and oil and gas pipelines to China. Each of the infrastructure projects is expected to rev up Kazakhstan’s economy.
Kazakhstan has also provided Afghanistan with economic and humanitarian assistance. And it’s educating 1,000 Afghan students at its universities.
Kazakhstan, Russia and other countries in the region also have helped the United States supply coalition forces in Afghanistan by setting up the Northern Distribution Network of air, rail and highway corridors.
Because instability in Afghanistan could spill into other countries in the region, these efforts to help Afghanistan will also promote “security and stability here in Central Asia,” Fairfax said.
Photo by Ilya Cherednichenko
Ambassador Kenneth Fairfax’s postings
1987 - 1989: Muscat, Oman
1990 - 1992: Pusan and Seoul, South Korea
1993 - 1995: Moscow
1995 - 1996: National Security Council, Washington
1997 - 2000: Vancouver, Canada
2001 - 2002: Kiev
2003 - 2006: Krakow, Poland
2007 - 2010: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
2010 - 2011: Baghdad, Iraq
Sept. 2011: Astana