Considered by many the most accomplished diplomat of his generation, Thomas Reeve Pickering served as U.S. Ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, and Russia. While serving as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations The New York Times described him as “arguably the best-ever U.S. representative to that body.” He was Assistant Secretary for the Bureau for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs and ended his federal government career as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs.
Born in Orange, New Jersey in 1931, Ambassador Pickering received a B.A. in history from Bowdoin College and a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He went to the University of Melbourne in Australia on a Fulbright Fellowship and was awarded a second Masters. After serving three years in the U.S. Navy, Pickering joined the Foreign Service in 1959.
Beginning in 2003, Charles Stuart Kennedy conducted a series of oral history interviews with him. Pickering’s detailed accounts of the major diplomatic events of his forty-year career provide historic insights for scholars and tradecraft tips for today’s diplomats. Pickering served during a number of changes of Administration and noted how those transitions allowed leaders at the State Department to change the way the Department conducts business and implements foreign policy.
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Kissinger Puts His Stamp on the State Department
From 1973-74, Thomas Pickering served as Executive Secretary of the Department of State and Special Assistant to Secretaries William P. Rogers and Henry A. Kissinger
Sometime along in the fall of ’73 it became apparent that Ted Elliott was going to leave the Executive Secretariat. He had been engaged for I think three or four years in long battles with Henry (Kissinger) and the National Security Council (NSC) and the NSC staff. Actually, it emerged finally out of all of the contests they had that Henry had a lot of respect for Ted and for what Ted was doing and grudgingly, at first, but then later quite generously mentioned it…
I worked with Secretary (William) Rogers (seen at left) on a number of other things, including our ratification of the 1925 Protocol on Gas Warfare… so it became apparent after a while that they wanted me to take the Executive Secretary job, which I was delighted to do. I had been in (the Political Military Bureau) from ’69 until the summer of ’73. I was pleased to go on to a new job and anything as prestigious and interesting as the Executive Secretary was very welcome. I had no inkling that when I started to work for Rogers he was going to be gone in a month and that Henry was going to come in and we would go through the Middle East (Ramadan-Yom Kippur War) war, among many other things in that very short period of time. Henry would then ask me to go to Jordan [as U.S. ambassador] at the beginning of the year.
The Executive Secretariat, when I first came in, was pretty much involved in a couple of things: the Operations Center was pretty much coming into its own, a regular long-term watch beginning to standardize procedures. It had become an alerting center for the Secretary and for the Seventh Floor principals, becoming in effect a standard way of coordinating in the intelligence community on judgments and impressions and opinions about fast-breaking crisis developments, and obviously staying in support with the Department’s principals, in those days particularly with the Secretary and the Deputy Secretary.
The second piece was the Line, in which a group of excellent young officers reviewed paper prepared for the Secretary and the seventh floor principals for completeness – for, obviously, ability to hang together in terms of the policy advice – and to make sure that the rest of the Department was signed off for clearance. There were, I think, in Bill Rogers’ time, very few bypasses of the Line. In Henry’s time they began to multiply with great rapidity.
[By “bypass” I mean] a piece of paper that wasn’t vetted through the Line, but got on the Secretary’s desk anyway. There were a number of ways to do that. One way was obviously to go to one of the Secretary’s executive assistants and bypass the Executive Secretariat, and another was to come to me as Executive Secretary and see if I would personally put it in, given a) its sensitivity or b) the need to move it in a hurry.
This is always dangerous because often these represented a single person’s point of view, often an Assistant Secretary or a bureau point of view, but without all the competing interests brought in. There was a certain value in this, in the sense that it tended to rise above the lowest common denominator Department opinion, so it was always kind of a close call. I wanted to be involved in those even if they were not clearly vetted by the system, and I tried to hold those down to a small minimum.
It was also very clear that the Executive Secretary in those days did an awful lot of work, particularly with Kissinger, that the Secretary personally wanted done. Some of it had to do with personnel at very high levels – bringing people back to help staff the Department that the Secretary wanted and which he used the Executive Secretary rather than the personnel system at least to talk with the ambassadors overseas.
Ted had developed the LIMDIS/EXDIS/NODIS (Limited Distribution/Executive Distribution/No Distribution) channels during his time and regularized those. We attempted to use those and he had developed several versions of the NODIS Channel on call. One was “Cherokee” which was reserved for the Secretary’s personal use. We got a lot of use out of that particular channel as things developed with Kissinger, who wanted things particularly close-hold and also who at the same time wanted to be totally in command of what was going on in the Department.
