Amb. Pickering on Afghanistan, Diplomatic Careers and More

by Thomas R. Pickering

On March 12th, 2012, Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering spoke to The Fletcher Forum about his extensive experience as an American Ambassador to the United Nations, Israel and elsewhere. He commented on current diplomatic crises, including the shooting of civilians in Afghanistan by an American serviceman, and also offered advice and reflections for future diplomats. To jump to a specific section of the interview, click on one of the topics below. 

Top Anecdotes from the Ambassador’s Career

MEGHAN HEALY LUECKE: Given that you were on the front lines of American diplomacy in critical places and during critical periods, can you tell us about one of the most surprising and challenging experiences you faced during your career?

AMB. PICKERING: One of the most challenging and certainly one of the most surprising was the outbreak of the First Gulf War when I was at the United Nations. I was visiting Kuwait and Saudi Arabia just exactly a month before the war broke out and asked the foreign ministers and others in both countries if they thought that something was happening, and they both insisted nothing was really happening – that Iraq was just posturing to try to get Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to reduce Iraq’s debt to them as a result of the long eight-year war with Iran in the Middle East.

MHL: Wow. It’s shocking in retrospect – but how did it seem at the time?

AMB. PICKERING: It seemed at the time to be a little bit contrary to what I thought the reality was, but at the same time we watched, in fact, as Iraq built up along the border, with large amounts of military force. And I think it wasn’t until very close to the time [of the outbreak of fighting] that the U.S. began to take that seriously as well. I was at dinner in New York to say goodbye to the British Embassy at a very small dinner party at a hotel, and at something like 9 o’clock in the evening, I was asked to go to a phone in the pantry of the hotel and was told by Robert Kennedy, who was the Undersecretary of State at the time, that Iraq had invaded Kuwait and that the U.S. wanted to have a Security Council meeting right away. So it took off from there and it was running flat-out until the end of November – this was the first of August. With resolutions and a large amount of work and coordination to build a coalition at the Security Council to support US efforts, first with sanctions and then at the end of November with a resolution on the use of force.

MHL: Have you ever encountered a situation in your career – and that may have been one of them – where you were fairly convinced early on that something was going to mushroom into a much larger problem than the majority of your supervisors or of the international community anticipated, and you had to sort of sound the alarm?

AMB. PICKERING: Yes and no. Another interesting experience I had was also at the United Nations. I was there with Henry Kissinger for his first appearance as Secretary of State, for his first speech in late September of 1973. During the week Dr. Kissinger began to ask what signs we saw of potential conflict breaking out in the Middle East. We checked with the intelligence community, all the intelligence sources, and until probably about Thursday night or Friday morning of that week the comment role was that no, nothing is happening, nothing is happening. And things then began to get more exciting, with people saying ‘there seems now to be an Egyptian buildup and a potential Syrian buildup.’ And ‘we don’t know if it’s bluffing or actually going to lead anywhere.’ We had a tendency to think that, since things like this had happened before, that it was the so-called “war of attrition” between Israel and Egypt and it isn’t going to break out.

In fact, I actually persuaded Dr. Kissinger to let me go back to Washington on Friday night because I had been in New York for several weeks and there didn’t seem to be anything happening. He agreed, but at 5:00 in the morning I was awakened at home by a call from the Deputy Chief of Mission at our embassy in Israel saying the war was about to open up. And it looked very, very difficult. We went from there – I called New York and woke up the Secretary and we arranged for him to come back to Washington right away. From then on, it was one of those intense — and very intensive — efforts to deal with what became the Yom Kippur Ramadan war and its aftermath.

The Afghanistan Shootings

MHL: It strikes me that one of the biggest features of what you’re describing is the responsibility that diplomats have to assess situations as they unfold and assess the potential for crisis. That brings me to another subject. All over the news today is the very disturbing event that took place in Afghanistan just a few short weeks after the Koran burning incident – with an American serviceman shooting civilians. To Americans, by default it looks to us like a clear aberration, and probably a psychological break on the part of the individual responsible — but it certainly is not such a simple situation in the view of the rest of the world. In an event like this, what options do you see available to the United States to diffuse the situation and prevent it from being very dangerous for everyone?

