Former United States ambassador Thomas Pickering discussed his views on foreign policy and his storied multi-decade diplomatic career at University of Richmond Monday.
Stephen Long, a political science professor, led the discussion with Pickering in the Brown-Alley Room, where he conducted an hour-long interview with the ambassador based on a compilation of questions submitted by those that registered to attend.
“Ambassador Pickering is definitely the type of person who has devoted his life to public service, not in the service of a party or an ideology," Long said when asked why Pickering was chosen for this dialogue. "We want to remind students that there are people like that in government. The government has a lot of roles to fill, and they’re not all blatantly political."
Pickering served as ambassador to several countries during his time with the Department of State, including Jordan, El Salvador, Nigeria, Israel, India and Russia. From 1989 to 1992, he held the position of ambassador to the United Nations, playing a significant part in the First Gulf War.
After retirement, the Department of State Foreign Affairs Fellowship program was also renamed the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program in his honor.
When asked about how he thought other nations reacted to the tumultuous U.S. election and the status of democracy in the country itself, Pickering said that he believed nations such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Russia, which were dissatisfied under the Obama administration, were hoping for any potential changes in U.S. policies.
“I’m not sure this change is for the better though. It proves, in my humble view, that even democracies can make terrible mistakes," Pickering said, referring to the recent change in administration. "But we have to wait and see whether in fact that judgement is ratified by the performance."
He also voiced his reservations concerning the unprecedented changes made to the National Security Council this past weekend, but was interested in seeing them put to the test.
“I think the tendency to kind of shoot from the lip and make decisions rapidly, but make them without consultation and without much look at the consequences, is not the kind of pattern of national behavior which produces confidence abroad, and it may even affect confidence at home,” he said.
On U.S. foreign policy regarding crises, specifically that of Syria, Pickering said that it was too early to tell if changes would be made following the presidential transition, but that ceasefires and technocratic leaders dedicated to rebuilding the structure of the nation and the people themselves were essential even before governmental changes are made.
Recalling his time as ambassador to the United Nations, he said that while the U.S. had not used its Security Council veto powers for “trivial things” unlike as he claims China, Russia, and the U.K. have, “The U.S. has certainly overdone it in blocking UN role in Middle East peace.”
He referred to a lack of earlier U.S. action for bettering relations between Israel and Palestine, a sentiment he agrees on with former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Expressing his views of the future of NATO and the European Union, he said that that the two bodies should work more closely to further political and security integration in addition to economic integration.
Pickering spoke finally of his own challenging experiences made as a foreign affairs official and diplomat, recalling the times he had to make choices regardless of his orders or lack thereof from Washington.
In closing, he gave a technical overview and description of what a career in foreign affairs entailed and required to those in attendance curious about pursuing one.
Owen Parker, RC ’20, attended the event and said he was inspired by Pickering.
“Thinking of the thirst for new possibilities that new age explorers must’ve felt, I think the modern iteration of that is in these diplomats like Pickering that travel the globe and deal with a myriad of foreign nations," Parker said. "I would absolutely love to take his place.”
Contact reporter Arrman Kyaw at firstname.lastname@example.org