We were at the period where jobs were being filled and he hadn’t yet brought back Dean Brown who was coming back from Jordan to be his managerial focus. Joe Sisco was going up to be Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Roy Atherton took over NEA (the Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs) and a number of other people around were being shuffled one way or another. Henry was spending, as you remember in those days, half of his time at the NSC and the other half of the time in the Department — usually mornings at the NSC and afternoons and late evenings in the Department.
It was an interesting arrangement and it became one of the major ways in which Henry (seen at right) stepped into the Department. I can remember that I heard of Bill Rogers’ departure just about the time everybody else did. I think he called me in one morning and said that he was about to leave and shortly thereafter it became a public fact, and then Henry’s announcement by the President proceeded almost on the heels of that, if not with it.
Then Henry came over and I can remember I had a fascinating opportunity with Ted to see Henry when he called the two of us out to San Clemente in California. We spent a whole afternoon. Ted was about to leave and I was about to take over. I came back with a short list of three hundred action items from Henry of every conceivable type. I became the initial liaison between Henry and the Department to get all these things done or to get them underway. It was everything from his security detail to what we were doing about a whole series of foreign policy issues, to the funding of his office to everything else you could conceivably think of.
Years later on several occasions, Henry was kind enough to say that after he left the Department, he was shown a memo I had prepared after San Clemente “eyes only” to the Regional Assistant Secretaries. I spoke to them frankly about my assessment of the Department under Henry, what he was expecting and how I thought they should respond. He said that he thought that I was right on in my judgments and made gratifying statements about how and what I had done to help mobilize the Department to support him.
I think that initially he arrived in the Department with a lot of skepticism. He had known some Department officers and had respect for them. The ones particularly who fought with him, I think he had more respect for. So he began immediately to start picking people.
Using the Transition from Secretary Kissinger to Vance to create OES and win Budget Battles
From 1978-81, Pickering served as the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs
(The organization that eventually became the Bureau for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, OES) arose because at one point after I had left the Department to go to Jordan, Henry asked the usual question, “Why do I have all of these special assistants I never see?” He said “let’s take a look at reorganizing” and I think that Larry (Eagleburger) who was there and maybe George Springsteen and a couple other people said, “Well, we have a common thread of science and scientific-like work, why don’t we sweep these all into a bureau?” And they set up a bureau. They had a very good guy who was not a career Foreign Service Officer but had been in the Department long enough and had been an expert in this area for a significant amount of time to become the first leader of this new bureau. It became OES.
It was a bit like PM (the Bureau of Political Military Affairs), how PM was organized in the period before that in the early Nixon period, when a bunch of folks working on arms control and related issues were pulled into PM and I went over there fairly quickly and worked for Ron Spiers, who was the second director of PM… We had a bunch of people floating around the Department who did work which was similar, and that made sense not to have them as special assistants to the Secretary any longer, to kind of tax his staff and not function in a coordinated way, but to coordinate those into a new bureau for such Pol-Mil purposes.
OES in those days was fairly large. I think we had 185 or 200 people on the Washington end, and almost nobody overseas to speak of, except the science counselors and attaches. We did lots of interesting programs all over the place and as a result we had a huge range of contacts with the executive branch, departments and agencies. We managed a lot of those. We actually looked over how HHS (Health and Human Services) and its cooperative agreements was working with other organizations in foreign countries and international organizations. We had a wealth of international organizations of a scientific character that we were working with — UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Social and Cultural Organization) was one…
Then we had a huge range of contacts on the Hill. The Whale Lobby was one of my favorites — and I was not one of theirs — but it was interesting. We had all the animal protection treaties. The CITES treaty [Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, 1973] covered in part the non-importation of ivory. There was just a huge panoply of very interesting things going on all the time.
One of the most interesting experiences I had was that, during my second year, my budget was cut fifty percent by a disappointed Congressman who worked his vengeance on me because I wouldn’t dismiss someone in order to hire one of his diving buddies to be a Deputy Assistant Secretary in my bureau to deal with oceans and fish. At least that was, in my view, the reason. This came to us out of the blue. The Department, Congressional Relations, didn’t pay much attention to it. I had a couple of very good special assistants who watched the Hill for me and they discovered this very quickly. I was then left on my own by the Department to go out to defend and try to restore on the (Congressional) floor the fifty percent cut made in committee.
My folks who had all of these contacts on the Hill and around town did an absolutely fantastic job. We just lobbied the Hill tremendously while the State Department hung back in Congressional Relations. I was trying to build up my bureau and the State Department in the eyes of this big community to convince them that we could work their issues and be successful. I had a sense of responsibility with respect to them. They all suddenly turned around and saw this cut coming.