AMB. PICKERING: Well, to prevent it, it would have been very helpful, as perhaps had happened in the case of the Wikileaks individual, that the military had pad more attention to the psychological equilibrium and indeed the potential for difficulties among the people who are under their command. And certainly one would have hoped that the commanding officer of what was apparently was a Sergeant Major, someone in a fairly significant position among non-commissioned officers, would have paid more attention to what was going on. There are clear areas where Bradley Manning himself showed signs of instability and uncertainty, yet he was permitted to continue to have access to sensitive material and indeed to have downloaded enormous amounts of it. Another preventative there would have been what every company in the world has, which is an indication when people start to download large amounts of material.

MHL: Right.

AMB. PICKERING: On the other hand, as you may know, I participated in a study a year ago on Afghan peace negotiations, and they have since gotten going. And at every stage that something terrible like this happens, it means that a set of negotiations on which a good part of our exit strategy may well hang, as well as the success of our efforts in Afghanistn, is set back by the reaction of both sides. President Karzai, by exhibiting extreme mistrust and deep uncertainty about the Americans — and whether they can do anything right — certainly in the peace negotiations it set things back. And the Taliban, on the other side — by handing them another gift in the propaganda and indeed the political recruitment area…despite the fact that we understand the problem of instability, it nevertheless occurred and was potentially preventable.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we need to turn every military officer into a psychologist and every other person into a potential unstable individual, but it also is helpful if people understand – particularly under combat conditions – when and how these difficulties might break out. And certainly if the subject of their retribution is innocent civilians in Afghanistan, it’s a great deal worse.

MHL: Going forward, what are the options that the US government has to try to diffuse this most recent crisis?

AMB. PICKERING: Three or four things. One, I think the President has to apologize directly. There is nothing wrong with apologizing to a foreign country for a serious mistake. The notion that we never apologize as a country is a kind of inflated sense of hubris on our part. I think it’s important to do so – it carries some weight particularly in some cultures and societies. I don’t know whether that’s necessarily true in Afghanistan but it’s certainly the minimum necessary. And the President did it immediately.

I was engaged in the problem of having to deal with the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. I had to go to China to explain that. So it was very important that President Clinton, in that case, had taken the apology forward.

The next thing we have to do is obviously explain as we investigate what happened with respect to this individual and our conclusions. Thirdly, if a trial is required, we need under our arrangement with Afghanistan to hold such a trial and to do so with reasonable speed, and with deference to the rights of the individual concerned to defend himself. I think we need to have some serious transparency in the trial. All of Afghanistan of course would like to conduct the trial under Afghan rules and Afghan conditions, and we have I think an agreement that the U.S. will try its own military in these kinds of situations. But we need to be seen to do so in a fair and balanced way, and not to either ram-road home a verdict and not also to neglect this into a long and strung-out process where the procedure seems to get in the way of the realities. Those are the kind of steps we need to take.

Obviously the conditions that lead this individual to commit these acts, or whatever it was that caused this, need to be understood and explained as best they can. Transparency can produce closure in a difficult situation like this — and lack of transparency can make this a festering sore forever.

MHL: Yes, I think that is a significant risk here. And it’s difficult to assess how much damage this has done in terms of the U.S. presence. There’s quite a lot of news today about the withdrawal of many international advisers from Afghanistan as a result of this heightened security environment, and there’s some uncertainty about when these advisers will return. What do you think this has done for the future of the American presence in Afghanistan and the development of the relationship between the two countries? Does this seem like something that will soon be resolved in an amicable way between the two countries, or is it likely to produce tensions for a long time?

