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Smart Diplomacy: Reflections From a Career Ambassador

Before he was whisked away from our interview to moderate a conflict resolution exercise, I had a conversation with Ambassador Thomas Pickering. As a diplomat, he has served in a host of countries as well as in the United Nations. Even though he has technically retired from his career as an ambassador, he is still active in foreign relations. We talked about modern trends in approaches to diplomacy and present-day foreign policy issues with North Korea.

The Ambassador’s career has provided him with many anecdotes. For instance, while he was serving as U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador in the early eighties, he learned of a threat of physical violence against him by El Salvadoran politicians. At the time he was scheduled to return home for leave, so he refused the security details the U.S. government attempted to provide. He believed that the unplanned nature of his trip around the U.S. was sufficient protection from any plot on his life.

When we discussed the recent North Korean nuclear tests, the Ambassador stated that Americans often fail to acknowledge our failure to uphold parts of the Agreed Framework between the two nations. Specifically, the U.S. Congress prevented the timely introduction of two light water reactors for long-term electricity production, which North Korea was supposed to receive in return for phasing out its production reactor that makes weapons grade plutonium. In 1995, not long after the Agreed Framework was signed, the U.S. Congress flipped to a Republican majority, who largely did not support the deal.[1] [2] The new Congress failed to authorize consistent supply deliveries and payments for transitional oil supplies, thereby violating U.S. provisions of the agreement.[3] [4] [5]

Currently, the U.S. strategy is to hold out on Six-Party Talks until the North Korean government acknowledges its previous violations. The North Koreans have suggested that they would stop nuclear testing in exchange for a more permanent peace arrangement with the U.S. But in the ambassador’s view this alone would not grant the U.S. sufficient leverage. He suggests Six-Party Talks (between China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, North Korea, and the U.S.) to see if peace arrangements would even result in reliable restrictions to North Korea’s nuclear program. He said that the North Koreans are, in large part, concerned about the possibility of U.S.-led regime change. And certainly, the mercurial attitude of the leadership in North Korea is one significant barrier to brokering an agreement with mutual trust. Yet the Ambassador expressed his resolute view that there is a need to do more than what is being done at present.

This stalemate began under the administration of George W. Bush, when admission of guilt by North Korea became a condition for diplomatic action with the country. Even then, many believed that such a tactic had a very low probability of success.[6] In fact, a phrase has been coined to describe the cycle of weak responses that allow Pyongyang’s provocations to continue. This “groundhog day trap” results when Six-Party Talk members take only feeble efforts to combat North Korea’s transgressions. One Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Katharine Moon, has put forward more forceful ideas that could be promising if the political will could be mustered. They include throwing North Korea out of the UN, canceling North Korea’s upcoming entry into the Svalbard Treaty, and advising countries to withdraw their ambassadors in protest against its nuclear activities.[7]

Many view China’s resistance to expand sanctions as the biggest barrier to progress in passing a Security Council resolution that has teeth. China is responsible for allowing North Korea to maintain access to the resources necessary for its economic survival. The ambassador noted that China is supportive because it has a stake in the continued existence of North Korea as a buffer between China and the U.S.-allied power of South Korea. The inertia of the present situation forces the member countries to make unilateral sanctions, to protect their individual interests and send a message.[8] The state of affairs is not only fruitless but also pernicious, given that it is currently leaving North Korea free to overstep its boundaries. Given China’s interests, coordination is necessary for the diplomatic progress that the ambassador hopes to see.

Speaking of diplomacy generally, Ambassador Pickering criticized the tendency, ushered in with the Bush administration, to replace old-fashioned diplomacy with militarism. In his view, this strategy could only ever work in certain contexts where problems are not complex and entrenched. Otherwise it actually creates further problems, ultimately increasing the workload of those truly interested in restoring stability.   
My conversation with Ambassador Pickering revealed a decisive disposition and an affinity for collaboration. This attitude allows him to avoid supercilious or panic-stricken errors that might arise when dealing with fraught international relations. More patient but tough ambassadors such as Pickering will be required to resolve the diplomatic challenges facing the U.S, like the North Korean nuclear quagmire.


