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Interview: Ambassador Thomas Pickering at George Washington University  12/2013

Intro: Despite a VERY rough transcript, this interview with one of the State Department’s greats is well worth the slog. Better yet, listen to the audio. Thomas Pickering is as informed as anyone today about the policy and operations of U.S. foreign affairs. Although the piece is titled “Public Diplomacy,” the interview goes well beyond the function of PD to give a tour d’horizon of critical issues that continue to occupy a front burner today, including the events in Benghazi and the examination and report that Pickering was asked to produce. He terms much of the media coverage of that event as “qualified for a peculiar Pulitzer Prize of creative fiction.”

The interview is informal, largely devoid of political slant, and gives the audience clear-eyed assessments and rare glimpses of behind-the-scenes questions, recommendations—taken and not—, and lessons learned in the conduct of our foreign policy. Pickering addresses the challenges of diplomacy today, operational decision-making in a world of instant information.  He discusses Russia, Iran, and regional consequences of the Syrian conflict.

With respect to PD, Pickering reveals his ignored recommendation for how best to structure and utilize Public Diplomacy within the State Department after the United States Information Agency was dissolved in 1999. He and former State Department spokesperson, P.J. Crowley, discuss the importance of considering the broad public dimensions of political decisions. What, at first glance, might seem simple and inconsequential—and a great buzz word—can have unanticipated consequences. Such has been the case with the unfortunate choice of the word “pivot” in reference to the Obama Administration’s new focus on Asia, which has had this PD practitioner scratching her head from the beginning, and has engendered predictable negative reaction from allies in other regions of the world. Another example of the significance of word choice in our diplomacy was the thorny issue of whether or not to call the takeover by Egyptian Military Chief Sisi (“CC” in the transcript) a coup.

The GW interview with Ambassador Pickering is full of interesting nuggets about the conduct of both diplomacy and public diplomacy. I recommend it for professionals and more casual readers alike.


Author Renee Earle, a Foreign Service Officer since 1985, has been Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University since September 2006. She holds the rank of Minister-Counselor. Her previous assignment was Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs at the American Embassy in Paris. Other assignments included Deputy and Acting Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau at the Department of State, postings in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Czech Republic, and Chief of the Central Asia Division at the Voice of America. Her languages are French, Russian, Turkish, Czech, and German. She has received the State Department’s Superior Honor Award and other awards numerous times.


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