Academics and Research / News

Hill talks diplomacy, Wikileaks and DU

In September 2010, State Department veteran Christopher Hill assumed the dean’s post at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. During his 30-plus years of foreign service, Hill routinely has been at the frontlines of history, negotiating with the North Koreans, promoting peace in the Balkans and most recently, serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

In early January, Hill sat down with DU Today to discuss his remarkable career and offer his insights on recent events in the international arena. A video of that discussion, along with the transcript, will run in three installments. This is the first installment.   

DU Today: Dean Hill, you’ve been dean of the Josef Korbel School for over four months. Can you give us some sense of what has been the most challenging thing about the transition from foreign service to academia?
It’s amazing that you say it’s only four months, because it has seemed like more than four years or so. Indeed there have been a lot of things to get used to, a lot of new things to do. In terms of the most challenging, it’s really to get up to speed with the curriculum, understand our courses, understand what degrees we’re trying to offer students. And the second thing is to get to know people because there is an incredible number of people to get to know.

DU Today: And have you met students?
Yes, I’ve met students; I’ve done a lot of guest lecturing, and I’ve met them standing in the coffee line. We have some very good students, and I’m pleased about that.

DU Today: Now that you’ve had some time to assess the lay of the land, what are your aspirations for the school.
Well, I tend toward the professional — that is, the fact that every student I talk to wants a job, wants to know how to get a job. So I think we kind of owe those students a professional education, which will prepare them for jobs. But at the same time, I’ve come to understand that you need a pretty serious academic atmosphere, and the way to get that is to maintain a good PhD program, among some other things. So I think that like a lot of things in life you need balance — balance between a professional school where you’re preparing people for certain jobs, and we need that academic quality. You know, if this were just about our professional school, people might as well go off and work in the bowels of some department in Washington for two years. This is not just about training, this is about education. It’s not just about preparing people for junior jobs they might get into in their mid to late 20s but preparing them eventually to have senior jobs. So I think it requires a balance of training and education.  

DU Today: Over the 30-plus years of your career, you’ve served everywhere from South Korea to Poland to Iraq. You’ve been at the frontlines of history, representing the United States at the Six Party Talks related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, helping to negotiate the Bosnian peace settlement, and you served as ambassador to Iraq during a critical period. You’ve seen diplomacy work, and you’ve seen it founder. What have you learned about the limits and possibilities of diplomacy?  
Well, certainly not every situation is amenable to diplomacy. Some situations require the use of force. But what you like to have is a situation where force is a complement to diplomacy — that is, you are trying to achieve something diplomatically and having the threat of force might be useful. So you’d like to see force as a part of diplomacy and not diplomacy as a part of force. That is you should go in there first with the idea that you can try to solve something diplomatically. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always worth trying.

You mentioned North Korea. What was interesting there was that back in 2004, many people in Asia blamed the United States as much as they blamed the North Koreans. Now to us, it’s kind of preposterous to blame the U.S. for North Korea’s behavior. But there was a widespread perception in the region that the United States was not seriously engaged in diplomacy, and when you are perceived as not really engaged in diplomacy, people wonder what your real commitment to resolving the issue is. So we got really engaged in diplomacy. It did not succeed — as you say, it foundered. But on the other hand, we demonstrated to everybody in the region that the United States was committed to a diplomatic track, committed to doing all we could to make that work, and therefore, when things failed, no one was blaming the U.S. for it. 

DU Today: The late Richard Holbrooke once described you as “brilliant, fearless and argumentative.”
I always take issue with the last part.

DU Today: That’s arguing. How would you describe your style as a negotiator and as a diplomat?
Well, thank you for mentioning Richard Holbrooke, who, I’ve often said to people, was both a mentor and a tormentor of mine. He was always there and gave me a lot of advice, told me when I was doing things right, and certainly let me know when he didn’t think I was doing things as well as he could. So he was very inspiring to me, and I must say I learned a lot from him. I think a lot of the people who have worked with him, feel they have a piece of him with them — the little tricks of the trade, the performance art, the feigned outrage at things. Some of those things I picked up from Holbrooke. Some of them I also picked up from Groucho Marx, so you never really know.