[1] Leon V Sigal (February 2007), North Korea: Negotiations Work, MIT Center for International Studies.

[2] Joint resolution relating to the United States-North Korea Agreed Framework and the obligations of North Korea under that and previous agreements with respect to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and dialog with the Republic of Korea, House of Representatives, 104th Congress, 1st Session, H.J. Res. 83, September 18, 1995.

[3] Siegfried S. Hecker, Sean C. Lee, Chaim Braun (Summer 2010). “North Korea’s Choice: Bombs Over Electricity”. The Bridge (National Academy of Engineering) 40 (2): 5–12.

[4] Larry A. Niksch (March 17, 2003). North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program (PDF) (Report). Congressional Research Service. IB91141.

[5] United States General Accounting Office. (1999). Heavy Fuel Oil Delivered to North Korea Under the Agreed Framework. (GAO Publication No. 00-20). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

[6] O’Hanlon, M. E. (2003, January 01). A “Master Plan” to Deal With North Korea.

[7] Moon, K. S. (2016, February 08). It’s Groundhog Day with North Korea.

[8] Pollack, J. D. (2016, February 11). Learning its lesson? What the Iran deal should teach China about sanctioning North Korea.

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Friday, February 5, 2016.

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Hebert: From what I have heard, you are quite a fan of history. Has your knowledge of historical figures informed how you lead and make decisions?
Pickering: I think it has. Sometimes it’s difficult, obviously, to segregate– particularly in a time when you’re pressed to make some rapid decisions– exactly all of the factors that go in. I suppose that major decisions on government questions usually require paper and that comes up from below. And often you have a chance to ask questions of the individuals who prepared the material. But I have found that my personal experience in two ways plays a role, or in three ways:

1) One: knowledge of people and how they react and what kind of ways they have of working. And there are some stereotypes that one gets stuck with there.
2) Second, historical knowledge of the problem and how and in what way various factors play a role in helping to shape the answer.
3) And the third is the more demanding and innovative piece- what is it that we could do to solve the problem? And that takes on many forms, but one question is how can we provide a response to the reasonable requests of others, but still consistent with our own desires, interests, and objectives? And sometimes that requires jumping over some assumptions or stereotypes. And what it takes you to is to the point of questioning all the assumptions. And often the assumptions you feel that are most strongly embedded in the problem are sometimes the ones that you need to question most thoroughly to see if you can find an answer or an inventive way to proceed, and that’s some of the most fun in the problem.


Hebert: Could you talk a little bit about leadership, and how you suggest those at the beginning of their public service careers go about cultivating their leadership qualities?


Pickering: Yes, I think leadership, too has its own personal factors. In some ways, there’s a continuum between two distinct leadership styles. One is the kind of friendly, hail-fellow-well-met, ingratiating, intelligent, smart, open, easy-to-approach and one that builds a dynamic in that direction. Another is at the far end of the spectrum: harder-nosed, more demanding, pushing, critical (openly so, sometimes), and quite destructive, often, of morale of people whose general propensity is not to want to stand up for their ideas and thoughts. And each one has its own advantages and its own disadvantages, and to some extent, people like to situate themselves somewhere along the continuum between these styles, where they’re most comfortable and perhaps where they think they get things done most. I’m more comfortable with the former leadership style, I think, and have thought that it helped to build teams and to bring people together. I think there are one or two rules that I thought were very important–


One was that— particularly when I was an ambassador and wrote material myself– I always liked to have my deputy look at it, to make sure in fact that, at least at his or her level, it stood scrutiny and you got another person’s point of view. And I think I always like to consult with other people to see what they thought about a problem, even if I didn’t necessarily accept their objectives. But it was very important in making a decision to be sure that you had a complete catalog of the objections to a particular problem as you approached a decision. Because your ability to justify how you wanted to proceed was based a lot on your knowledge of how you could overcome those difficulties, as well as your knowledge of the advantage of what it was you were proposing in a decision-making situation.


