An Interview with John Negroponte, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq

USA NegroponteJohn Dimitri Negroponte served in the United States Foreign Service from 1960 to 1997 and has held nine different senatorially confirmed presidential appointments. A native of London, Negroponte graduated Phillips Exeter Academy and Yale University, and attended Harvard Law School before joining the Foreign Service. In 1981, Negroponte became the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras. He also served as U.S. Ambassador in Mexico and the Philippines, as well as Deputy National Security Advisor under President Ronald Reagan. After briefly working as an executive with McGraw-Hill, Negroponte served in the Bush Administration as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 2001 to 2004, and as Ambassador to Iraq at the time of the 2004 handover of sovereignty. In 2005, he was named the first ever Director of National Intelligence, at which time the New York Times wrote, “If anyone can bring a semblance of unity to America’s bewildering network of competing spy agencies, it is John Negroponte.” He subsequently served as the United States Deputy Secretary of State before joining Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, where he currently works as a research fellow and lecturer in international affairs, in addition to serving as the vice-chairman of McLarty Associates. Negroponte speaks five languages and is married with five children.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I joined because I had been in diplomacy since a teenager. I had grown up in an internationalist family, and I had taken my junior year abroad, so it was something I had always wanted to do. I applied to join in my senior year in college.

The Politic: How do you think that the Foreign Service has changed since you entered in 1960?

The Foreign Service probably hasn’t changed that much. It is a little bit bigger. The skill sets required are very much the same: political, economic, administrative, public affairs and so forth.  There is probably more emphasis on public affairs today than there used to be in the old days because we tended to be — I don’t want to use the word secretive, but we guarded information more closely than we do today. Also, technology wasn’t what it is today, so certain chores that were officer level tasks back then are now things that you can do by consulting the Internet.

The Politic: Have you seen the representation of women change drastically over the years?

That is the probably one of the most significant changes. Women were in a distinct minority and in fact there was a very antiquated rule enforced when I joined, which required that women resign from the Foreign Service if they decided to get married. That changed about ten years after I entered the Service.

The Politic: Do you think that if you were to begin your career anew today, you would find yourself entering the Foreign Service?

Given what motivated me, namely my interest in international relations, history, and current events — these were the things I really followed carefully and closely — I probably would. However, I think there is one big difference between now and then: the delta between public sector pay and private sector pay is a lot bigger than it used to be. You could almost count on earning about the same amount if you joined the Foreign Service or if you went to work as a trainee at Citibank. That would not be the case today.

The Politic: Do you have any advice for students considering a career in the Foreign Service?

There is one — consider the financial angles. I am obviously very much an advocate for public service, but if your interest in life is making money, then you may have second thoughts. The other thing that you have to remember — and this was true then and this is even truer now — is that if you are married and both members of the couple have professional careers, there are stresses and strains that are caused by moving every couple of years in and out of the countries. The transfers that take place — usually in intervals of two, three or at most four years — can be a problem for families.

The Politic: Throughout your career in the Foreign Service, is there a single person or event that has been most influential on your career?

I think, more generally, the Vietnam War was a defining factor in my career. I went to Vietnam in 1964 after studying Vietnamese for ten months courtesy of the Foreign Service Institute, and I ended up working on the Vietnam question for the next ten years. Those were matters of war, peace, and negotiation — I was in the Paris peace talks and I ended up working for Dr. [Henry] Kissinger on the Vietnam question. There is no doubt about it that my Vietnam experience had a big influence on my worldview.

The Politic: Over your entire career, I can only fathom the number of great minds and interesting characters that you have crossed paths with. Is there a single person with whom you would share a final meal?

There are a lot of those people. There are certainly presidents that I have admired enormously; perhaps George Herbert Walker Bush most of all, who I thought was the epitome of a public servant and also kind of a Foreign Service type. He had served in China, he had been Ambassador to the UN, he had been head of the CIA and he is a thoroughly decent gentleman.

The Politic: Speaking of President George H.W. Bush’s service in the United Nations, I was hoping that we could transition to your tenure as the permanent representative to the UN. Your nomination to the UN was confirmed just four days after 9/11. How did the events of 9/11 both shift U.S. foreign policy as well as your work on the international stage? 

