Home The Washington Diplomat March 2007

New Mexico's Presidential Hopeful Dabbles in High-Level Diplomacy

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New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson delivered perhaps the best foreign policy quip of any presidential contender who spoke at last month’s Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington. The gregarious Democrat, widely viewed as an underdog in the rapidly developing race for the White House, managed to take a swipe at President Bush while highlighting his own international experience.

“I know the usual rap on governors—that we don’t know anything about foreign affairs,” Richardson told the Democratic faithful gathered at the Washington Hilton Hotel near Embassy Row. “Maybe you can say that about governors from Texas, but not this governor.”

The line got big laughs from the partisan crowd, but it also showed that Richardson—a former U.N. ambassador and still-occasional diplomatic troubleshooter—is serious about making foreign policy a key plank in his campaign platform.

During an interview with The Washington Diplomat last month, Richardson discussed the beleaguered state of U.S. diplomacy, his political future, and what it takes to negotiate successfully with some of the world’s most notorious dictators.

In January, Richardson traveled to Sudan with the blessing of the Bush administration and met with Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, whom he pressed unsuccessfully to allow international peacekeepers into the war-torn Darfur region. He won an agreement for a tentative cease-fire between the Sudanese government and the rebels, but it fell apart almost before he returned home.

Richardson also negotiated with the North Koreans over their nuclear ambitions several times over the past decade, both abroad and more recently at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. His 2003 discussions with the North Koreans in New Mexico were dubbed “green chile diplomacy” by pundits, some of whom credited him for prodding the North Koreans back to the negotiating table with the United States.

As a congressman, Richardson convinced Saddam Hussein to release U.S. hostages from Iraq. He also convinced Fidel Castro to free political prisoners in 1996, and late last year he persuaded Sudan’s al-Bashir to release Chicago Tribune journalist Paul Salopek, who was jailed on false charges of espionage.

Richardson, 59, said one of the keys to winning concessions from hard-line dictators is understanding their personalities and injecting levity into a climate of otherwise super-serious discussions. When Saddam asked Richardson to pose for a picture after the negotiations, the congressman joked that the photo probably wouldn’t do him much good in his next campaign. He talked baseball with Castro, whom he recalled as having severe dandruff.

“I try to find out as much as I can about their current state of mind and what makes them tick,” Richardson explained. “I used to read intelligence reports about them, and I would try to talk to those people that had seen them most recently.

“I also try to make them feel comfortable with me,” he added. “I always agree to go to their turf, as I have in Iraq and Cuba. I go to them.”

But it’s not all jokes, Richardson warned, and dictators’ egos command respect. “I try to show respect. I don’t get into diatribes,” he said. “I try to probe where there may be some areas of consensus and agreement. And most importantly, you always have to tell the other side why it’s in their interest to do what you want them to do, whether it’s releasing a prisoner or going with a cease-fire.”

Richardson first became enamored of foreign policy while attending college at Tufts University in Boston, where he majored in international diplomacy. While at Tufts, a former dean at the university’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy gave a speech to Richardson’s fraternity that emphasized the importance of languages and foreign policy in forging a political career. Richardson, whose mother is Mexican, already knew two languages, but the aspiring elected official remembered the rest of the dean’s advice when he packed his Alfa Romeo and headed west to New Mexico to launch a political career.

After winning a seat in Congress in 1982, Richardson sought memberships in international organizations such as the Helsinki Commission and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, eventually garnering a seat on the House Intelligence Committee. “I had a continuous interest in foreign policy early on as a congressman,” Richardson recalled.

The governor lamented what he described as America’s diplomatic neglect under the Bush administration and the erosion of the government’s ability to influence other nations since Bush took office.

“It has been damaged because we’re not perceived as using diplomacy first,” Richardson said. “Our treaty relationships are a problem, the NATO alliance is frayed, our status at the United Nations is diminished.

“The fact that we’re not engaged in the Middle East peace process has hurt us, and the way we entered into Iraq [without securing the endorsement of key allies] has really made America diplomatically weak,” he added.

That could change if he were elected president, Richardson said. “I believe we can recover with an act of diplomatic engagement policy—not just talking to our enemies and negotiating, but also refurbishing our alliances with our friends, especially in Latin America,” the governor suggested.