And the ability to work with others and to talk with them makes a lot of sense, but I have seen some real successes of the other style. Often, people will succumb to pressure, particularly if it comes from above. That may not produce feelings of happiness and in some cases, it may depend on how intelligent and wise the person making the pressure is because that particular approach is to compress all of the outcome within the framework of the individual who seeks to get the decision made in a particular way rather than to seek to find a way across a wide variety of opinions.


One of the truths is that sometimes decisions made that compromise a wide variety of opinions aren’t going to be very successful. And sometimes you need to say we have to set aside these, or overcome them or override them or bypass them in order to be successful. And, at the same time, if you ignore others who may have better ideas, because, in fact, you think that jeopardizes your position as a leader, you want to be careful about that, because sometimes it’s the insecurity that tends to drive things in ways that are disadvantageous in the long run.


I think it is important — I think that much of the success of leaders is in the long run, in treating people responsibly and well, and using yourself as the standard for judging how you would want to be treated by them. But at the same time you have obviously an important responsibility to get the best out of them, and sometimes hard questioning

and tough debate is a useful way to do it. So somewhere along that continuum you’ll have both of those opportunities as a leadership style. But I think early on, people ought to think about how to develop their leadership style– what they want to be, and how they want to work.
I found that with singularly important people, they respected more the individuals who would question what they were doing than the individuals who always agreed, I thought this was interesting. So to some extent there is some advantage, obviously, early on, in being able to formulate your views and stand up for them, rather than necessarily capitulate because the other individuals is senior to you, or you believe they have more knowledge and that kind of thing.


Hebert: During your tenure as the Ambassador to El Salvador, you were the target of at least one assassination plot. Could you talk a little bit about that time and how you navigated those difficulties?

Do you have any other interesting stories from your time as an ambassador?


Pickering: Yeah. I think that it was an intelligence report that identified me as the object of at least violent action. One of the problems was that it tended to be from a single source, so you weren’t always sure how reliable it was. But, from what I knew, and from where it came, it was conceivable. I had a significant amount of protection when I was in El Salvador, and so we more or less were satisfied that that was being taken care of. The report came to a head on the eve of departure for a long leave, which made it easy. And the President, or the Secretary of State- I forgot who/which– had asked Senator Helms, who was coming down (who was well known to the right wing, which is where the report came from) to warn them about this. And Ambassador Walters who had been Deputy Director of the CIA — Dick Walters who would also have been known as a military attache and was close to the President– Dick Walters also came down and talked to the leadership of the hard right.

Nothing ever eventuated. I had a home leave in the United States in which I traveled around the country and just said to the security people who wanted to travel with me that since I wasn’t going to choose where I was going to stay the next night until the day that I was going to go there, I would be perfectly okay, and if I saw anybody following me, I’d let them know. But then I went to a meeting in Aspen, CO, and I said, “it’s okay if you want to send somebody there”, so they did. But nothing happened, and it was perfectly okay.


Hebert: Back in 2012, you said that “Patient, committed diplomacy is the only way to realize the long term and durable objectives of an Iran without nuclear weapons and a region without war,” – What are your thoughts on the Iran Nuclear Deal and the diplomacy of the Obama administration?


Pickering: Well I followed the Iranian question intensively beginning after my retirement in 2000 to about 2002, where a close friend of mine who ran the United Nations Association had a start at a Track 2 dialogue with the Iranians, and I became, at his request, Chairman of the Board of the United Nations Association, and then participated in a dialogue. And that dialogue went on for 9 years, and we met with the Iranians– mainly university people, but some officials. There were, from time to time, people from the Congress who joined us on our side, and people who had been in the administration recently. So it was a kind of Track 1 and 3/4 dialogue in some ways. And the dialogue was intensive and looked at all kinds of questions. We discussed nuclear issues. And that allowed us to frame some thoughts about how to proceed in the future.


One early result was that we put together, in English and in Persian, a Shanghai-type communique, which both sides had differences, but also had common views. Now, that didn’t prosper as a device for moving things ahead, but it helped our dialogue, and then, a few years later, we did some extensive pieces in the New York Review of Books, talking about what might be important to achieve an agreement and that centered particularly on questions like, “Should Iran be allowed to enrich, and if so, how much?” And, “What kinds of inspection and verification would be required?”, And, “Maybe multi-national management and ownership of enrichment facilities would help?” We did a number of these, and then about three years ago, when it looked like Israelis were moving toward using military force against Iran, we did a monograph of the balance of pros and cons of the use of military –we later did one on sanctions and then we later did one on what a negotiation might actually include.


