Former U.S. Ambassador and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering (F ’54) presented a keynote address, titled “Russia and Global Challenges for U.S. Foreign Policy,” on Sunday for the conclusion of the 30th Annual Norris and Margery Bendetson Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC) Symposium in the Cabot ASEAN Auditorium.
Pickering’s ambassadorial appointments have included Russia, India, the United Nations, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria and Jordan.
Arik Burakovsky, TA for this year’s EPIIC class and first-year student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, introduced Pickering and presented him with a Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award.
Pickering began his speech by addressing the differences between the United States and Russia, noting that there are “enormous and challenging difficulties before them.” He added that events like this year’s symposium provide useful opportunities for discussion.
“This kind of meeting … is an important one in which to share some thoughts and ideas,” he said.
Pickering underscored the dire situation regarding diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“U.S.-Russian relationships are a low point, perhaps the nadir so far … since the Cold War,” he said. “It is not difficult to understand why.”
Specifically, Pickering said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has found himself in difficult circumstances, but he is influenced by his desire to remain in power, calling him “a man with great ambition and serious aspirations” who is strongly driven by his own political background.
“My sense is … that President Putin is very concerned about his own ability to continue in leadership,” he explained. “State succession is not something that is highly developed in the new and modern Russia.”
However, Pickering stated that the West has suffered from obliviousness and has failed to consider how certain actions are perceived and interpreted by other countries, noting that to examine a problem with another side, one must first look at the problems on one’s own side. He added that this is “not a discourse to excuse President Putin from what I consider to be his numerous errors and serious mistakes.”
Pickering particularly emphasized the danger of Russia’s aspirations toward expansion of national territory in a period of time when most countries consider this to be contrary to international legal dictates, noting that this creates “a potential for serious conflict that we must find a way to avoid.”
The tools that Putin has made use of to achieve his goals are also inherently problematic, including the use of exhortation and the taking advantage of nationalist appeals, according to Pickering.
On the American side, Pickering explained that there is a tendency to view conflicts in terms of a win-lose environment, but there needs to be progress toward finding rational and logical solutions that interest both sides sufficiently.
“The process at the moment doesn’t seem to be there,” he said.
Pickering then opened up the discussion to questions from the audience, focusing first on Russia as well as the conflict in Ukraine before moving on to issues in the Middle East.
In turning toward Ukraine, Pickering focused on the need for a multifaceted solution to the conflict, arguing that sending more arms to Ukraine is not an answer to the question.
“My opinion is that what we must do in Ukraine is to find every conceivable way to find a path forward that can incorporate several elements,” he said, noting the need to make the recent Minsk II summit agreement work.
Further, there is a serious need to address how economic difficulties have exacerbated the problem in Ukraine, according to Pickering.
“My feeling is the Ukraine process and problem began heavily in the economic area, and almost nobody has talked about it,” he said, citing the need for international institutions alongside state actors, including Russia, to come together to develop proposals on “how to put the Ukrainian economy back on the road to growth and prosperity.”
The political circumstances surrounding further economic promotion, however, must involve a purposeful attempt to view Ukraine as a “bridge country,” rather than a part of the sphere of influence of either the European Union or Russia, Pickering explained.
“You ought to be able to work out a set of relations on both sides that can promote trade,” he said.
Regarding the feasibility of this kind of economic cooperation, Pickering said he is not sure about whether it will happen, but he noted that there simply has not been enough time spent thinking about how and in what way relationships in the region could be repaired or reestablished.
Pickering discussed the potential to increase autonomy in Ukraine’s eastern oblasts, noting that the Ukrainian government has failed to appreciate the value of the Russian language in the region. First and foremost, however, the settlement of the conflict must come from Ukraine, but language equality must be included.
Pickering also touched on his experience arriving in Moscow in 1993 and his perceptions of American aid and assistance in the post-communist country, noting that most expertise at the time focused on failed or failing states in Africa, Latin America and Asia, rather than transition economies. This focus meant there was little knowledge of Russian culture and language, and ideas to encourage growth were more shaped by past experiences than by efforts to look into what Pickering described as Russia’s “unusual set of circumstances.”
Other topics discussed included security threats in the Baltic states and the possibility of the reunification of Ukraine. Pickering then fielded questions on the civil war in Syria, reform of the United Nations Security Council and nuclear arms proliferation in Iran.
The keynote was followed by the symposium’s final two panels, “Political Engagement: Civil Society and Dissent” and “Sanctioned Split? Russia and the European Union” later that afternoon.