The people I worked with on the outside of the Department understood they were going to lose much of the relationship they had in the State Department through OES and any influence in State along with it. So those outside people also worked hard to save us. We actually saved the budget in a floor debate which went on for a couple of hours. We ended up with something like 160 votes in the floor of the House in favor and 80 against restoring the OES budget.
As UN Ambassador, Working with President Bush’s and Secretary Baker’s Teams
Pickering was U.S. Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations from 1989-92
[On being asked to return to the Department and working with Secretary Baker] I think Baker had by then begun to put together his own team. Bob Kimmitt who I worked with extensively and perhaps the most directly relevant Baker person is, if you know Bob, an absolutely sensational person to work with, — very open. Bob was military academy graduate, had been a military officer and done other things in the government and knew how the government worked and came in as Under Secretary for Political Affairs.
Larry Eagleburger (seen left) was Deputy Secretary. So Larry obviously also interfaced with the career service. I had a lot to do with both of them and they were much more in my line. (North Carolina Senator) Jesse Helms had wanted John Bolton to come in and be Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizational Affairs, which was not obviously my first choice. I didn’t know much about John, but what I did know about John did led me to believe he was someone who thought the UN would not be a useful instrument of American foreign policy, if I can put it that way. So John came in after the time that I got up to New York, but I had an opportunity through mutual friends to meet him and we talked.
We had a civil relationship throughout the whole period of time, but I had, from time to time, to call Secretary Baker when I felt that I was being asked to carry out instructions that were not accomplishable and talk to him about what we were doing. He was always willing to receive calls. I didn’t bother him frequently but on those infrequent occasions when I did he was helpful. And from time to time in the middle of difficult negotiations in New York over resolutions I needed to resort to him to help on tie-breaking and he was extremely good. He didn’t always take all of your recommendations but had ways to suggest moving ahead and had his own ideas about can you get this, can you get that and I said, “Sure, let me try that.” So we had a very good professional relationship on that basis…
George Bush, Sr. you know had grown up in foreign affairs. He was ambassador to the UN, represented the U.S. in China before we had full relations, and was Director of Central Intelligence. His background and his interest was very broad… It was very clear he was fascinated with what was happening, extremely interested in what was going on. Brent (Scowcroft) would often join in. I have the greatest respect for Brent. He is tremendously able, remarkably capable, a very, very strong analyst of foreign affairs and obviously has kept his hand in intensively since the time he worked first with Henry Kissinger as his deputy and then subsequently as National Security Advisor for Nixon and Ford. He then was brought back by President Bush. President Bush had a great deal of respect for him — and a great deal of give and take with Brent about these major issues.
I found from my first days at the UN, when George Bush was still Vice President, he had me over and we spent 45 minutes in the Vice President’s office then talking about the issues that were coming up and where the UN would fit in it and how he would see that develop. He remained very active on things like the important resolution on the use of force to counter the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 1 August 1990. It could never have been achieved without the tremendous amount of leg and telephone work that both Secretary Baker and President Bush did to make that happen. You know big countries don’t go to war because their Perm Reps at the UN say that is the right thing to do. That was above the pay grade there. It was very clear and very obvious that to bring something like to happen required that highest-level effort.
Pickering as a Seminole?
Ambassador Pickering served as Ambassador to Russia from 1989-’92
What happened [during President Clinton’s Administration] was that the State Department had begun a search for a new ambassador to Russia under conditions of change; Yeltsin had come in. Bob Strauss had gone out just at the time of Yeltsin’s standing on the tank on the barricades in August 1991 and supported Yeltsin. Bob had been there a year and decided that, with the Clinton administration, the Clinton administration should go find a new ambassador. The Clinton administration, according to the historical reports to which I later had access, looked around at a few people. They couldn’t find a willing volunteer from among the preeminent and widely noted. So, as usual, it dipped down into the Foreign Service and somehow Yours Truly’s name came to their attention.
I had an interesting experience over this because in December after the election I was called to Little Rock to interview with President-Elect Clinton for another job… We had a very nice interview and a good discussion; I came out very pleased with the results. I got on a plane and stopped over in Frankfurt. I got a call from Warren Christopher who had been handling personnel and Warren informed me at the Frankfurt airport that the job had gone to somebody else, which was obviously something that was disappointing to me but nevertheless…
So I went back to India, but Christopher had said that they certainly had things in mind for me. So along about –it must have been mid-January or so — I had a call at three o’clock in the morning from Peter Tarnoff, who was Under Secretary at the time. Peter said in a kind of cryptic way in the middle of the night — and I was half awake — “We would like to have you go to FSU. I said, “Well Peter, why would you want to send me to be a Diplomat in Residence at Florida State University? Are you really unhappy with the job I’ve done here or do you have somebody who you think is going to do a better job in India?”