It certainly focused our foreign policy on international terrorism and the Middle East. The contrast between that and what [foreign policy] might have been (had there been no 9/11) was depicted rather graphically by the fact that the first state visit to Washington, six days before 9/11, was [President] Vicente Fox of Mexico. He was given a state dinner in the White House and he was very friendly with Mr. Bush. I believe that Mr. Bush had gone to visit him in Mexico previously. I can recall in the ensuing years that whenever Mr. Bush received a Latin visitor when I was there either as Director of National Intelligence or as Deputy Secretary, President George W. Bush would say “Ponte,” — he called me by my nickname that I had at Yale — “this is what we would have been doing if it hadn’t been for 9/11.” In fact, when we went to Montebello in Canada for the tri-national meeting that took place once a year between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico — the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America — he would say, “Ponte, we would have been doing more of this kind of stuff if it hadn’t been for 9/11.” Yes, I think it narrowed the funnel and the focus. That doesn’t mean that the President neglected other important relationships, but it did change things.

The Politic: How did you find that your different tenures as Ambassador in embassies overseas varied from working at the United Nations?

Multilateral diplomacy is just very different. It is almost more like being a legislator than it is being a bilateral ambassador. It has elements of parliamentary procedure, garnering votes, and corralling delegations. The title of Professor [Paul] Kennedy’s book is not far off when he calls it The Parliament of Man. Both on the Security Council and in the General Assembly, there is a lot of legislative lobbying that has to go on to persuade others to see the merits of your position and garner the votes to pass resolutions. Particularly on the Security Council, you have to know how to count to nine, which is the majority you need, and you have to find a way to make sure that no one who is a permanent member vetoes it. It’s pretty basic, but it requires a lot of work and a lot of diplomatic effort.

The similarity is that when you end up dealing with each of these individual delegations, you call on your experience of having tried to persuade people of other countries to see the utility and value of your position — that is quintessentially diplomatic activity. I think the UN may be one of the last remaining forums where traditional diplomacy is really in full vigor.

The Politic: There have been a lot of talks about Security Council reform; do you think that there is a pressing need for it?

I understand the reason that it is being advocated and ideally it makes sense. Security Council membership is not as reflective — particularly the permanent seats — as it could be of the world as it is. But we have been trying to reform the Security Council for twenty or thirty years and every time we try, it ends up in some sort of a stalemate. In order to achieve Security Council reform, I think it would require an enormous amount of personal effort from the President of the United States and the Secretary of State with their counterparts, particularly in the P-5. That seems unlikely to me.

The Politic: Over your entire career, have you seen the United States’ cooperation or relationship with the UN change?

The UN has changed more because of the overall global atmosphere than because of any one country. I think one big change was the end of the Cold War. I think you saw a period, particularly in the 1990s, of unprecedented cooperation and influence of the United Nations. I don’t think that the UN is held in quite the same high regard and almost awe in the U.S. as it was when it was first formed. When I was a kid, I remember that people spoke [about the UN] so admiringly. President [Harry] Truman used to talk about the United Nations in very exalted terms. I remember listening recently — NPR replays presidential press conferences — and Truman was explaining why he hadn’t done something to a correspondent. He said, “One of the reasons I didn’t do it is because I didn’t think that the UN would have liked it.” You can’t imagine an American president saying that today. Having said that, below the radar screen, the U.S. still resorts to the United Nations for a lot of things: peacekeeping operations and humanitarian agencies. There is a lot of important stuff that goes on at the UN that I’m not sure the American public fully appreciates.

The Politic: Is there one piece of advice that you would give — or perhaps already have given — to Samantha Power about serving as the Ambassador to the UN?

As a general [objective] for any permanent representative, my suggestion would be that your most important job is the Security Council. That is why you are paid the big bucks; you are there to advance U.S. interests. Get the votes when you need them. In my way of thinking, that requires intense diplomatic activity and a lot of person-to-person diplomacy with each of the representatives. In my view, the President and the Secretary of State expect you to be on the best of terms with your counterparts on the Security Council. This is so that when matters arise of urgent interest to the United States, you are able to advance them effectively within the Security Council. To me, that is the number one priority.

The Politic: I was hoping that we could transition from the United Nations to your tenure as Ambassador to Iraq. You served as Ambassador from June 2004 to April 2005 and you were there during the June 30 handover of sovereignty. Could you talk about the mood of the nation and the mood in the U.S. Embassy on June 30?