Essentially I think the trick is to try to understand where the other guy is coming from, what the other guy wants, stack that up against what you want, maybe work out a deal on the basis of what that guy wants and what you want. Maybe the other guy, the interlocutor, wants something that you don’t think is that big of a deal, but he thinks is a big deal, so therefore you can probably work out something. The first thing is to put yourself in the shoes of your interlocutor and make sure you completely understand what is going on in his mind.

DU Today: You must have to do a lot homework for this.
A lot! You have to do a lot of homework, and sometimes … you’re kind of cramming for an exam. A professional diplomat doesn’t necessarily know how a nuclear reactor operates, doesn’t necessarily know how plutonium is produced, for example. You have to learn some pretty esoteric stuff. For those of us who rely on seventh-grade science to get us through the day, that’s really not enough. So often you have to just sit there and cram for exams just to make sure you know things. But importantly, I think you need to build a team. You need to build a small team of people who can cover all of these different bases, so if some really technical matter comes up, you can turn to the guy on your team who really knows the technical matter and say, “Hey, does that make sense?” And you can go forward. Building a team of people that you trust and people who trust you, people who are willing to work as hard as you, people who really have a sense of loyalty — I think that is probably the most important thing I’ve learned in diplomacy. It doesn’t just start with whom you are negotiating with, it starts with your own team. 

DU Today: As you look back on your career, if you could do something over, what would it be?
Do over? I don’t know, I’ve been pretty happy with things that I did. I think back: Is there anything I could have done on the North Korea situation, is there anything I could have done on the Kosovo/Albania situation? You know, sometimes people would point to these situations and say, “They’re doomed to failure.” And then eventually they do fail, and they say, “We were right and you were wrong.” But actually, going through the process was helpful, as I explained earlier with the North Koreans. By the end of the process, no one doubted the commitment of America to really support a diplomatic solution. Similarly, at the end of the Rambouillet process, which was the French chateau where we sat with the Serbs and the Albanians, at the end of all that, no one doubted that frankly the Serbs were not interested in a real peace agreement. So sometimes you do have to go through things even though you realize that your chances of success are not so great.

You don’t really regret those sorts of things. What you regret really are the ways you may have handled relationships. You may have been harsh with people, and with the fullness of time you really don’t like that sort of problem. When you look back at it and you look at people, at how you managed people and how you managed relationships, there is always a lot of room for improvement. 

DU Today: Any chance you’re working on a memoir?
Well, I’ve been thinking about what to do about that. What is the role of diplomacy in the U.S? You know, for many Americans, we look at ourselves as this misunderstood big country. Very few Americans wake up in the morning and say, “I want to dominate the world.” Yet that’s the way many countries think of us, that we have this insatiable appetite to tell everyone else in the world what to do. I don’t think it’s true, and I’d like to write about that. Certainly it would have to be part memoir, but you know frankly, if it were just memoir, I think it might put the reader to sleep. I hope my kids would read it, but I’m not sure who else would. It’s good to be at the Korbel School in this very intellectual, scholarly surrounding as I consider what to do about writing up my thoughts.

DU Today: Late in 2010, the famous Wikileaks began releasing more than 250,000 cables from various U.S. embassies around the world. I believe a couple of your cables and certainly some of your observations were apparently in the bunch. What are the long-term ramifications of this release?
You know, I think it’s a very bad thing. I’m not saying the world is going to end because of Wikileaks, but I think it’s a very, very bad thing when someone tells you something in confidence and you cannot keep it confidential. I think it’s bad in one’s personal life, and I think it’s bad in one’s professional life. Because after all, what are you trying to do in diplomacy? You’re talking to someone from another country, and you’re trying to get them to do something that they may not otherwise do. So why would they do it? Why would they do something you ask them to do if they didn’t want to do it in the first place? Usually the answer comes down to they trust you. They think that somehow you’re a standup guy, somehow you’re a person who can be relied on, and so they’re going to go ahead and do it. And then months later or years later, lo and behold the conversation you had with that person, that you dutifully wrote up and sent in to Washington, to be sure that people in Washington can understand what you’re doing out in the field, lo and behold that appears for the entire world to read about. So what does that do to people’s trust in diplomats, to American diplomats who are perceived as not being able to keep secrets?

