The United States Permanent Representative, Thomas R. Pickering, votes against permitting the observer for Palestine to participate in the Security Council discussion on the current situation in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Legendary US Diplomat Thomas Pickering Explains How the US Can Get Its Multilateral Groove Back

Ambassador Thomas Pickering is a legendary retired US foreign service officer. He had a four decade career in diplomacy, including stints as United States ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, Nigeria, and El Salvador, among other key postings.

In 1989, President George H.W. Bush appointed him United States Ambassador to the United Nations where he played a critical role in marshaling broad international support against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

The diplomacy that accompanied the international effort to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the early 1990s is considered to be a high water mark for US multilateral engagement.This is why I was curious to learn from Ambassador Pickering about what opportunities may exist for the incoming Biden administration to re-establish US global leadership and multilateral engagement?

We kick off discussing the Trump administration’s approach to multilateralism before having a broader conversation about the changing nature of the UN and ways the Biden administration can productively work with with allies and adversaries to advance American interests and the global good.

If you have 20 minutes and want to learn from one of America’s most decorated diplomats, have a listen.


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Today’s episode is produced in partnership with the Better World Campaign as part of a series  examining the opportunities for strengthening multilateral engagement by the new Biden-Harris administration and the incoming 117th Congress. To learn more and access additional episodes in this series, please visit


The Trump Administration’s “Disengaged” Foreign Policy

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:02:30] I’m curious to have you help us contextualize and perhaps, situate the Trump administration’s last four years of engaging in multilateral platforms and engaging the U.N. How do you characterize their approach to the U.N. and to multilateralism?

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:02:48] In a word, Mark, a disengagement. Even in cases where it might have proved to be advantageous. In part, that was, I think, ideological. In part, it met the judgments in the needs of the domestic audience to which it was designed to appeal, the so-called Trump base. And in part, it reflected the advice of people who were, in one way or another, like John Bolton- totally committed against international institutions, in large measure, because they felt we had given up decision-making authority, sovereignty to those institutions which we couldn’t recover and which would be, in one way or another, contrary to U.S. interests. Often they explained that the international institutions were engaging in activities to which the U.S. was committed, which in one way or another, overturned or suborned the 50 states of the United States to play a role in those areas- something they alleged was guaranteed by the Constitution in the specific cases that they raised.

[00:04:14] So this is to go from the very general to the very specific. The important pieces to keep in mind were that we sent people to the United Nations in New York who attempted to operate in the Security Council in ways that failed to understand the absolute necessity, in the Security Council, of bringing about a coherence of the membership around an action the U.S. wished to take there, to reinforce U.S. interests or outlooks. The U.S., in addition, withdrew from the WHO, [it] also made noises about withdrawing from the World Trade Organization or resiling. It blocked World Trade Organization progress in dealing with disputes appealed to it under the WTO treaty arrangements by failing to concur in the assignment of judges to those arbitration panels, and it in a number of ways, defunded or underfunded the United Nations, including funding for the organization specifically dedicated to assisting Palestinians- mainly refugees and people, children who are schooling in health care and things of that sort. But in other areas, it also declined or reduced United States funding for the United Nations. And so we have significant accumulated arrears. Perhaps as cogent and maybe more significant for the United States, was turning NATO into an organization. The sole purpose of which, was designed to increase NATO members funding against a kind of 2% target of national GDP devoted to defense.

[00:06:19] Not necessarily bad in terms of U.S. Interests, and not necessarily bad in terms of how and in what way NATO should pull together, but in some ways, remarkably ignorant of the fact that NATO members contributed in their own way a great deal more than just the 2% that is technology, organized military relationships in areas of the world which are important, including Afghanistan, and the cohesion of the alliance as a whole, which was being attacked by the United States solely on the basis of financial contributions and some clear willingness to ignore the fact that not all NATO members had domestic constituencies that were exactly the same.

[00:07:19] A more adept way would have been basically private conversations, at some length, with NATO members to add up the totality of their contribution, and a staged approach to which the organization could agree to each side making the necessary increases to revitalize the organization. There was and has been a steady decline in U.S. willingness to trust or deal with organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is expected. The nuclear arrangement with Iran has consistently indicated Iran was not in violation of the arrangement up to and beyond the U.S. withdrawal, in May of 2018, from that organization. And so, we could go on and on, unfortunately.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:15] There are any number of U.N. agencies in which this dynamic is is exposed. I am curious, though, to probe a bit deeper on your remarks about the Security Council. It seems though, that this paralysis at the Security Council predated the Trump administration. I mean, you saw the barbs being thrown between Samantha Power and her Russian counterparts far before the Trump administration took over. Is there a specific missed opportunity at the Security Council that you could point to, that is unique to the Trump administration as opposed to, say, broader geopolitical forces?