AMB. PICKERING: Well I don’t think we’re foredoomed to have eternal tensions, nor are we foredoomed to have an easy passage.  A lot will depend on how we choose to handle this – the factors I described a moment ago. It is certain that the President has decided to withdraw U.S. forces by 2014. And in my view that means, in effect, two or three things will happen: we will put to the test the thesis of whether there is sufficient commitment to the Afghan government on the part of its own security forces and the people of Afghanistan to resist the Taliban taking over the country. Some feel it will fall like a ripe plum, and others believe the Afghan government authorities can hold on indefinitely with U.S. support. It will be a test with the Congress as we get out as to whether Congress will sustain our commitment to the country or not. This was something that was put to the test in Vietnam and found wanting in the end, even once we got out and the South Vietnamese disappeared. We were very lucky in Vietnam in that we totally underestimated the degree to which Vietnamese were nationalists and not communists, and not partners of the Chinese but in many ways adversaries. I don’t know that we have necessarily similar difficulties in understanding the Afghan case or similar circumstances coming to our rescue in that sense. But we also pay a lot of attention to the Afghan-Pakistan relationship and how they can get resolved or at least get to the point where both sides have a great deal more understanding of how they get along and how they move forward. These two determinants are very important for a successful negotiation among the Afghan parties, the government, the Taliban and, one hopes, civil society inside Afghanistan.


The Arab-Israeli Peace Process

MHL: 2012 is going to be in terms of elections and other political turnovers. As you watch the American election unfolding here, do you think that there are particular foreign policy issues that will suffer from the political debate in the United States or issues that will actually benefit from the politicking and reexamining publicly of these issues that takes place in an election?

AMB. PICKERING: I wish I could be persuaded the latter were true – I’m certainly persuaded the former is. I think the Arab-Israeli peace process is on a kind of hold, in the deep freeze, in large measure because the U.S. believes it is too dangerous to move with anything that involves any element of risk, particularly with respect to Israel under current conditions. That is all based on the notion that the status quo will be maintained by itself – and it totally ginrose the history of the region, where the region operates under the bicycle principle. The bicycle principle is that if you’re not moving forward you’re falling down.

So the notion that we can sit back grandly and expect the status quo to be maintained like some deus ex machina operation is in my view very foolish and very risky. But that’s where we are and I think it’s heavily driven by domestic political concerns. We need to think about doing things in the interim that in fact can sustain the process rather than letting it drift into desuetude if you can call it that.

Iran’s Nuclear Program

MHL: Another related issue that sometimes seems intractable in the current political atmosphere is the issue of Israel’s potential response to news about Iran’s nuclear program. You have of course advocated direct talks at various levels in the past. I wonder if any of the recent developments have changed your prescription for what you think the U.S. should do vis-à-vis Iran?

AMB. PICKERING: Everything I see leads me to believe that it would be increasingly totally nutty to launch a military attack against Iran under current circumstances. There isn’t any evidence according to the US intelligence community – and it’s apparently agreed by the Israelis – that the Iranians have made a decision to make a nuclear weapon. There are certain circumstances in the past, mostly before 2003, which are subject to uncertainty and are being looked at by the IAEA. But the fact that an unprovoked Israeli or U.S. attack against Iran – which anything in the immediate future would be – would certainly turn everything on its head. The first reaction of the Iranians would be, well, we never intended to make a nuclear weapon – but now that you’ve attacked us, we have no alternative. So the very objective we seek to achieve is in fact driven by political circumstances of an attack in exactly the opposite direction. People have spent a lot of time analyzing these problems and many people who write on Iran and Israel-U.S. relations have catalogued them all. But there seem to be an overwhelming number of negatives.

We haven’t tried out negotiations. It’s very interesting that Iran has invited negotiations and that the U.S. and the major European and other powers have responded positively. I don’t expect that they will happen before Nowruz, which starts I think tomorrow – it lasts a long time, it’s a long Persian holiday. Nevertheless, negotiations have the opportunity to pick up on a proposal the Iranians have put forward that they would stop enriching material to 20%, which is getting close to a weapon, if other parties including the United States were prepared to help them acquire the fuel elements for their medical isotope production reactor in Tehran, something the U.S. originally provided them. That’s the beginning, and that can lead to other steps, including a number of other reciprocal steps. But it is possible in my view to see over a long term negotiations that could end with Iran saying it won’t make a weapon, and having cleared up all the circumstances that are uncertain, and having accepted extensive inspections in return for outside powers including the United States recognizing that it can enrich, but only for civil purposes and only in a limited way. And the sanctions can over time be pulled off by good behavior by Iran. I think that’s the way negotiations process could move, and it certainly could represent common interests fairly from both sides. Although the mistrust and misunderstanding is so great that there’s very little time to convince anybody that anybody else is doing things in a reasonable way – that’s the tragedy of the current set of circumstances. That people are unprepared to consider viable alternatives, on the one hand, and secondly, constantly saying that they’re going to move toward war. Happily, the President, at the APEC meetings last week, was very clear in defining his preference for a diplomatic approach – and for the first time spelled it out fairly carefully, and walked away from the military approach, particularly in the absence of an effort to try diplomacy.