I said, “I don’t have any real interest in going to Florida, maybe I can have my choice.” So he said, “No, no, no I was being cute; it’s the former Soviet Union.” It was Russia. So I said, “Well, obviously this is something I would like to do. It will not be easy here because they had just been four months without an ambassador before I came, or five months without an ambassador, and they will be unhappy. They will want to know if somebody is coming to take my place and if so who and all the rest of it.” He said, “Well I can’t tell you the answer to all of that because that hasn’t been decided yet. But at an appropriate time in a few weeks we’ll be announcing this…”
I came back from India at the end of March 1993. I headed for Moscow in May. I was there around the 20th of May. Clinton had just come into office in January and Yeltsin, of course, had been in place for a couple of years in Russia. But this had been one of our most important and difficult, tense, strained and significant relationships — so it was a high priority.
Working with the Clinton Team on Russia
The President had asked Strobe Talbott (seen right) to come in to cover Russia. Strobe was an old friend and roommate of the President’s at Oxford. They had been together for a long time and talked a lot. Strobe in effect became “Mr. Russia” for the State Department. Warren Christopher had brought him into the State Department. He became Special Assistant to the Secretary and Ambassador-at-large for the area of the former Soviet Union. This piece of what had been in the European Bureau when I came in was in the course of being established as Strobe’s virtual bureau for dealing with the former Soviet Union. It included not only Russia, but the other former republics of the Soviet Union, absent, interestingly enough, the Baltic States, which went to EUR [the Bureau of European Affairs] right away and stayed with EUR. It got the initials S/NIS which stood for the Secretary’s office dealing with the Newly Independent States…
The administration and management stayed with EUR. Strobe was in effect operating as the Regional Assistant Secretary on the policy issues, but his own broad contacts with the administration and his own background both as a journalist and in politics and with Clinton meant, in fact, that he was very much at ease working with Tony Lake at the White House. Tony was then the National Security Advisor with Sandy Berger as his deputy. Nick Burns was over at the White House about that time dealing with Soviet affairs. Toby Gati went over there for a while and then later came over as head of INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research] at State.
The group was quite tight knit; they had pretty much a broad-gauged view. Jim Collins who was holding the fort as the embassy’s DCM and charge when I arrived, stayed with me until roughly from May till October. Then Strobe asked him to come back, which was very much his preference, to become Strobe’s deputy on NIS affairs. I worked very easily with both Jim and Strobe from Moscow at that time. I learned a lot from Jim in particular while we were together. Then I got Dick Miles, who was ambassador in Azerbaijan, to come up and take over the DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] job. Dick had had long experience in Russia and had the language. He had been part of the Soviet-Russia crew for a long period of time. I thought that was essential for continuity to make sure that we got the best of his expertise and the expertise of that organization integrated in the embassy while I was there learning Russia. Yet again this was another learning experience for me.
As Under Secretary, Breaking Down Stovepipes within the Department
Pickering was Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs 1997-2001
I think the notion of creating a separate bureau had lots of pros and cons. My view is that the smaller the bureau, the less time and attention the Assistant Secretary gets from the Secretary, because the range of issues is smaller…
I have long argued that we should go back to a five-bureau structure for the regions and something comparable for the functional bureaus. As you know, we have in general support bureaus in the State Department, like the Legal Advisers Office and INR, and we have management and administrative bureaus, but a rule of five for each of those would reduce something like forty-plus now Assistant Secretary-level officials to something closer to twenty reporting to the Secretary. That would make sense even in a rarified bureaucracy like the State Department.
In my view the State Department has numerous problems of how to deal with functional issues and regional issues all at one time. It’s obviously going to continue to be a matrixed organization. We are not going to let one point of view solve all problems, but the fewer people we have in the room representing the diversity during key decisions, the more likely we are to get white smoke out of the chimney rather than black soot.