All of the time that we did these things — and the real dialogue ended in 2009 with the Iranians because I think Ahmadinejad cut if off– we had an opportunity to talk to the U.S. government. We talked to the Iranians in New York. Foreign minister Yarif was the UN Ambassador and we got to know him reasonably well, and his successors. And by the time the agreement got started in negotiations, we began to talk to the Congress about it.

So we had talked to the Congress well before the November 24, 2013 first agreement and then we did a lot of work with the Congress in the period afterward, and we did a number of op-eds in various newspapers talking about the negotiations, about the agreements- what the pros and cons were. So we were very supportive initially, and still are — because the organization still exists — of having a dialogue with Iran. We were very supportive of having a negotiated solution to the nuclear agreement, particularly major efforts to try a negotiation solution before using force. We supported sanctions, and thought they had limits, but that they could help to produce a negotiation. They probably couldn’t, on their own, in our view, without a negotiation, produce a result that was favorable. In other words, there wouldn’t be an automatic response to sanctions– to say, “yes, we capitulate, and we agree, and everything you want to do.” And we thought a negotiation had to obviously deal with the issue of sanctions in return for real advantages on the nuclear side. And we continued to support the process and be engaged in it.


Hebert: One month ago, North Korea conducted its fourth nuclear bomb test. Yesterday (2/4), the BBC reported that North Korea seems to be preparing to test a long-range missile this month under the guise of launching a “satellite”. Even China seems to be growing tired of these antics. Do you think North Korea can endure on its current path?


Pickering: It’s difficult to know. They have for a long period of time, and they have the advantage of basically having little regard for the health and welfare of their own people, under a very strong and tight and rough security structure, which is almost diabolically nasty in its ways of treating its own people. It appears as if North Koreans have, at least a growing deep concern– and they have for many years– that they’re vulnerable to the question of regime change, particularly from the United States. And that may be in aftermath of the war, and it may be an aftermath indeed of difficulties between the United States and North Korea over a long period of time. North Koreans, I think, have been emboldened from time to time that the notion that, first the Soviet Union, and then the People’s Republic of China, have been supportive, for one reason or another, of their independence and what they’re doing– China, in large measure, because it sees North Korea as a useful buffer on a particularly, potentially vulnerable border. And at the same time, I think the newspaper stories are right that the Chinese are showing increasing irritation at the North Koreans, and particularly– we’re informed about it, and we’re very negative about the fourth test.


Hebert: The interesting question is whether our present posture, which is not to speak with North Korea, in the context of the Six-Party Talks, until they in fact move to recognize that they had violated previous agreements (with respect to how, and in what way, they should conduct their nuclear activities) is an important part of American policy. But it doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere.


Pickering: And while, we have, I think, a perfect right to be irritated and concerned about the way in which they’ve handled previous agreements, I think a careful look will show that particularly as a result of the intervention of the Congress, we were not able to keep our portions of the agreement on time, as we had hoped to do– things like providing heavy fuel oil for production of energy in North Korea, pending the introduction of two light-water reactors for long-term electricity production as part of the deal for getting out of, and destroying portions of, their own production reactor, which made plutonium for their bomb.


And so that has been a bad and obviously difficult time, but my sense is that the North Koreans have a very high priority, in their own view, on a couple of things, one of which is a peace agreement with the U.S., which they’d believe would help in provide them assurances that there won’t be a major U.S. effort, particularly by force, toward regime change. The Chinese certainly are very worried about the disappearance of North Korea from their border, so much so that they don’t want to seemingly talk to the U.S., even in confidence, about what the circumstances might be were there to be a real regime problem in North Korea, in part because of public opposition stemming out of huge economic and social difficulties. So we’re in a kind of stalemate, and one way to break that might be to take another look at whether Six-Party Talks might work, whether movement toward a more permanent peace arrangement would have any benefits with respect to restrictions of their nuclear program. Recently North Koreans suggested they would stop testing if in fact we would move to such a peace arrangement. That’s not sufficient, obviously, in terms of the leverage we have, but it appears, at least, they’re moving back into a stage of wanting to talk.