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:08:58] I think there were a number of cases where we could, perhaps, have gone to the council. Certainly, were we to get out of Afghanistan, creating a basis in the Security Council for a kind of an agreement that might actually permit that to happen, or to reduce U.S. contribution. Similarly, Iraq, and admittedly, for Russia and China, it would have taken some creative work. But neither Russia nor China, in the long run, were, I think, totally committed to keeping the US in either Afghanistan or Iraq. And the price of getting out could well have been a Security Council resolution which set forth the terms and conditions for that. That was something at least that could have been thought about.

[00:09:52] The same thing in Venezuela- where we are on different sides of the equation. But humanitarian relief should have been a common interest. And as well, the potential for a UN-supervised election would have, in my view, proceeded more effectively had we sat down with the Russians and the Chinese ahead of time and talked about how, and in what way, an election should be run or how, and in what way, humanitarian relief should be provided. So I think, Mark, there are a number of cases. You’re right, of course, that the differences politically with Russia and China preceded the Security Council and the Trump administration. I think that in some ways, if you read, for example, Susan Rice’s book and talk about the relationship she had with her Russian opposite number -someone that I knew well and had worked with and with whom I shared much the same admiration, interestingly enough- about the potential for cooperation, which he, in one way or another, helped arrange with Moscow.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:11:05] You’re referring to Vitaly Churkin?

[00:11:07] Churkin, yes. Vitaly Churkin. Let me just sum it up by saying the Trump administration, which was basically disagree, ignores most of the international cooperation, including that which would have strongly promoted U.S. Interests.

[00:11:25] The value to the United States of international cooperation, of alliances and coalitions, has been proven time and time again -since the end of the Second World War- as one of the major features of the landscape that has added to our own sense of our importance, if I can phrase it this way, as international leaders. But it was a smart move. It, in effect, meant that others who were opposed to where we and our alliances want to go, were in a minority and politically quite highly isolated. And I know they felt that leverage and I know they have sought to return. And it’s certainly one of the principal motivating factors of Mr. Putin’s diplomacy, and one cannot say that President Xi is far behind.

How Did the United Nations Change in Response to the Absence of US Leadership?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:19] How have you noticed the U.N., itself, adapting or changing during the Trump years? How has multilateralism responded to the disengagement that you just described? I mean, I recall perhaps maybe halfway through the Trump administration, Antonio Guterres giving a press conference and urging American engagement with the U.N. saying that the U.N. -the liberal international order- abhors a vacuum. We want the U.S. To be engaged. To a certain extent, that fell on deaf ears. And I’m curious to learn from you how you saw the U.N. evolving and changing during this time, adapting to that relative disengagement.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:13:04] I think two things. I think the U.N. felt victimized and it was treated with, basically, disdain and disquietude by the Trump administration and therefore it lacked and lost cohesion, commitment, and action possibilities that otherwise would have been helpful. And we lost opportunities to, in fact, have the U.N. work with us as part of the instruments of American foreign policy activity, to achieve our goals. Now, those are simple, grand, and wide statements but I believe, in effect, they are proven.

[00:13:44] The U.N. Is not something like a slot machine- one can automatically put something into the Security Council and out will come an action result with everybody marching off into the sunset singing Kumbaya- but it is an important part of how we proceed. And it begins in the Security Council, which is, in part, the recognition of a coalition of international states from various parts of the world who are prepared to work together. It has the unique advantage in all international institutions of being able to pass resolutions which the members of the organization have all agreed in advance it will honor and obey, even though only 15 members of the organization make them. Now, the U.S. and the other members of the permanent five are excused from this mandatory obligation by the veto.