Ambassador Negroponte on the front cover of the New York Times (July 1, 2004)
Ambassador Negroponte on the front cover of the New York Times (July 1, 2004)

I had literally just arrived. I would say that there was a certain amount of an excitement. Only a day or two later, I presented my credentials — appointing me Ambassador to Iraq — to the new president. What surprised me about the event was that it was considered so significant both in Iraq and in Washington that the picture of it was on the front page, top of the fold, in the New York Times. If you look at the New York Times on July 1 of that year, you will see me and a couple of other people from the Embassy, presenting my credentials to President Ghazi al-Yawar. That gives you a sense of the expectation that this event had generated, but in fact, like in so many other things in life, the problems that existed before the handover obviously also existed after. There was a lot of work to be done.

The Politic: You said in an interview with The Daily Beast about two years ago that if you were in the President’s shoes, you would have handled the Iraq invasion differently. Could you discuss how you would have handled this situation?

I am asked a lot about whether I approved of the invasion of Iraq. Of course, that was the President’s decision. He decided it, and we all supported his decision and did whatever was necessary to make that as effective as possible. My point with regard to the invasion of Iraq is that we had gone to great lengths in the fall of 2002 to negotiate UN Resolution 1441. It was unanimously approved by the Security Council — we got everybody on board, which reinstated a strengthened WMD inspection regime. We invaded Iraq in March, literally four or five months later.

For anything in life, certainly for a matter as weighty as inspecting for WMDs and matters of war and peace, I think you have to give the process more time. I think where the administration got itself in a bind was that they had been planning this invasion for a long time. Whether or not they had already decided on when they would invade, the difficulty was that they had built up the troop levels so high that come winter of 2003, they already had several hundred troops in the Middle East. If you read [then-Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld’s book, it was getting hot out there, and they didn’t want to wait until summertime to invade. They were anxious to invade, and I think they were a bit too dismissive of the inspection process. They had agreed to do it. Secretary Powell had persuaded them to go for the UN resolution and an inspection regime, but then they weren’t really patient.

We went to the Security Council for a second time around February, saying that Iraq continues to be in material breach. Because of that, we asked for the Council’s authorization to take measures — I guess that was the euphemism for taking some kind of retaliatory action. When French President Jacques Chirac finally said that he would veto such a resolution, we decided not to submit it for a vote because it would not have succeeded. We certainly did not want to submit it and have it vetoed because that would have delegitimized any invasion. On the other hand, if you don’t submit it, you can argue on the strength of the prior resolution. So that’s what I meant. I just think we moved too fast.

The Politic: Moving forward to today, there has been a recent, vicious resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq. Do you have any prognosis for the long-term future and stability of the country? 

I do not. It ebbs and flows in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki has now been there for a long time — since 2006 — so he has been a very enduring Prime Minister. The fundamental problem of Sunni-Shia tensions has not erupted into complete civil war. There still is a parliamentary process, but it is, as you suggest in your question, fraught with tension. I don’t know whether they really want to repeat the experience of 2006-2007, which was really bad.

The Politic: How do you think that the situation in Iraq today compares to how it was just prior to the invasion ten years ago?

They are rid of a terrible dictator. In Iraq, it sort of depends on whom you ask. If you ask the Kurds, I think they are reasonably happy with what happened. If you ask the Shia, I think a large number of them are happy. But many of the Sunnis in the western part of the country — in Al Anbar and the Sunni Triangle — are not [happy]. It proves that old adage of Dr. Henry Kissinger, which is that the solution to any foreign policy problem is the entrance ticket to the next one. I think that’s true in spades in Iraq. We got rid of Saddam, and everybody was happy about that, but it just brought about a whole new set of problems.

In a way, [everything] is repeating in Syria and in Egypt because it is really the same idea. You had an authoritarian government in power, you remove it, and you just can’t foresee what is going to happen next. Very often, unleashing these different forces causes a great deal of turmoil and instability. That is what we see happening in Egypt now, and that is what I think we all fear will happen in Syria if Bashar al-Assad is removed from office.

The Politic: You were the first-ever Director of National Intelligence. Could you talk about both why this job was created and what the job itself entailed? 

