Alone and Together: US Foreign Policy in the 1990s: Interview with Thomas Pickering

By Meszaros, Andor | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Alone and Together: US Foreign Policy in the 1990s: Interview with Thomas Pickering


Meszaros, Andor, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

An interview with Thomas Pickering, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, is presented.

Text:

Before becoming Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in 1997, Thomas R. Pickering served in some of the United States' most important diplomatic posts around the world. He has been US Ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria, and Jordan, as well as President Bush's Permanent Representative to the United Nations. During his time in Russia (1993-1996), he oversaw US involvement in the critical early years of that country's postcommunist transformation.

In his current post, Undersecretary Pickering oversees the State Department's regional bureaus and has played a decisive role in major recent events ranging from Kosovo to East Timor. Senior Editor Andor Meszaros spoke with Undersecretary Pickering in early October about US-Russian relations, NATO, and the UN.

HARVARD INTERNATIONAL REVIEW:

You were the Ambassador to Russia for several years. How would you characterize the US-Russian relationship today?

The US-Russian relationship has been through some hard times, but I would say we also have developed a keen sense of how each of us sees the other and about how each thinks and operates. On the Russian side there is a clear sense of concern about the United States and what its goals and objectives are, as well as feelings of hurt that somehow they were not automatically rescued from the difficulties brought about by the fall of communism. On the US side, there are concerns about the commitment of Russia to a future in which political systems and economic arrangements are going to produce the best results for the people in Russia. There are also deep concerns about the Russian government's ability to deal with problems such as corruption and criminality. "Active engagement" may be the best way to describe our relationship that spans international cooperation, security issues, and reform.

Do you think that US foreign policy toward Russia since 1991 could or should have been conducted any differently?

In many cases I think tactical details might possibly have been slightly different, but the fundamentals we are committed to with respect to Russia, the political reform and economic change and integration of Russia into the international community, remain very much the same. The strategies for dealing with these goals-the combination of high-level diplomatic contacts, the development of a cooperative working style, and the involvement of the United States in critical assistance programs in key areas-would have clearly remained the preferred ways of doing business with Russia. But should we have done a particular thing X, Y, or Z at a particular time? Was a specific economic policy recommendation wise or not? These in my mind are tactical issues open to question. On the other hand, I do not think they fundamentally affected the outcome. If I had a sense of nostalgic regret, I would say that perhaps we didn't move fast enough with some of our programs of support or assistance, particularly with regard to the judiciary and similar areas. On the other hand, I cannot tell you that the Russians were ready to absorb much faster programs that we might have been able to provide them.

Turning to the effectiveness of US policy, given the anti-Western sentiment that exists at least within the Russian government if not with the Russian people, how do you think the United States can effectively promote its point of view through its foreign policy?

We have to do a number of things all at the same time. We have to be able to encourage the Russians that principles are very important both for them and for us, and that we have to maintain a commitment to them in order to be able to have any kind of a relationship at all. Yeltsin, despite occasional differences in view, has remained basically committed to a lot of these principles and increasingly his governments have as well. …

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