The Department should be able to settle policy issues in the main at a reasonably low level… I felt that the Under Secretaries by 1996 had become much too stove piped. Too many issues were being dealt with by them within a cluster of bureaus that they considered reported to them, and not across the Department. My view was always the Under Secretary role should be as a surrogate for the Secretary on issues the Secretary was not going to take an interest in. If the Under Secretary, by dealing with all the bureaus interested in a problem, could solve the problem for the State Department, that would take a lot of weight off the Secretary. That meant having in the room people not only who were in the “cluster” of the Under Secretary’s bureaus, but people from all the bureaus interested in and relevant to the decision. That was the way to get at the answer on behalf of the Secretary and it made sense…
(On his views upon taking the position of Under Secretary) There are a couple of things that might be worth considering here. One was my appreciation of the job as I came into it and the things that I felt needed to be done. Then secondly to follow on from that, because it’s a logical segue, is the interest that Madeleine Albright had in trying to bring about some reforms in the operation of the State Department. I volunteered to help. Then those ideas eventually got morphed or aligned into process ten years later, when Secretary Rice undertook to look at the same issues and where I joined her committee looking at transformational diplomacy…
I came to the Under Secretary’s job with a sense that this was the ideal job for a Foreign Service Officer and I left fully reinforced in that view. In that sense it is considered usually the highest-level job a Foreign Service Officer can get aspire to. People like Walt Stoessel, John Negroponte, Bill Burns and Larry Eagleburger were all Deputy Secretaries and then Larry [Eagleburger became] Secretary of State. So there isn’t a total glass ceiling, but there is a kind of glass ceiling in which Foreign Service Officers who have the luck and, I suppose, a reasonable amount of success can aspire to hit up against.
Secondly, there is a tendency to see that job as a combination of a number of things. One, the Department’s crisis manager — and certainly I had that role in many crises and with many issues — obviously subject to the Secretary’s and Deputy Secretary’s own interests. But in the main, I was either the crisis manager or supported the Secretary or the Deputy Secretary if they wanted to do that. It all worked out quite well. In that context I worked closely with the inter-agency process in the Deputies Committee at the White House and with the special group to deal with terrorist threats…
“Stove piping” is a word that has now achieved general currency, but it means that information, activities, policy recommendations and ideas are channeled through narrow conduits within the bureaucracy up the line to the Secretary so that outside reflections and other ideas are either eliminated or prohibited or — because of the bureaucratic arrangement — often never let other ideas from the outside see the light of day. I should begin by saying that anybody that looks at it for half a minute will understand that the State Department is a matrixed organization. That means that on every policy issue there are always competing bureaucratic interests. These are essentially best represented in the ‘matrixing’, if I can call it that, by the regional bureaus, the five or six bureaus that, in effect, divide up the world, have the money to run the embassies and are the major workhorses and powerhouses of the State Department and the functional bureaus set up over the years to represent the series of world wide-scale issues such as arms control or climate change.
Preeminent among them and perhaps the most important and perhaps the longest-lived is the Economic – now Economic, Business and Agricultural – Bureau of State It reports in a stovepipe up to and through the Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. So, in this matrixed organization, I believe in the Christopher period of the Clinton administration, the process was, from what I understand, very heavily stove piped. So that my predecessor Peter Tarnoff had, as I did, supervision over the regional bureaus ,and to some extent — while it wasn’t formal in any way at all — we looked carefully at the work of the International Organizations Bureau, and to some extent the Intelligence Bureau, which was heavily relied upon by the regional bureaus although not part of ‘political affairs’ cluster.
What I did when I came in with respect to that was a couple of things that I think in my view helped to improve the performance of the State Department while I was there, although I’ll let the historians judge that matter. I don’t think they were permanent, although Marc Grossman who succeeded me kept a number of them on…
But what I tried to do — and it came about in an uncanny way because as I was being asked to take this job –Stuart Eizenstat (seen left) who had been Chief of Staff to President Jimmy Carter and who was a superb lawyer and public servant and someone I had worked with for years, called me. I had gotten wind of the fact that he was also being solicited to become Under Secretary for Economic Affairs. He said, “I will take this job, Tom, if you do the political job.” Nice of Stu to say that; it wasn’t necessary. I said to Stu, “I always felt the same way about you Stu, so let’s go ahead.”
Then he said, “Well, I have one question for you.” I said, “Sure, what is it?” He said, “Can your people attend my meetings?” And I said, “I don’t know what you mean.” He said, “Well, I understand that the regional bureaus report to you and are in somehow locked into you and the tradition is that they don’t go to meetings that involve economic issues.” I said, “Stu, that’s a travesty, of course they can come to your meetings. One of the things that I will do is encourage that and — if there is any problem, please let me know if you have any difficulty – ensure participation in your meetings goes ahead.”
And that the second thing is that I will do the same and I will tell you that my approach will be that I will certainly, on the basis of my close relationship with them, meet with the Assistant Secretaries for the regional bureaus whenever they want to meet on a private basis. But when we have a decisional meeting to discuss foreign policy recommendations to the Secretary or for my decision, I will have all the players in the room whether they are from the Economic Bureau or from the Legal Advisors Bureau or from whatever bureau it may be.”
So we agreed to work that way and it worked out splendidly. I don’t think we ever had any problems.