The job of Director of National Intelligence was created specifically because of the WMD fiasco in Iraq. We fell for false information about Iraq’s WMD programs, and when that became publically known — which I believe happened in the summer of 2004 — there was no stopping the pressure for intelligence reform. It had existed post-9/11; the 9/11 families in particular had been pressuring, but that in and of itself did not seem to be enough to bring about the reform. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the whole incident with Curveball, the phony source that gave us this false information about Iraqi WMDs. He turned out to be an Iraqi who wanted us to do what we ended up doing.

There was no stopping reform once that became publicly known. What Congress effectively did was pass a law that took the community management responsibilities of the CIA Director — his second hat was Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) — and gave them to the DNI. The DNI also inherited particular institutions like the National Intelligence Council, the National Counterterrorism Center, and the National Counterintelligence Center. There were a handful of these organizations. That formed the new DNI.

The Politic: Beyond just structural reform, how do you believe the on-the-ground intelligence community has changed over the past eight years?

I think it has changed quite a bit, but I think that it’s not really because of the reform as much as it is because of advances in technology. There is a much greater understanding today that with technology and with rapidly moving advents, that the opportunities to be more effective by integrating intelligence — the different “INTs,” so to speak; HUMINT, GEOINT, or SIGINT: those are all these different methods of collection — are more feasible. The better integrated they are, the more effective you can be.

For example, how did they get [Abu Musab] al-Zarkawi, the head of al-Qaeda in Iraq? Well, they got his telephone number through human intelligence. Then through signals intelligence, they monitored it; then through geo-spatial intelligence, they were able to surveil his activity. You needed the integration of all of those three “INTs” in order ultimately to nail Mr. Zarkawi, which is what they did.

The Politic: Today, there has been a lot of media attention, particularly given the Snowden Affair, surrounding the intelligence world. Do you think, to any extent, electronic intelligence has proliferated at too fast of a rate?

No, I don’t think it has proliferated too fast. I think we’ve got some internal control problems where in most instances the principle of need-to-know is applied. You share information and intelligence across agency lines and you share it so that you can get the best possible analysis and decide on the best possible course of action. But just because you share information doesn’t mean you just spread it all around and treat it like a newspaper. You have to exercise some controls. I think what was happening was that there were certain individuals that were able to access information way, way out of proportion to their need to know it. I am sure that we will institute some improvements in our systems, but a great deal of damage has obviously been done.

The Politic: How much do you think the average well-informed American citizen — who reads the New York Times and is up to date on current affairs — actually knows about the intelligence community?

I think they have a general idea. Intelligence intrigues people, but Americans in general don’t follow much of public affairs to start with. Those who do follow public affairs have a fairly good understanding of [the] intelligence. If there is a misunderstanding, it tends to be that some Americans just think of intelligence as spying a la human intelligence: James Bond. They lose sight of the fact that a very important component of intelligence is not only the collection of information, but also the analysis. In fact, mistakes are frequently made in the analysis and not in the collection. You collect what you can collect, but as far as analysis is concerned, there is real room for human error and misunderstanding. What is it that you are actually observing? What is the significance of the event that you are analyzing? I think analysis is a very critical function of intelligence.

The Politic: Since you entered the Foreign Service in 1960, how have you seen the balance in power between agencies shift? 

For a long, long time, the three key players have been been the Defense Department, the State Department and the National Security Council — not so much the Council itself as the National Security Advisor. Who, besides the President, is a major influence in the area of foreign policy and national security policy? It is the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State and the National Security Advisor. That lineup is pretty much the same today as it was fifty years ago.

There has been a slight shift in the following sense: you now have a Department of Homeland Security (DHS). That is a new element that has integrated a number of the agencies that were previously scattered elsewhere. I think the DHS Secretary has become an important player. You also see more work in the national security area done by the Justice Department. Either in the FBI’s national security division or in the office of the Attorney General himself, there is — particularly in areas of law enforcement and mutual legal assistance treaties — more of an intersection now between following international crime and the threat of international terrorism. I would say that Justice has become much more of a player than it was in the past.

The Politic: Are there any major differences between how the foreign policy community and the domestic policy community operate, whether in terms of partisanship, gridlock, or just in terms of the personalities that they attract?