Careers in Diplomacy

MHL: The issue of nuclear proliferation was on the agenda but in a very different sense at the beginning of your diplomatic career. It makes me wonder, what has changed the most about the necessary skill set that a diplomat today must have from when you started out in your career?

AMB. PICKERING: Well I think traditionally, before I started — I began in 1959. People didn’t look at diplomats as having a much beyond appreciation of history in international relations. But one of my first jobs was to work on nuclear questions. And I had in a sense on-the-job-training process of learning about everything from nuclear test detection to how nuclear weapons and reactors work and the whole process of preparing the material. But for me the state department and the foreign service have been in an endless learning experience and I guess I’ve said to a number of times to friends , the day when you don’t learn anything new is certainly a day wasted. And my entire period in the State Department was not a wasted effort.

MHL: Well that’s very encouraging to hear. And I certainly don’t think anyone would even begin to imagine that a single day of your career in the diplomatic world was wasted.

AMB. PICKERING: I can point to some, I’m sure. The point here is that you’re constantly learning. I think one of the great things about being alive and living is that you’re on a continuous learning experience and everything that you see and absorb and understand is part of your ability to accumulate wisdom. I think with all respect to you there is some value in also having people around who’ve been around the course once or twice and have a little better understanding of how some of these things work. And the quicker we can impart their experience to new people coming along, the more those people will climb on the shoulders of the people who go before them and so on. And I think that produces a much better diplomatic service and a much more competent one and a much more able one.

MHL: Absolutely. With that in mind, what advice would you give to current Fletcher students and students around the world who are just about to begin their career in diplomatic service for their countries?

AMB. PICKERING: My advice is to treat this as an endless set of possibilities with real challenges, to prepare themselves for the times if they will inevitably come when they have to act on their own and make difficult decisions to deal with problems as they come along, you often don’t have the opportunity to call Washington. And even worse, Washington sometimes takes months to answer. In some ways, we’re paying people to be on the front lines because we know that they can and we trust them to respond creatively and indeed constructively to problems and issues. When the rubber meets the road, so to speak, you as an individual have to perform and you need to be get ready for that.

MHL: That’s a very interesting point. What was the most unorthodox thing you found you had to do during your diplomatic career?

AMB. PICKERING: Well, at one point when I was in Jordan when we were negotiating with the Jordanians for an air defense missile system in Jordan, Washington went ahead with the Senate and prepared a letter of commitments on the part of the United States as to what Jordan would have to accept. In effect, the letter carried the commitments beyond where Jordan would ever go. On the other hand, it reiterated that Jordan would have to comply with all of the terms of the contract and the Jordanians were ready to do that.  In order to get over this hump because the letter was going to become public, my advice to the Jordanians was that [in order] to solve their domestic problem, they complain like hell about the American letter, but always emphasize they would be bound in every way by the contract. The contract solved most of those problems. It was an easy way to do that.

Now, very rarely would American ambassadors recommend the foreign country to complain in public about what the U.S. was doing — but it was the only way to get through the problem. I was deported in Washington, I was surprised — and they did so probably two weeks longer than I wanted them to, but nevertheless they did. They enjoyed it when they got going. And we had to pull them down. And the whole thing worked out but it was a kind of exercise in finding a way to let them blow off the steam. They had to to continue to keep their own population with them on the one hand and secondly to permit the deal to go through on the other. So there was a little bit of kabuki involved. But it was one of those things where that was the only way I could see out of the quandary.

