The Art of Personal Diplomacy

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On the eve of President Bush's six-country tour of Europe and looking ahead to a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at Kunnebunkport, Maine, Liane Hansen speaks with former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering about the art of personal diplomacy.


President Bush will practice the art of diplomacy this week. He leaves tomorrow for a six-country tour of Europe. The high point of the trip will be a summit of the Group of Eight industrial nations. Next month, the American president will engage in a different sort of diplomacy - the personal kind - when he plays host to Russian president Vladimir Putin during his visit to the United States.

Lately, the two nations have had some heated disagreements, which may have influenced President Bush's selection of venue for the meeting. President Putin is not going to the White House and he's not going to the Texas ranch. He's been invited to President Bush's parent's home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Thomas Pickering was ambassador to six countries during his career in the Foreign Service. He was ambassador to Russia during the Clinton administration. We've reached him on the line. Welcome to the program, Mr. Ambassador.

Mr. THOMAS PICKERING (Former U.S. Ambassador): Thank you, Liane. It's nice to be with you.

HANSEN: It's nice to hear your voice. Help us understand just how far things may have fallen. This week, Putin criticized the United States for what he called imperialism in global affairs, and he said, and I'm going to quote, "it wasn't us who initiated a new round of the arms race". What do you make of that tone?

Mr. PICKERING: Well, he's reacting to the missile defense question in which the United States is looking forward to establishing missile defense positions in Poland and in the Czech Republic, and this of course has concerned the Russians who I think have over exaggerated it by trying to portray this as something which would offset the operation of mutual deterrence.

I saw president Putin in December last year in a small group and he was quite vociferous in saying that he had a very strong relationship with the president, which he deeply appreciated. But he felt that the president was not being well informed about Russia.

It would seem to me that their meetings, which will take place both at the G8 where they normally have a bilateral aside. And the meetings in Kennebunkport will provide a useful opportunity for both the president and President Putin to clarify their objectives on these particular issues and to stop what I have seen over the years - a gradual decline in U.S.-Russian relation. Something that I think neither meets the needs nor the aspirations, or suits the interest of either side.

HANSEN: So do you think the president's personal touch with his approach - this invitation to Kennebunkport - can be effective?

Mr. PICKERING: It can be, particularly if it's well prepared. We've seen over the years personal diplomacy at the head-of-state level, which is well prepared to provide the opportunity to breakthrough on difficult questions where, in fact, the decision has to be reserved to the highest level. And where the two high level figures - knowing the situation very, very clearly - are prepared to work toward the kind of compromise that's necessary.

HANSEN: Are there certain problems, do you think, that tend to be resistant to this kind of diplomacy?

Mr. PICKERING: Of course, there are. We can only look at the Middle East to know that in fact personal diplomacy at the highest levels at the end of the Clinton administration appeared not to be sufficient to get the parties to go along with what preeminently seemed to all of us who've been engaged in that situation for a long time to be a fair and just agreement.

HANSEN: And there have been some successes of personal diplomacy?

Mr. PICKERING: Well, there have been successes as well. I think we can look at a whole range of successes from - for example in Russia, getting the nuclear weapons out of the states of the former Soviet Union back in the '90s, where Ukraine and Kazakhstan and Belarus all inherited nuclear weapons. That was one important achievement in which at the heads-of-state level it was important to get agreement to make that happen.

We can look at the important agreements that had to be made in the reunification of Germany after the end of the Cold War. We can look at lots and lots of other good questions that in one way or another the participation of leaders at the highest level was important to make that achievement possible, Nixon's visit to China and so on in numerous occasions, which President Clinton and I had the opportunity to observe this close. He was able to work out agreements with Russia and with other states as he proceeded in carrying out U.S. interests.

HANSEN: Are there glaring failures?

Mr. PICKERING: Yes, I think so. I think there was a serious misperception if I can be diplomatic at the famous meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik in Iceland about what to do about the future of nuclear weapons. I think they had the right idea but they didn't have their staffs and their advisers with them, and nor did they have, eventually, what we're still searching for is a formula of how can we be secured, a world without nuclear weapons when, in fact, we have no perfect system for assuring that somebody doesn't develop on clandestinely.

HANSEN: To what extent do you think personalities actually translate into diplomatic achievement, given the presidents we've discussed are certainly all different kinds of personalities?

Mr. PICKERING: There are limits but it's also extremely important. There are limits in the sense that personalities, I think, can transcend important national interest. But personalities can make it possible for people to be cooperative, energetic, and imaginative in dealing with national interest. And so I think it's important to - not to exclude or overlook the important value of close personal relationships whether it's the head-of-state level or down throughout diplomacy.

It makes a real difference. Are you trusted? Can you speak for your country and get it done? Are you someone who can exercise imagination in trying to find careful solutions that attempt to take into account the interest of both sides and come out with a win-win? And those are human qualities and human traits that are absolutely invaluable in bringing success to diplomacy.

HANSEN: Thomas Pickering was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the first President Bush and undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Clinton administration. Thank you for your time, Mr. Ambassador.

Mr. PICKERING: Thank you, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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