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Ambassador Thomas Pickering: Science is a "Positive Element" in Diplomatic Relations
Arnaud de Borchgrave and Thomas Pickering
With the world strained by geo-political conflicts and stressed by the threat of nuclear proliferation, shared interests in science and technology can help create a common ground between the U.S. and its strongest competitors and foes, former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering said at AAAS.
In a discussion with foreign affairs journalist and analyst Arnaud de Borchgrave, Pickering said that though the United States' global influence has waned in much of the world, its strengths in such crucial fields as climate change, health care, and water issues could provide a basis for U.S. scientific engagement with even hostile countries.
"If you look around the world, despite what is certainly a serious decline in U.S.... popularity, the science issue has not faded from the center of foreign interest in us," said Pickering, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Israel and four other countries. He has also served as Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, and earlier in his career he was assistant secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs.
Pickering listed disarmament, nonproliferation, energy, climate change, environment, development, health, food, water and immigration as worldwide diplomatic issues "intimately involved" with science. "Without good science and without the work of science, those issues cannot be resolved," he said.
In the contemporary world, science and diplomacy have to be intimately connected," said Norman Neureiter, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security. "As Colin Powell said, 'Diplomacy is the first line of defense,'" Neureiter said. "When the talking stops, that's when the shooting starts. In a nuclear world, that can be really serious."
During their 7 October discussion at AAAS, Pickering and de Borchgrave, who covered 18 wars in 30 years at Newsweek, spent 90 minutes discussing the role of the United States in the world today and how the next U.S. president might approach diplomacy. The foreign affairs experts—who have known each other for nearly 40 years—emphasized U.S. relationships with Russia, China and Iran. Science, they said, can play a strong role in those relationships.
De Borchgrave, now director and senior adviser for the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, guided the conversation by asking Pickering questions on U.S. diplomatic efforts across the globe. He began with Iran, which has an advancing nuclear program that could pose a threat to the whole region.
"We're far from out of the woods," Pickering said. "The good news is that I don't think that we have exhausted diplomacy, and I think some of the good news is that there is still time." Pickering added that at this point military action by the U.S. against Iran does not make any sense, as targets are ambiguous. Plus, Iran would likely counter with "formidable, asymmetrical retaliation," de Borchgrave said. For example, Pickering added, Iran could direct Hezbollah forces in South Lebanon to attack Israel.
That doesn't mean that military power is irrelevant. Diplomacy backed by the threat of force and sanctions is still viable, they said. "I do not believe we have run the string out for diplomacy," Pickering said.
He said that direct talks with Iran—without preconditions—would be a good strategy. Currently the United States has said it won't negotiate directly unless Iran agrees to not enrich uranium for any purposes. "The real problem is that I don't think that is going to get us anywhere, and it's been dragging on for years," Pickering said. "You all know the common definition of insanity, which is continuing to do the same thing but expecting different results," Pickering said. "So, I believe we have to change what we're doing."
But, Pickering said, such direct talks should be held at a suitable level. He advised against meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying that he does not view the president as the arbiter or decision-maker inside Iran. "He's powerful, but he is not the answer," Pickering said. "I sometimes think that there is a serious danger in beginning discussions at the top level. In large part because when they collapse, you have no place else to go."
Turning to India, where he served as U.S. ambassador in the early 1990s, Pickering offered the AAAS audience examples of how science facilitated diplomatic talks during his nearly 40-year diplomatic career.
"While our relationship with India was at best in the doldrums, the one set of questions that we worked on—that was the one bright star in U.S.-India relations—was our science cooperation. Indians still value it very highly," said Pickering, now a vice chairman of the international consulting firm Hills and Co.
Pickering emphasized how seeking common ground and looking for the positives—such as in science—can have an impact on other more difficult and volatile problems. As a starting point for the next presidential administration, he pointed to Russia.
"Are we destined to be opponents?" asked de Borchgrave.
"No, I don't think so," Pickering said.
Pickering recommended that the next U.S. presidential administration have an "early sitdown at a very high level" with the Russians and offer them some alternatives: renewed confrontations or finding common ground. "We can sit down—as we must—and figure out those long series of questions in which we have a common interest," Pickering said. With positive elements on the agenda and shared visions in mind, then "we have at least attenuated the notion that the only common denominator between Russia and the United States is a whole set of negative issues," he said.
Such an approach was successful in China, Pickering said, where the U.S. has been concerned over China's policies on "a whole range of negatives," including human rights, nuclear proliferation, and Tibet. To counter the negatives, Pickering said that diplomats picked some positive areas and the two sides began to cooperate on some issues.
"When you have positives on the agenda you suddenly have an interest in both sides in dealing with those sets of problems which are win-win against a backdrop of negatives," Pickering said. The strategy can "attenuate the negatives, and in sometimes actually come to grips with them."
Toward the end of their discussion, de Borchgrave steered the conversation to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on their shared border, saying that the area "seems to be going downhill fast" as the Taliban edges closer to Kabul and the Taliban maintains sanctuaries in federally-administered tribal areas.
"Where is all this going?" de Borchgrave asked.
The former ambassador said that there doesn't yet seem to be a responsible, respectable political leader in Pakistan. His recommendation to begin firming up a "spongy, difficult, dicey" border—where Pickering believes a well-protected Osama Bin Laden lives—with the old tried and true method: "large bags of money." Although the approach might not be "music to people's ears," and though it might not be easy, it could lead to more traditional approaches to dealing with Pakistan's border.
When asked about al Qaeda, Pickering answered that while the United States has made some in-roads by "taking out upper levels of the second tier" of the terrorist group, "the nagging and terrible difficulty is that we haven't been able to take out the control centers." The disparate groups within al Qaeda are separately recruited with different lines to the control centers, and the organization's high secrecy practices have made it difficult to target the control center.
"We have had to go out and pick off the pieces and we don't know if we've gotten them all. And the center still remains," he said.
De Borchgrave ended their al Qaeda discussion by asking Pickering to rank the threat to U.S. national security imposed by Al Qaeda today on a scale of zero to 10, with zero being the greatest threat. Pickering put the threat at 4 to 6.
The conversation, attended by about 90 people, was co-sponsored by the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security and the new AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy. The Center for Science, Technology and Security aims to integrate science in national and international security issues. The Center for Science Diplomacy seeks to help scientists and policy makers form collaborations with the overall goal of using science to facilitate international understanding and prosperity.
11 November 2008