An Interview with Kenneth Fairfax, U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan ambassadorKenneth Fairfax is the current United States Ambassador to Kazakhstan and is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service with the personal rank of Minister Counselor. Fairfax has served in U.S. Foreign Service since 1987. His previous positions include: Minister-Counselor for Economics Affairs at U.S. Embassy Baghdad, Iraq; Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Consul General at U.S. Consulate General Krakow, Poland; Counselor for Economics at U.S. Embassy Kyiv, Ukraine; Deputy Principal Officer at U.S. Consulate General Vancouver, Canada; Environment Science and Technology Officer at U.S. Embassy Moscow, Russia; Consul at U.S. Embassy Seoul, Korea; Vice Consul at U.S. Consulate Pusan, Korea; and Economics & Commercial Officer at U.S. Embassy Muscat, Oman. A Kentucky native, Fairfax received a B.A. in Government from Oberlin College in 1981.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I joined the Foreign Service for a couple reasons. The primary motivating reason was that I wanted to serve. I wanted to give back to my country; I am one of the people who benefited greatly from what America has to offer. I grew up on in, what was at the time, an undeveloped part of the country with a poor educational system. But you know what, the whole system, the U.S., all of it: the state government, the national, and private institutions, everything worked for me and allowed me to get a great education, and have a great future.

I was just so grateful for this that I wanted to become a part and give back. So that was service. Why the Foreign Service? I was in business beforehand, and I found that I enjoyed working with my foreign clients. I enjoyed traveling, I enjoyed the challenges of communicating through cross-cultural lines, and I felt that I was good at it. This all directed me more towards Foreign Service. I put the two together, and now here I am.

The Political: What exactly is your job?

I am the Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Kazakhstan.

The Politic: And what does that mean?

What the full, and elaborate title means, is that I am the personal representative of the President of the United States and the “e” and “p” mean I act on behalf and with the authority of the President inside the country. In practice, that means I am treated quite highly since I’m representing the head of state. It also means every government employee — I don’t care if it’s the Department of Defense, Education, or Energy — if you are in Kazakhstan, you work for me. That is very real. There is quite a bit of responsibility that goes into the job. We might legally fully represent the power of the president, but let’s just say we have to exercise that power with extreme discretion.

The Politic: How does your current job as Ambassador to Kazakhstan compare and relate to your previous posts, when you were in the Council to the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, Korea, or Minister Counselor for Economic affairs at US Embassy Baghdad?

This job is closer to two of my previous jobs: I was Consul General in Poland and I was Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City. Counsel General is a step down from ambassador in the pecking order of life, but the Counsel General is, within the Counsel General district, still the senior American and, therefore, represents the United States. In those jobs, I was always the person out and about, just as I am here. Our mission varies with each country. With a country like Poland, our relations go back to the founding our nation. Polish generals received medals from the Continental Congress for contributions in the Revolutionary War. That is a type of relationship that makes the representational function different than pretty much anywhere else. Vietnam, obviously, was a different case.

Here in Kazakhstan, the conditions are again very different. It is the eighth largest country on earth with only 17 million people. The process of getting out and around the country is much more challenging than in other places. There are limited plane schedules and incredibly long drives. Kazakhstan had multiple time zones. While the physical barriers present one issue, another condition to reckon with is that the country was once a part of the former Soviet Union. Though Kazakhstan has been a great ally to the U.S. for the last 21 years since independence, we’re still dealing with a people and audience that have a different perception of history. In this way, it’s more like working in Vietnam. The cross-cultural communication becomes more vital here.

The Politic: What do you feel your biggest accomplishment in the foreign service has been?

The obvious answer is being named ambassador to Kazakhstan. I do not think there is any bigger honor for a Foreign Service officer to have the Secretary of State and President of the United States name you as ambassador. The only reason I hesitated for a second is the phrasing of the word “accomplishment.” It’s not so much an accomplishment as a recognition of many things. Yes, I have worked hard and have been lucky. I have worked with great people who have helped me along the way, who have supported me and taught me a lot. It is definitely a culminating type of experience.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Kazakhstan that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies?

In many ways the seminal event in Kazakhstan happened early on. When Kazakhstan declared its independence on December 16, 1991 it became the world’s fourth largest nuclear power with nuclear arsenals. Kazakhstan decided on its own that it did not to be a nuclear country and reached out to the United States to work with Russia to eliminate the nuclear weapons arsenal entirely. That meant not just taking out the bombs, but eliminating the entire nuclear weapons infrastructure from the ground up. That gesture, early on in the relationship, set Kazakhstan at a different level than any other country. The amount of cooperation that has grown out of that continues to pay dividends today.