[00:14:40] Nevertheless, it has still been successful in a number of areas, and I can remember how hard we worked when Iraq invaded Kuwait, back in 1990, in 12 successive resolutions, to frame how and in what way we wanted to proceed with Iraq including the necessity, at the end of the day, through the failure of sanctions and other pressures to work to authorize the use of military force -not widely and often done, but- something that brought together the five permanent members, perhaps, in a day when things were more hopeful, more idealistic, and more subject to international cooperation. That day may well have passed very quickly, but could we have kept it alive? Perhaps.

[00:15:31] My greatest feeling in that period was that we should recognize that our success in dealing with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. [It] was not something immediately replicable in the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Balkan tragedy, which followed on a smaller scale in dealing with the problems of fragmentation and disruption in Somalia, for example. And we acted as if the Iraq example was immediately transferable but we had no clear vision of the outcome and no clear commitment to making it happen, would that have required the use of some kind of broader UN peacekeeping, peacemaking responsibilities on the ground.

How Can the Biden-Harris Administration Reset American Foreign Policy and Embrace Multilateralism?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:16:25] I’m glad you mentioned your experience in marshaling international support to compel Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. It was widely regarded by scholars today as a high point for international cooperation and a high point of the Security Council and the U.N. as a platform for enforcing peace and security around the world. That’s not where we are today, of course, as you just mentioned. And I’m curious to learn from you, what steps the incoming Biden administration can take, if not to regain that sort of lost Halcyon day, but rather to more productively, at least, engage the U.N. and in multilateral affairs. What advice might you give and what steps might you suggest that the U.S. now take to help regain its multilateral footing?

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:17:22] Well Mark that is the important question and whether we get back to where we were-

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:27] That’s why I’m asking you, Ambassador.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:17:29] 1990 or ’91 is a hard slog, but I think it is possible now for us to understand, first and foremost, that a number of issues in the United Nations Security Council are going through. Some of those  are routine recommitments to peacekeeping, some of them more far-reaching than that, but not as far-reaching as authority to use force. Secondly, I believe the Biden administration in their appointments, but also in the action of their appointees, needs to begin to create in the United Nations two things that I think are very valuable- a very close, ongoing relationship among those who represent the P5, as much as possible, and a careful selection of measures to take in the Security Council, which have some possibility of coming to fruition, and the use of both the U.N. Representative but [also] the Secretary of State and the President to make that happen-something that James Baker and George H.W. Bush did extensively in dealing with Iraq.

[00:18:43] It was not purely that New York worked like clockwork and all one had to do was wind it every once in a while from the U.S. Mission. It was, in fact, a national committed strategy to make that happen. That won’t happen on everything, but I think we can do it on more things as they come along where we can find common interests. And, for example, Russia -which is seen as, perhaps, one of the most fractious of our interests- We share common interests on terrorism and exchanging views and intelligence on terrorism. We share common interests in space. We will, I think in the Biden administration, be able to help bring the Russians along.

[00:19:27] The Chinese are mostly there on climate change. If, in fact, we work with them closely and we work with the Chinese to make that happen. And those are important questions, not just at the U.N., but they’re important questions in our bilateral relationship with the triumvirate- if we could call it- multilateral senior powers- if I could phrase it that way. And the more we work to consolidate our efforts to stabilize the planet on common interests that are existential for us- and I think that’s what climate change is- the more likely we are to be able to use that relationship as the linchpin, the foundation stone, for working together on smaller issues on which we have perhaps bigger differences. Some will have to be set aside for a riper time. Some will have to be, as George Shultz often said, cultivated like a garden, which requires daily attention and hard work. And some will have to be a recognition of the fact that our diplomacy, in an innovative way, can pick up areas of common agreement and use constructively the quite significant leverage that still remains with us.