This core national security community that I was talking about — State, Defense, NSC, and the intelligence community as well — has been working pretty closely together ever since the Cold War began. They are used to dealing with each other, they know each other, and they have corresponding counterparts at each of the departments. I couldn’t tell you about the domestic side because I’ve never really worked on it, but I’m not sure there is quite the same symmetry or alignment around those issues as there is for national security.

The Politic: Are you worried at all that either America’s grand strategy or military is becoming politicized in any capacity?

Ambassador Negroponte with former President George W. Bush
Ambassador Negroponte with former President George W. Bush

I don’t worry that our grand strategy or military is becoming politicized. The sense of the art of statecraft has to have an element of politics. The President, after all, is not only the Commander-in-chief and Chief of State, he is also the head of his political party. He is a product of our political system. I think people understand the importance of trying to have a bipartisan approach politically.

I worry more about our financial and economic difficulties. I fear that some of the global strategies and alliances and relationships that we have had over the last fifty years are going to become much harder to afford. After all, we have some bedrock relationships with our NATO allies, Japan, and South Korea that require resources. You can’t just have those relationships (and the commitments that are implied) if you are running huge deficits and are worried about bankruptcy. It is imperative that we fix that. That probably is the single most important national security challenge that we face today.

The Politic: Looking back on your career, is there a single achievement of which you are most proud?

I would have to say — and I didn’t achieve it by any means alone, but I was involved in it — the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), because that occurred on my watch when I was Ambassador to Mexico. I was in on the conception of it. I think NAFTA has been a great success. I was there throughout the negotiations, and I left Mexico after the negotiations were completed. NAFTA was negotiated by the U.S. trade representative, but I was certainly involved, so I am very proud of that one.

This one may come as a bit of a surprise to you: my office, when I was the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Scientific and Environmental Affairs, negotiated the Montreal Protocol to Protect the Stratospheric Ozone Layer. That was 1987, and that was the last multilateral, greenhouse gas agreement that was successfully completed. It was negotiated by my deputy. Richard Benedict, my deputy who negotiated, wrote a book called Ozone Diplomacy. I am very proud of that one too.

The Politic: Throughout your overseas career, have you seen attitudes towards America shift, and how do you believe that America is represented overseas today?

To reply to your second question, I think that we are very effectively represented. I think we always have been. We have pretty much universal diplomatic representation around the world. There are only a handful of countries with which we do not have diplomatic relations. We do a good job, and we train our Foreign Service officers well. Contrary to the myth that we do not speak foreign languages, our people are well trained in foreign languages.

Have attitudes changed towards the United States? Some, I think. Probably countries see us as a little less predominant than we used to be. After all, we emerged from WWII with something like 50 percent of the world’s GDP. Now that is down to 20 percent, but 20 percent (and the largest military in the world) is still a lot for one country that has only 4 percent of the world’s population.

We still deserve credit for creating the post-war international system. People still look to the United States to lead and to play an important role, but the new world order is going to call on us to lead in conjunction with others. We have to figure out — and I think this is one of the diplomatic challenges of the future — how to better integrate the rising powers into our management of the new world order — the Chinas, the Brazils, the Indias of this world. That is some of the diplomatic discourse that you see going on. Defining this new world order is going to be one of the challenges of the next generation of American diplomats.

The Politic: Are there any elements of U.S. foreign policy that you would seek to change today?

I have at times been concerned that our policies have become a bit too militarized. For example, in the so-called “War on Terror,” I often think that as much could be done through more effective assistance programs — both bilateral and multilateral.

I would try to use the UN more. I think Americans underestimate the value of the United Nations and they don’t quite understand what a bargain the UN is for the U.S. Peacekeeping operations cost us an assessment of 25 cents on the dollar, and of course they are much less expensive to field than an American force. They may not be comparable in skill or firepower, but I can point you to numerous examples where peacekeeping operations have been very effective in restoring peace in a country: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and other areas as well. I would use the United Nations more, and that would both be good in terms of the effectiveness of our foreign policy, reducing some of the military costs, and restoring our political credit around the world.

The Politic: If the President were to call you today and say, “Ambassador Negroponte, I need you,” would you be willing to take the job?

That is a hypothetical question, but I want to emphasize that for me there is no higher honor than serving the President of the United States. I have served in nine different senatorially confirmed presidential appointments and each of them has been an important highlight in my professional life. I will always treasure the memories of my government service.


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Published by Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster, from Baltimore, Maryland, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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