Kazakhstan Republican Guard
Kazakhstan Republican Guard

The Politic: How do you feel the 2006 film Borat affected America’s perception of Kazakhs? What misperceptions do you feel the average Kazakh citizen has towards America and vice versa?

I am not a professional film critic, but even in 2006 when I had no idea I would be coming into Kazakhstan, I was not a particular fan of the movie. Its initial impact caused a great deal of resentment. People felt that Americans were making fun of them and politicians here — again with the cross-cultural gap — did not understand American humor, and were a little quick to take it personally. Attitudes started changing a couple years ago when someone asked a very similar question to the former foreign minister. He looked up and said, “You know, I guess we should really thank Sacha Baron Cohen for that movie, because since it has come out, tourism has gone up 1000 percent.” The movie has nothing to do with Kazakhstan. Its supposed Kazakh themes were filmed in Romania. Kazakhstan is an Asian country, not an East European one; it is completely made up. Cohen just picked the theme out of the air, as far as I could tell. Now, the Kazakhstan government has been trying to do a better job and sends groups to the U.S. to help Americans learn about Kazakhstan.

And I think, slowly, it is happening. I know Kazakhstan is still not exactly a household name. I know there is a lot of misperceptions and lack of knowledge, but awareness is growing. In the United States right now there are about 2,000 Bolashak (Bolashak is Kazakh for future) students. They are on government of Kazakhstan scholarships — full scholarships — to go to the U.S. and complete their university degree. And more Americans are meeting Kazakhstanis.

The Politic: Could you tell me a little about the World Trade Organization’s relationship with Kazakhstan?

The WTO is a world body that not all countries choose to join. The members of the WTO agree to basic ground rules and the most fundamental of these ground rules is we treat everyone else equally. In the U.S., we use the term “most favored nation trade status,” which means we give you tariffs and rules that are no worse than what we give everyone else in the world. The WTO is a body by which over the years, many countries have come together with the goal to make trade easier and more transparent. Everyone knows what the rules are and no one is cheating. Kazakhstan is not a member of the WTO, but it’s currently working on admission. It isn’t done with its process yet; I would say it is 95 percent there. Hopefully, it will finish by the end of the year. It is a very complicated process: for a new country to join, it means changing literally hundreds of laws because your rules must match what the rest of the world has agreed to play by. Pretty much all the countries that aren’t members are not because their rules are very different.

WTO membership, however, not only helps the country in trade, it helps in investments and all types economic integrations. After joining the WTO, countries can trade and every major company in the world, and every big importer and exporters. You a playing by transparent rules, so there is an ease. Whether you are selling shoes, or building a factory, you know the basic rules of the game. You know, for example, that you are not going to be shaken down for a bribe. You know that you will not have some silly export tax. All these things are covered in the big agreement that lays down the rules of the road that makes things easier for everybody in the economic sphere.

The Politic: Could you tell me a little about the New Silk Road project?

The New Silk Road is an initiative started by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that is still continuing and is very active. The idea behind the project is to help connect the countries of Central Asia including Afghanistan. If you pull out a map — a railroad map in particular of the world today — you will find a world that is pretty well connected. Railroads will take you everywhere. But there is this one giant blank spot with almost no railroads. You can’t go from India to Russia, or from India to Europe by land. It is, in fact, very hard and almost everything goes by ocean as a result. The New Silk Road is meant to help tie Central Asia to the rest of the world because, obviously, these countries are landlocked and you can’t go by ocean. We need to develop not only the physical infrastructure (railroads, roads), but also the human infrastructure. Expedited border clearances, uniformed rules on how trucks have to operate — everything that goes into it, we can help integrate Central Asia with the rest of the world. This will help the Central Asian economy develop.

Kazakhstan is an upper middle-income country that probably going to enter the category of high-income by the end of the year. But the other countries are quite poor. Afghanistan is poor. Its ability to develop is greatly hindered by it inability to access world markets. The New Silk Road addresses that; it works not only on the back row level — giant companies selling big expensive things — but it also works on the human level. Yesterday, I opened a Central Asian arts and craft fair. Small independent entrepreneurs, from all five Central Asian countries, producing everything from, jewelry, carpets, handbags, wood carvings, you name it, came together for further exposure. You are not just helping the big cities with this New Silk Road; you are helping rural residence who work in these conditional crafts to find a market beyond their village and make better livelihood.

Kazakhstan Markakol reserve in the Altai Mountains, eastern Kazakhstan
Kazakhstan Markakol reserve in the Altai Mountains

The Politic: What challenges and opportunities do you see for American businesses seeking to play a role in Kazakhstan’s economy?