[00:20:48] Not all sanctions produce useful results, and we need to be aware of that. But some do. Not all military steps can be taken without the danger of backfire or getting into conflict, but some can. Not all problems can be addressed on the basis that there is an assumption that the other side so totally disagrees with us that we can’t find the strings. The threads -to put it this way- of potential harmony. And that’s what diplomacy is about and so, I think a very active diplomacy there -to find more ways to use better something like the Security Council- should be fundamental. It won’t be entirely dispositive. That is the only clear answer, in and of itself, but it will contribute to American diplomacy and, of course, that’s what’s out there. But I often say diplomacy is turning challenges into opportunities. And the U.N. Security Council meeting is replete with the former. We have had less success in getting the latter, but I have at least given you some thoughts about how we might do that.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:04] It’s interesting to me that you cite climate change and engaging on climate change as a straightforward path to engaging on other complicated diplomatic issues.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:22:17] When I heard John Kerry on the subject not too long ago -and I don’t think he would mind being quoted- before he was appointed as the so-called czar, but he himself, I think, understood that relationship with China in particular. And the truth is that China has, perhaps, more money spent on the production of wind energy than any place in the world. It has, perhaps, more careful thinking about the negative effects of climate change, not only in its coastal zones but in its agriculture and in its water scarcity as well as the necessity. And they’re not there yet of turning its energy relationships away from coal and toward renewables, perhaps through the medium of nuclear on the one hand, and gas on the other. And so it has a better concept, I believe, than we have been able to settle upon. And while we were moving closer four years ago to some harmony and a number of American corporations deeply invested -if I could put it this way- in the energy space or in the carbon production space. [They] themselves, realize that they had to help lead in change. Much of that has disintegrated around what has been, essentially, if I could call it, the fake arguments about the fact that climate change is not here.

What to Expect from Linda Thomas-Greenfield

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:51] And lastly, like you, Biden’s nominee for U.N. Ambassador, Linda Thomas Greenfield, is a career foreign service officer. And that’s unlike the last set of, say, five or six most recent U.N. ambassadors. Is there a comparative advantage that being a foreign service officer might confer as she enters her new job?

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:24:17] I think the important point here is, I believe [in] a professional background. And I was very lucky that I had been in many parts of the world before I went to the U.N. and as a result had some knowledge of the problems and issues that countries were contending with. I also think I approach this as a diplomatic challenge -that it was like working in a parliamentary situation with diplomatic tools- not that diplomacy in state legislatures doesn’t occur, or in the Congress, but it was an interesting opportunity to calculate.

[00:24:54] So, one of my imperatives was to get to know everybody I could at the UN. who ran the policy of any country. And so in my first couple of months, I saw as many people as I could and [made] personal calls. And those that I didn’t, I had around in small groups, to my apartment for what was essentially a reception which was based on getting to know you. And I worked very hard with the regional groups. I spent time with people who, in the U.N. system, may not represent great powers, but they represent great capacity and great intellect. And part of the challenge is to find out who moves and shakes the U.N. on various issues among the representatives. And it’s not all the big people from the big countries.

[00:25:49] And so delving into those things I think helped me a great deal in dealing with the problem. And I spoke as much as I could with both friends and enemies. And so while I didn’t have instructions not to, I took advantage of those to begin to cultivate contacts with the Cubans. They were not necessarily miraculously productive, but people knew that I spoke to the Cubans and, in some ways, that helped me when the Cubans became members of the Security Council. And I went out of my way, in the informal meetings of the Security Council, every time my Cuban colleague spoke, to pick out of what he had to say things that I could call a Cuban American Agreement. And there were often things that we could agree to. I’m trying to find ways to portray to him, and to the rest of the U.N. audience, that even difficult opponents like Cuba and the United States could find things to work together on.

[00:26:53] And it helped to defang the animosity around our relationship, and it helped to defang, a bit, his attacks on me. And I found it a technique that helped me in the Security Council because rather than becoming the champion of the opposition to the United States on all points, we had a little bit of a private record of places we could agree on. I didn’t change Cuba overall, but it changed the way I dealt with them diplomatically. So there are many of those kinds of things that a professional diplomat would be more inclined to take on.

[00:27:34] I had a very interesting agreement later in her life with Jeane Kirkpatrick. She told me a wonderful story which illustrates the difference between professionals and politicals. She told me that on their second day at the United Nations, she got an invitation to a reception from Korea. And so she immediately accepted and went to it. The problem was, it was the wrong Korea. And the wrong Korea thought that some new relationship was being opened up. It took her a little while to shake that down. And when she carefully admitted that it was something that she should have looked at much more carefully, and of course, that a staff that was professional, which I guess she wasn’t using then, would have advised her on.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:28:20] Well, Ambassador, thank you so much for your time. I always appreciate learning from you.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering [00:28:27] Thank you Mark, it’s a pleasure, as always, to speak with you. I hope this is useful to you and to others who may have an opportunity to hear it, understanding that we have opportunities ahead and that the U.N. and international organizations are good for us. And they help us in many ways in increasing our leadership capacity and, indeed, our work together for common interest built around things like peace and security.