So I think it’s a big problem. I’m seeing a lot of short-term revisionism where people are writing these articles and noting that the world hasn’t collapsed as a result of Wikileaks, that actually there are a number of silver linings — for example, showing that diplomats actually work hard. Well, that wasn’t news to me. I’m sorry if it’s news to various academics or pundits who couldn’t figure that out. I think this is a very bad thing that this nation can’t keep people’s confidences. 

DU Today: Will the Wikileaks releases do lasting damage to our relations with some of the countries involved?
Well, it’s hard to say. In terms of relations between states, probably not. I mean, nobody died. That’s a good thing, but it’s certainly knocked us down a peg and made us look foolish, to be sure. But I think the real effect is whether people will be willing to tell their true views on things, whether people will be wanting to tell tales out of school. I’m not sure they’ll want to. And then secondly, if I were out in the field today, I’m not sure what I’d really want to put in a telegram. So I think the real losers in this will be, in the long term, the scholars who go over these telegrams once they’re declassified. They’re going to find a lot of empty telegrams with slogans in them rather than real thoughts because you’re not going to want to put your real thoughts in a telegram that’s going to find its way to the front page of The New York Times, or worse yet, page 12 of The New York Times

DU Today: We find ourselves in this situation because of the impulse to make information more available.
Well, I think the bitter irony is, of course, that in, quote, trying to make this information more available, it will ultimately serve to make it less available. That is, trying to strive for transparency, there will actually be less transparency. I find it a very damaging episode. I feel that the person who gave this treasure trove, as The New York Times referred to it, I think that person should be in real criminal jeopardy. But you know I find it, at the very least, distasteful for some of our newspapers to be gleefully passing these things around because they’re not meant for the general public to be reading. And when people say ‘Well, everything should be meant for the general public,’ I defy you to find an organization that would want every single memo, every single memorandum of conversation put out there to the general public. Very few organizations would want to do that. I suspect there are comments made in The New York Times boardroom that probably those members would not want to see out in the general public. Heck, it might even be true at the University of Denver.

I think it was a real invasion of the right of an organization, in this case the State Department, to do its job. We have plenty of means to oversee the functioning of the State Department, starting with congressional committees. To have this gentleman, who I guess is Australian or British or Swedish, I’ve lost track, appoint himself as the person who is going to oversee what is deemed sufficient transparency, it’s, how to put it, rather hard to take. 

DU Today: Has there been anything in the Wikileaks releases that has surprised you, that caused you to say, “I didn’t know that”?
Not really. There are patterns you can see. The smaller and less important the post, often the more attempts to use humor to try to get people to read their cables. A rather sad statement, but you can see that happening. You see the most serious embassies, and I like to think that the place I was in, Baghdad, was pretty serious, you see very little humor, very little flippancy. In fact, you see a real effort to try to deal with some tough issues. I don’t feel embarrassed about anything that came out of the cables that I had a hand in, either writing or clearing. I want to hasten to add that these cables are not written necessarily by ambassadors, even though the ambassador’s name is on the bottom. They’re written by very hard-working political or economic officers who, once they write their cable, they have to get them through this gauntlet of clearance, from their section chief to the deputy chief of the embassy right up to the ambassador. Often they don’t get the credit they deserve for writing what are, in many cases, very well-written telegrams. 

Next: Christopher Hill revisits his tour of duty in Iraq, where he served as ambassador from spring 2009 until summer 2010.

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