There is a lot of opportunity for agriculture here. Kazakhstan has imported tens of thousands of live cattle from the U.S. These are not cattle that you can bring in and slaughter to sell the beef; these are the pure pedigree, top of the line, breeding stock so that farmers here can build a national herd of high quality beef cattle, and high quality milk cows. The existing genetic stock here just doesn’t produce much milk or very good meat. Kazakhstan is trying to turn itself into a world-class producer. The preferred method for doing so for most farmers is to look for joint venture farmers. Some are just fine! Some prefer joint venture because they don’t need just cattle, they need a mentor. They need someone who is in it for the long haul, who is going to bring with them not just cows but modern animal husbandry techniques, and training on genetics, and later training on marketing and all other aspects.

Last year I attended the first live cattle auction in Kazakhstan. They were all cattle born here in Kazakhstan, but born from cattle imported from the United States. The animal will come out and prance around the little ring, and the bidding gets going. It is a whole new way of doing business here and moving forward, cattle is just the beginning. The food value chain goes from feed at one end to marketing of packaged steak and other meat products on the other. Right now, they are slowly moving from raising cattle to modern proficient slaughterhouse technology. The cold chain that goes with that — the marketing, nutritional information, and that’s just in the cattle. The same thing is happening in other areas. Other grains are being grown; John Deere, the largest manufacturers of agricultural machinery in the world (based in Illinois), and New Holland, are both very popular here. Kazakhstan looks a lot like the great American plain so the big American style equipment works well here. A lot of companies are setting up. Really, it’s a wide open market.

The Kazakhstan government is putting a lot of emphasis on helping people develop the agriculture sector here. There is a widening income gap between rich and poor that runs largely along the urban and rural divide. The government is trying to do what it can to raise rural income. It wants to help make farming more efficient, more productive, and more profitable. The government is offering farmers training, loans, and other things to help them upgrade to the best methods and technology so they can compete on a world scale. There’s an annual agriculture show here, and the U.S. pavilion was the biggest this year. American farmers and farm equipment managers are definitely aware of Kazakhstan. I’ve had visits here from a couple governors.

Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev with Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, 2012
Kazakhstan President Nazarbayev with Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev, 2012

The Politic: What do you consider your main priority as Ambassador to Kazakhstan right now, and what issue do you find most pressing and need of your attention?

There isn’t one thing that I would put my finger on and say, “This is the single most important for Kazakhstan.” The U.S. relationship with Kazakhstan has grown to the point where it has a thousand faces to it. Here in my embassy, in addition to the Department of State, I have the Department of Energy, I have the military defense representatives, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) — all of them are here doing very important work. Diseases that can come out of Central Asia can threaten the world. The CDC is not just monitoring, but working with Kazakhstan in control. The DEA, obviously, has to stop drugs at the source. Kazakhstan is not a producer country, but it is a country that drug traffickers will use in order to transport drugs to other markets. All of these are very important.

Some of the things we do in Kazakhstan are international in scope and not bilateral. For example, the Istanbul Process is an international process we are involved in to help Afghanistan become a peaceful and stable country. Kazakhstan hosted the Process just a couple months ago. Kazakhstan has also hosted two rounds of talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those take place in Kazakhstan because Kazakhstan is a country that can produce a positive and neutral ground for things to get done. Since so many things are going on at different levels, it is hard to put my finger down on one thing to be the main priority.

The Politic: How do you feel America is represented abroad, and are there any parts of American foreign policy that you would like to change?

Gauging how the U.S. represented abroad is always a tough one. Think about it if you are sitting in a country like Kazakhstan, and you watch all the movies coming out of Hollywood and all the strange television shows, “Housewives of Whatever.” You get a skewed perception of the United States. Quite frankly, it is hard to look at all the conflicting information and understand what the America is really like. But at the same time, people feel, “I know America. I see American television every day, so I know all about it.” Our challenge, representing America, is about 180 degrees opposite of what many other countries face. Other countries are just trying to get people to know they exist, to give people a sense of their culture, and get people to come visit. The United States is trying to get people to know what it is really like. We are working on a lot of people-to-people exchanges. Just yesterday, I was very lucky to have two WNBA players and two-time Olympic gold medalists working with Kazakh girls on basketball skills. Two weeks ago, we had a celebrity chef give BBQ lessons and then we had a special event where five chefs got to show off their own BBQ. While that is just barbecue, you wrap up what I consider the all-American experience: the outdoor, barbecue, relaxed atmosphere with no fancy speeches. It helps people to get a better idea of America.

I would prefer not to comment on American foreign policy I would like to change.


Embassy of the United States to Kazakhstan:

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