MHL: That’s certainly an innovative and counterintuitive way to go about it.

AMB. PICKERING: I wouldn’t have tried it if it wasn’t the last thing I could think of to save the problem, but you don’t want to try that too often.

MHL: Probably not a recommendation as a daily approach. Would you say that American diplomats in particular are known for anything? Is there, among the diplomatic community — are they known for a particular style or anything along those lines?

AMB. PICKERING: Well, different people have different styles and I think Americans bridge both styles. And to some extent, your ability to bridge several styles is an advantage as you ahead. I think Americans are generally believed they’re known for being direct and straightforward. I think they’re also known for kind of leaning heavily sometimes on foreign countries to get to a deal. Americans are known to be too anxious to try to [find or fight minute 6:21] a deal and not willing to play things out long enough but I think they’re also for the ability to produce innovative solutions in a pinch, sometimes, not looking at things that were kind of unexpected to develop the answer. I think as a country generally speaking if you’re negotiating for the United States, it’s often true you’re bigger problems are in Washington. Washington is often not united around a solution and so the interagency portion of the process sometimes makes an American negotiator’s life particularly interesting.

MHL: I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of reform of the foreign service structure and certainly when I worked at the Policy Planning staff, we sort of had a bird’s eye view of the department and there was a lot of talk of basically how it works from a management standpoint. Do you have any suggestions as to how you think the United States government could streamline the interagency process?

AMB. PICKERING: Yeah, I do. We have to tie policies more closely to budgets. We have to develop much more ability to operate in essentially interagency task forces under strong leadership and to deal with long-term and particularly salient problems so in fact we don’t exhaust the senior people meeting frequently at the White House but prepare carefully the decision questions they have to address. When I used to spend my days at the White House as under Secretary, I felt we were badly supported because things move so fast that the next level down, the assistant secretaries, which carry all of the load in the state department, were only slightly informed and not heavily involved in the problem because the White House wanted to move too quickly on the issues. Well, there was no structured arrangement. I think then for effective interagency task forces, people have told me it has gotten little better. I lead one on producing a long-term plan to work with Columbia, Joint US-Columbian plan, and it turned out to have been in my view very effective. I of course was not an objective observer because I ran it. But it did end up producing what has become a durable, long-term U.S. commitment to Columbia in return for Columbian durable and long-term commitments to fair trials, promotion of women, the movement away from assassination and death squads, the whole idea of opening up the labor sector to open processes and to collective bargaining and things of that sort. So it meant in a fact that we went with the Columbians to all the aspects of their society, many of which had contributed to the insurgency and to the heavy drug trafficking and we did it as a way to try to get at these two cardinal issues, the fact that there was an enormous amount of drug production and trafficking and that a large amount of that was linked to the insurgencies in Columbia, particularly insurgencies of the extreme left.

American Power and the Decline Debate

MHL: It makes me wonder about the evolution of American power actually that the sort of internal dialogue we’re having now is certainly at a graduate school level here at the Fletcher school and other schools in the Boston area. There have been so many events on assessing American power, trying to define whether we are in decline, whether we are in a temporary phase of stalled growth. There are certainly many different ways to look at it. Can you comment a bit on this sort of evolution of American power?

AMB. PICKERING: I think we need to get away from the notion that use of military force is the sure cut easy answer to terribly intractable diplomatic problems. We know that it only produces even worse problems, greater expenditure, more loss of life and often not very serious accomplishments. And every time we get involved in the heavy use of military force, we put a huge burden on the civilian side of the bureaucracy in effect to try to clean up the pieces afterward. I think the use of civilian efforts to avoid conflict is ever more important as we go ahead. I think the second question is we should stop naval-gazing and worrying about our position in terms of power.  Essentially despite the economic setback we’ve had, we’re beginning to grow again and we still have the world’s strongest military power but that should be used to buttress our diplomacy, not substitute for it. And indeed the more we put military forces in the field and we end up with inconclusive answers, as we’re certainly going to end up in Iraq and Afghanistan, the more the formidable value of that military force as a makeweight in any process gets undermined. Because if it isn’t successful and leaves huge messes behind, who is in effect going to act in awe of it? Nobody.