One of the real problems is they depend upon a mercurial attitude, protection of the Chinese –some certainty that because they have this enormous capacity, on the border, to destroy big pieces of the South Korean capital in Seoul with protected artillery fire– that it hasn’t been, in the view of the United States and others, wise to think that military activity would change their point of view. And so that’s the combination that now produces the present standoff. But they are mercurial and uncertain and they’re a little bit like 2-year-old kids, that, when they find life difficult, they lay on the floor and kick their feet. And, to some extent, that’s not a very helpful way to proceed. But increasingly, I think, Russia, China, the United States and Japan and South Korea all agree that it may be necessary to do something if they keep moving.


They are, as well, a further cause of possible proliferation. You know, there’s one theory, in fact, that the Iranians really want a bomb and that North Korea will make it for them and that that presents a real danger, and that’s not something that the present agreement has interrupted– well, the present agreement has been a recapitulation of Iran’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, so if they were to do that it would be the most heinous kind of violation, and obviously Iran is not in a position to depend on total secrecy being a protection in that kind of situation, but though, always there’s/as? problems with North Korea, which are difficult, and my sense is it may be time to look at another way of proceeding, and see whether, in fact, some kind of arrangement can be made, but it’ll have to be made under conditions where the inspection arrangements and the circumstances will allow us to have early notice if they don’t intend to keep the agreement, for whatever use we want to make of that.


Hebert: In general, do you believe the influence of the Department of State and diplomacy on U.S. foreign policy is increasing or decreasing and why?


Pickering: Well I think it depends a lot on what issue and what kind of day you’re talking. Certainly in a democracy with an elected president is, in some ways, the Chief Foreign Policy Officer of his own government, or her own government, and should be. And so the notion that the State Department should run foreign policy somehow over and aside the President is not a concept that I think anybody buys, or adopts, or ever has.


Then the question is, what is the role of the Secretary of State? And what is the role of the National Security Council? And a group of us has been looking at the performance of the National Security Council recently. In some ways we believe that it has been overstressed in moving toward operational activities with an increase in size, and as a result, may be wanting to usurp, or take on, many of the implementation responsibilities that the State Department has.


In addition, my view is that Secretary Kerry has been a strong Secretary of State. He’s focused very heavily on the questions of operational diplomacy, perhaps, to some extent, to the detriment of running the State Department, but he has strong aides, and others who can help in running the State Department, and that’s equally important. But as a result, his role in diplomacy, particularly in times like the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians which didn’t prosper, but on questions like Iran, where he played a deep and committed and very strong personal role and where he’s now deeply engaged in Syria, particularly with the Russians and the Iranians– are indications of the fact that he has a strong position to play in foreign policy. The really interesting question, of course, as the president always has the last word, but he has always had Kerry out on all these missions, and that part is important.


I think the bureaucratic question of who plays the major role depends a lot on who knows the most and who can provide the best answers, and in many ways, the State Department is perhaps as well prepared, or better prepared than others. I think there has been a tendency, particularly in the Bush administration, to believe that the military had all the answer to diplomatic problems, and that all one had to do was to short-circuit the nagging, difficult, time-consuming problems of diplomacy by sending in the military, and then you would solve the problem. The real problem was that, particularly in large and complex countries, using the military involves the necessity: When the combat options have ceased, to deal with all of the politics, all of the economics, and all of the social problems created, first, by the reason to go in, and secondly by the problem of going in; and it proved that we didn’t have the answer. And so, in fact, the military shortcut might work in small places, where the picking up the pieces is relatively easy. But it doesn’t seem to work in large and demanding places like Iraq or even Afghanistan, where in fact– we have no interest in being a colonial country– but where essentially, a colonial and imperialist approach probably would have to play a significant role to find a way to put these countries back on an independent path which was non-threatening and helpful.


Thank you for your time. I really enjoyed speaking with you, it was a pleasure.

Happy to do so.






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