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Negroponte on Ukraine, Iraq and working for Kissinger

February 28, 2014
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discusses leadership and foreign policy with John Negroponte at the Ford School of Public Policy.

Melvyn Levitsky (left) discusses leadership and foreign policy with John Negroponte at the Ford School of Public Policy.

John Negroponte spent more than 40 years in American diplomacy, serving in Vietnam, Honduras, the United Nations, Iraq and several other places at critical times for U.S. foreign policy.

He reflected on his long career in a conversation about leadership and foreign affairs with Melvyn Levitsky, also a retired ambassador and a professor of international policy and practice at the Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan.

The wide-ranging discussion touched on everything from the politics of Latin America and the Middle East to the current turmoil in Ukraine and even Henry Kissinger’s work habits and love life.

Below are just a few edited excerpts from the Feb. 27 event, part of the Ford School’s Policy Talks series. A video of the entire discussion is available here.

Ukraine

“I think it was in the spring of 2008 when there was the Bucharest NATO summit that mentioned the possibility of Georgia and the Ukraine becoming members of NATO. I think we pushed the envelope just a bit too far in terms of expanding our radius of Western influence into what the Russians refer to as their ‘near abroad.'”

“For them, the fate of the Ukraine is a very neuralgic issue, particularly since there are historic ties. Frankly, I don’t know where this see-saw is going to end. When I saw Yanukovych flee, and the new government took over in Kiev and now the Russians are conducting exercises near the border of eastern Ukraine. I think is a very potentially explosive mix there. I think we need to deal with this in a low-key way. I don’t think we should crow about the success of a pro-Western government getting into office in Kiev. I think we should encourage some sort of reconciliation between these diverse elements in the Ukraine in whatever best way we can, without being too interventionist. Maybe we should let the Europeans take the lead. Then you have the other question: Who is going to pony up the money for this financially distressed economy? That’s another question we’ll have to deal with as well.”

Dealing with a divided U.S. government

“Here is the hardest part for anybody who wants to become an ambassador. If Washington is divided about what to do, it really makes your job that much harder to do. If you know there is serious division between the State Department and the White House. If you know there is serious division between the Congress and White House. And you’re supposed to be representing the entirety of the United States of America. It’s very hard when you don’t feel you have a unified government behind you. I think one of the ways I dealt with it was that I had a clear idea about some things that weren’t controversial that I knew I wanted to get done.”

Working for Henry Kissinger

“He was a real taskmaster. One of the most frequently heard stories that people who worked for Kissinger would tell you is that if you walked into his office and you gave him a paper you worked on, he’d look at you and say, without even reading it, ‘Is this the best you can do?’ If you said, ‘No,’ he’d give it back to you and say, ‘Well, come back when it’s the best that you can do.’ I’ve had to rewrite papers for him a dozen times. He was a real perfectionist. And he worked any hour of the day. He would go out to a black-tie dinner in Washington or the Kennedy Center, and he would come back at 11 or 12 at night and be working. If he was working on something you had responsibility for, he fully expected you to be there.”

“He dated Jill St. John. I remember at one of our Paris peace negotiations, we came back the day the North Vietnamese presented their plan to end the war and restore peace in Vietnam. It was a draft proposal on Oct. 8 of 1972, and Henry promised them a counter proposal the next morning. We all go back to the embassy, where we were staying at the embassy residence. He asked us to write the counter proposal, and he went out on a date with Jill St. John. And then we had to write it over again because he didn’t like it. He thought it was too tough.”

Iraq

“I volunteered to go because I said I’m a senior diplomat. I’ve been in this business for more than 40 years, and I’ve had some experience in Vietnam that I thought taught me some good lessons about how civilian and military efforts should collaborate together. I felt I could contribute to the better implementation of our policy by volunteering to go out there. The president invited me down for an interview and in 20 minutes he offered me the job.”

“I’m not sure I would have gone in when we did. I’m not sure we went in the right way when we did go in. I think it is hard to judge how it will turn out. I think there is somewhat of a chance we will be pleasantly surprised. But at the moment, they are going through a difficult patch. Will they fall back in disarray? I don’t think so. I think the institutions of the state are large and substantial. My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that they will hold together. But they are surrounded now by an awful lot of turmoil—Egypt, Syria and so forth.”

Intelligence

“Intelligence is a tool, not a panacea. Intelligence is not just collection. A lot of people think of intelligence as James Bond and daring-do efforts to collect information by breaking into people’s offices. Intelligence is the collection and analysis of information for the purposes of statecraft. And as far as I am concerned, it’s the analytical function where we frequently go wrong. We don’t see the trend. We don’t see the truth that’s staring us in the face. It’s not that we failed to collect this or that.”

Nation building and regime change

“I don’t think we’re too good at nation building. I don’t think we do that part very well. And I don’t think we’re very good at regime change. I don’t think our experience has been very salutary. The overthrow of Diem in Vietnam—what did that lead us to? The overthrow of Somoza and the Shah. You might not like the way they led their countries, but invariably the situation got worse after these things were done. The overthrow of Saddam. So sometimes you have to be a little more careful about what you wish for, it seems to me. And you also have to maybe have a little strategic patience. Democracy is not going to be built overnight. We have a lot of important alliances around the world. I think those are the institutions that we should really support. The alliance with NATO, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Thailand. Those are the relationships we should nurture in the first instance, and then hope that by example, that these concepts take hold in other parts of the world.”

“In Latin America, when I first joined the foreign service, practically every country was a dictatorship, but today the dictatorships are the exception to the rule. If you look at what happened in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War, it’s not because of us that they became democratic. It’s because of themselves.”

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