I think it is very important for us as a country that is leading to lead from the center rather than by somewhere out behind or over on the side and try to run everything ourselves. I think the President undertook a new experimentation in a different kind of leadership where we play a major role behind the scenes and where we fill the holes and the cracks that appear in the joint strategic effort but we also incorporate many other people in the activities we did in Libya. Now Libya was something of a close-run thing, and if it had gone the other way, probably the President’s experiment would have been considered a failure. But we need to think more about consultative leadership. We need to know in fact that our relative power position is changing with respect to others, not necessarily because we’re in an abject and indeed uncontrollable kind of decline but because others are growing. We’re getting much more multinational and multilateral in our efforts in the world community. Going forward has become much harder in terms of the legal restraints in the Security Council and indeed the oversight of that set of issues by many other countries. The institutions themselves have put us in a position where it is much more painful for us to go to war without a strong self-defense or defensive ally’s motive or indeed a situation where we’re acting internationally, jointly, to deal with problems of genocide. My feeling is that as we go ahead, “Engagement” is the key watchword as “containment” had been through the Cold War. Engagement means in all fronts in all areas and it puts a heavy value on diplomacy. You don’t get engaged in a sense without a very significant diplomatic input. That also means we need more diplomats, better trained diplomats, we need some more funding to be able to deal with them. The military forces roughly spend 75 times what our diplomacy costs us. Our diplomacy can help us avoid conflicts, our military can back that up. I’m not arguing that they’re not important, but they’re in my view much more important when they don’t have to be used than when they are used.

The Rise of China

MHL: You mentioned some of the difficulties the United States faces in trying to respond to problems of genocide in international institutions which were very much of our own creation, of our own support and that seems a direct reference to the Syria events that we’ve seen recently and the inability to pass several of the resolutions that have been attempted because of the resistance from China and Russia. I was interested to hear you didn’t mention China by name. Almost every conversation I’ve had lately about American power ends up being a China conversation in the end. Since you have served as Ambassador in half of the BRIC countries in India and Russia, I wonder if you can comment on the global perspective on the rise of China versus American power and is this sort of naval-gazing in the United States which is certainly a dangerous phenomenon, is that not in line with the way the rest of the world is thinking about the rise of China and about American power?

AMB. PICKERING: Yes, the rise of China has been quite a phenomenon with indeed the speed of its economic growth, with the strength that it has now been able to assume as a major economic player. On the other hand, its economy as a whole is still relatively a small portion of the U.S. economy despite the predictions that it will pass us at sometime in the next 20 or 30 years and at least some of the major parameters. My own feeling is that China still would wish to consider itself the largest and perhaps the most successful of the developing countries particularly when it looks at things like per capita GDP and China has roughly four times the population of the United States, though it has four times the problem of conveying to its own people from a very low base still the kind of prosperity and indeed the general growth of change among the population as a whole that they’d and we’d like to see. So we need to continue to keep all of these things in some careful pattern rather than focus on the gee-whiz stuff entirely and see the gee-whiz stuff driving everything. We will continue to have growth. We have a very highly developed economy and even slow growth is probably reasonable for the United States as we go ahead. I believe of course all the factors have to be kept in balance including population size, the focus on whether it is manufacturing or the new informational economy, how and in what way R&D is going to help us if we’re looking at purely economic questions and so on. I think finally we need to look at a paradigm for operations in the world ahead with countries like China or Russia or India or the EU as an organization or Japan and Brazil.