Richardson, who consulted closely with high-level State Department officials during his recent trips to Sudan and North Korea, senses a sagging morale among many U.S. Foreign Service professionals working in Foggy Bottom and abroad.

“I believe the State Department has felt the main policy on national security is made by the vice president and by the Pentagon—certainly that’s been the case in Iraq and North Korea,” Richardson said. “I believe that has lowered morale. That’s my general impression.”

He argues that “the Pentagon ran the Iraq policy,” noting that L. Paul Bremer, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, reported to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld instead of the secretary of state. “I think that demoralized the department.”

But Richardson was quick to point out that morale can be restored, and he expressed deep faith in America’s diplomatic professionals. “The department has a lot of very capable officers, and it’s a very good institution and they are all very patriotic,” he said. “They know they have to support whatever policy the president has exercised. But do they feel demoralized? Yes. Do they feel that the diplomacy of the United States has suffered? I’m sure they do.”

Richardson said he suspects many in the Bush administration resent his diplomatic work so he tries to be, well, diplomatic about it. “I never try to be a freelancer. I always coordinate with whoever’s in the State Department,” he explained. “It’s important that somebody who is not an official diplomat not work at cross-purposes of the administration. My missions to Sudan and North Korea have generally been supported by the administration.”

He added: “I’m sure they’re not enthusiastic about it, but I try not to step outside of official channel lines.”

Richardson suggested that he had won significant concessions upon returning from his recent trip to Sudan, including a 60-day cease-fire, even though that cease-fire was shattered almost before Richardson touched ground back in the United States. But he claimed progress nonetheless.

“The cease-fire is very fragile … there have been violations,” he conceded. “There is obviously tension, but the fact that they agreed to a March 15 peace process to negotiate differences I think is a step forward…. It’s not necessarily going to bring immediate peace. It’s made things better, but has it brought total peace? No.”

The governor said he was honored in December to accept a role as a special envoy for hemispheric affairs at the Organization of American States (OAS). Richardson said he will help to promote discussion on issues of importance to the region, such as immigration and free trade, as well as work to strengthen relations among member countries.

“At the request of the [OAS] secretary-general, I will deal with a variety of issues that he feels I can be helpful with, one of which is immigration,” Richardson said of the unpaid position. “This is not just U.S.-Mexico, but immigration issues affecting the whole hemisphere.”

In his autobiography, “Between Worlds: The Making of an American Life,” Richardson recalls his brief tenure as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the late 1990s as one of the highlights of his life. Richardson said he loves bright lights, big cigars and being at the center of the action, and felt that he flourished in the international hustle and bustle of the U.N. scene.

He admitted that the organization has some deep problems, but he is not one to dismiss it as irrelevant. “I believe the U.N. can be a valuable entity to pursue America’s goals,” Richardson said. “You don’t use the U.N. exclusively in every foreign policy crisis, but we should use the U.N. to build international support for our goals.

“It has some serious management issues that need to be addressed. It moves much too slow and there is too much bureaucracy,” he continued. “It needs to be modernized, starting with expanding the membership of the U.N. Security Council.

“But it’s an important forum to discuss not just peacekeeping issues, but humanitarian issues, genocide and many others.”

If he were to win the presidency—a possibility that he readily admits is a long shot—Richardson said he would set the following four priorities for U.S. foreign policy: mobilize international support for the fight against international terrorism; set up international efforts to fight nuclear proliferation, especially among rogue states, creating a new system of verification for nuclear weapons; wage an all-out fight against global climate change; and embark on an international effort to fight poverty, genocide and other humanitarian crises.

And if he doesn’t reach the White House? Would Richardson be willing—as many have speculated—to take on the title of secretary of state in a Democratic administration? Like Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Richardson said he’s in it to win it. Otherwise, he’ll go back to the “Land of Enchantment,” where he has a job as New Mexico’s governor until 2010.

“I’m running for president—I’m not running for secretary of state,” Richardson said. “I enjoy being governor a lot. If I’m not nominated, I’ve got four more years as governor. It’s a job I deeply love that allows me to dip into foreign affairs as I always have.”

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Last Edited on November 29, 1999