And here I think it’s very important what we have done recently with Russia and what we’re trying to do with China – to emphasize in our bilateral relationships the ability to accomplish real successes and win-wins. In terms of Russia, it was New Start. In terms of China, I think it’s gradual change in the way in which the Chinese manage their currency, among other things. These can then tend to produce a particularly useful set of commitments like the WTO with China, which over the long term can make the process of working together a little bit easier and the process of managing the strongly negative aspects of the relationships. It can help devolve that into either a do-no-harm strategy or, even better, an ability to take on even some of the tougher problems in the context of having developed a commitment on win-win and see if we can actually get a solution to that. These take time and they’re difficult, but I don’t see China as moving on a hegemonic course. We have some difficulties with what seem to be still look confusing but certainly in some aspects uncertain views they have with respect to the South China Seas and some of the marginal…confrontation with Japan and others over the island chain, those kinds of things. But I don’t see China marching against India or marching into Korea or marching into Vietnam as a kind of gross assertion of what we formally considered to be Communist expansionism. And China will have its own problems. I can recall in 1995 we thought Japan was exactly off on the same course. Of course, now that appears to be ludicrous, overanalyzed, and somewhat fatuous.

MHL: Well and of course, at the same time, China has more in the way of sheer population size and raw materials and resources – that makes it apples to oranges when we talk about Japan.

AMB. PICKERING: And China as you know is becoming as dependent as we are on overseas oil and on some questions of raw materials, heavily dependent on countries like Australia for iron ore. And so we’re looking at a country that has in my view the natural pressures on it to become an integral part of the world community that operates in a cooperative fashion and not kind of rogue elephant charging around the countryside. I think the future of U.S.-China relations is heavily based on the degree to which each of us adopt and indeed build policy approaches to the others which can emphasize what it is we ought to be/need to be the proper outcome of that relationship which I just described – a kind of cooperative relationship and willing to work together on common problems rather than one of pure competition.

MHL: We’ve seen the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other initiatives out of Washington. Officials have qualified any comparisons to NATO – saying that even in the long-term goals for an alliance structure in Asia, it would of course never be directly comparable to what we see with NATO now. But at the same time they are working to build a more robust architecture of security and economic alliances in the region. How much do you think that should that be the focal point of American foreign policy going forward? Do you think this so-called “pivot” to Asia is the right thing at the right time?

AMB. PICKERING: I’d like to call it an increased attention to Asia. “Pivot” implies a zero-sum game: because we’re pivoting, we’re taking away from our commitments in Europe and elsewhere and trying to use those to add to our activities in the Pacific. The truth is that what we see is a growth of our transpacific interests and commitments, not a negation, or erasure or reduction, in the other direction. So it’s not a zero-sum game at all.

Secondly, the Trans-Pacific area is characterized by a number of institutional or semi-institutional arrangements which can provide for a wide and varied of growth and development that is not a copy of either the EU or the Transatlantic relationship that U.S. has with NATO. I think it’s important to have those different kinds of relationships go ahead and we need to find ways to build them. They are in the main based on the very great success we’ve had fundamentally in economic relationships in the region. But they now show opportunities for further growth as you’ve said perhaps in the security area and perhaps in the political, and that’s all to the good. We should not compare one to the other but perhaps learn lessons from each of them

MHL: I don’t want to keep you too long here, and I hear your phone in the background –

AMB. PICKERING: I don’t have the technical accomplishment to shut off the ring when I’m talking to somebody else. Some day I’ll take a course in that subject but I haven’t had time yet.

MHL: Well, you should have seen me running around trying to figure out how to record this interview before I called you!

AMB. PICKERING: I hope you’re successful!

MHL: Well I’ve got double devices backed up, so I think it should work! Before I let you go, is there anything else you’d like to share with the Fletcher community, for the graduate students that will be reading – any anecdotes or advice?

AMB PICKERING: From my perspective, public service has been has been an enormously interesting career. If one measures sucess in purely economic terms it might not measure up. But if you measure in terms of psychic satisfaction, and I think that’s probably more durable and more interesting – and you certainly won’t go in the poorhouse as a diplomat – then it is a very exciting area to proceed You have very few opportunities to affect policy, policy change that has an enormous impact on the world, in places other than the diplomatic service. So I would encourage your Americans to think seriously about it if they’re at all inclined. And I would encourage those who are not Americans to think about diplomatic service in their own countries, which provide equally interesting opportunities. So – a plug for public service.

MHL: You’re making that plug among the right audience! People here are very much committed to that field and there’s no other career like it. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

AMB. PICKERING: Thank you for your interesting questions and indeed for the opportunity to do this. I hope that people will find it interesting!

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