Ambassador John Negroponte – an Interview
John Negroponte joined the United States Foreign Service in 1960. Already then, he knew he wanted to be a diplomat and had discovered what could be referred to as his life’s true calling, especially if we’re looking at it from today’s point of view.
Not many can say that they’ve found their calling, not even after lifetimes of pursuits, yet Negroponte had found his at the age of 21. Since then, he has dedicated over four decades of his life to public service, having held prestigious government positions both abroad and domestically until 1997 and again between 2001 and 2008.
At home, in Washington, he served as Director for Vietnam during the Nixon Administration and as Deputy National Security Advisor in the Reagan Administration. During his time as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs, between 1985 and 1987, he was a key figure in negotiating the Montreal Protocol on Ozone.
Similarly, while serving as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 1989 to 1993, his role in persuading the Bush administration to negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — despite significant opposition — was little short of spectacular.
In addition to serving as Ambassador to Mexico, he was Ambassador to Honduras several years earlier (1981-1985), and, later on, to the Philippines (1993-1996), the United Nations (2001-2004) and Iraq (2004-2005).
In 2005, John Negroponte became the first Director of National Intelligence, a position he held until 2007. A demanding and challenging job, it came with an estimated annual budget of $40 billion and the responsibility of coordinating operations of 15 different Intelligence Agencies, including the CIA and intelligence services within the Pentagon.
Ambassador Negroponte is a highly respected diplomat with a deep understanding of the world. His extraordinary knowledge of foreign policy and intelligence issues will serve him well in his new capacity.
— Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, chairman and vice chairman of the 9/11 commission
Negroponte also served as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State form 2007 to 2009.
Throughout the past decade, between 2009 and 2018, he had been teaching International Relations at Yale’s Jackson Institute — until 2016 — and at The Elliott School for International Affairs at George Washington University until 2018.
I had the opportunity to meet privately with Ambassador Negroponte at the 2018 Concordia Annual Summit during UN General Assembly and ask him to share certain details of his career, a career as successful as it is long.
You were one of 50 signatories of a statement in August 2016 concerning Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in which Trump is called “reckless” and putting “at risk our country’s national security and well-being.” Do you still feel the same way? Would you say the situation is worse now or has Trump surprised you?
JN: Well, first of all, with regard to the letter I signed in 2016, that was in the context of a political campaign, and a lot of people say a lot of things about each other during a campaign. In addition to that, I had been on Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy advisory board when she was secretary of state and I supported her presidential candidature.
But you’re a Republican, correct?
JN: I am a Republican, but I felt that she was the better qualified candidate. I always say you’ve got to look at my signing that letter in the context of a political campaign. The second point, are we better off or worse off than before? I think the answer to that is quite complex, but I certainly don’t think his presidency has been catastrophic.
I think you could point to some areas where there has been progress, starting of course with building up our strong defense posture and getting economic measures through, such as the tax cut, which are quite important to national security. You can’t have effective national security unless you have a strong defense and a strong economy.
The third leg of that stool, in my opinion, is our alliances, and while he was somewhat ambivalent about our alliances during the campaign and had sort of dismissed them and said NATO was irrelevant, having implied that Japan and South Korea were on their own, he’s come around and I think he’s developed pretty good relationships with all these people. We’ve deployed forces in the Baltic, which we had done before. He’s proffered military, lethal weaponry to the government of Ukraine, which Mr. Obama refused to do and which I think is a positive step.
I’d say there are good elements and then there’s some less good elements.
When you were Ambassador in Mexico, you worked hard to help bring NAFTA about at a time when many people in Washington were against it. What is your opinion of what Trump has done to NAFTA? Is the revised version an improvement for Mexico? And what about the stalemate with Canada? Trudeau has just announced that NAFTA talks are very likely on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Do you think that it is likely?
JN: NAFTA really means a lot to me because I was ambassador to Mexico for four years during the time we negotiated it. In fact, I went with Secretary Baker to visit President Bush in the Oval Office to persuade him that pursuing NAFTA with Mexico would be a good idea. I’ve always been strongly in favor of it. I think it’s been an important success, probably the most important success we’ve had in our bilateral relationship with Mexico, and I’m glad it looks like it’s going to survive.
I recall during the campaign that he kind of threatened to throw it over the side, but it seems what he’s done instead is pursue a renegotiation which I think leaves most of NAFTA intact, though it adds a few elements of modernization. For instance, we didn’t have a digital chapter in our NAFTA 25 years ago. And probably some changes have been made that are slightly disadvantageous to Mexico, like in the automobile sector where the North American content requirements are raised and there are requirements with regard to the wages of a certain percentage of the components of automobiles. But by and large, it’s preserved rather than leaving Mexico out in the cold—so that’s good.
Will Canada come along? I published an op-ed piece along with my partner Mack McLarty just recently in the Detroit Free Press to the effect that the NAFTA has to have Canada in it. It would really be a very different situation if it were not, and I think the Canadians themselves are going to come around to the recognition that they need to have it. I hope what Mr. Trudeau’s is saying is right. I think that would be the best outcome and hopefully we’ll have it in the next few weeks. [Editor’s Note: Canada signed at the G20 meeting in Argentina and a new deal called United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, USMCA has now replaced NAFTA]
In the Photo: The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) Logo. Photo Credit: Nicoguaro
When you were Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs you helped negotiate the Montreal Protocol on Ozone, probably the most successful environmental treaty. How do you feel about Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement?
JN: I was Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International, Environmental and Scientific Affairs, and we negotiated the ozone treaty to protect the ozone layer in 1987. It’s kind of an amazing comment that 31 years later we have not reached another international agreement to control carbon emissions, certainly not at the treaty level or at the convention level.
I think it’s a pity Mr. Trump withdrew from that agreement. I believe the science, we had the same arguments about the ozone layer in the Reagan administration about whether the science was valid or not. The know nothings, if you will, didn’t want to accept the science and I think the more educated and scientifically oriented people did accept it. I think it’s been a setback for this, for the global environmental agenda.
Most importantly, as somebody who, in that job that we referred to, had opportunities to visit both the Arctic and the Antarctic and to see these huge chunks of icebergs falling into the ocean as the waters warm up in those areas, I just think that we’re in a race against time and that it would be good if we could get that whole agenda back on track.
Looking back, is there anything that, as an American diplomat, you would do differently? Have your values evolved overtime, did the end of the Cold War cause a shift in the way you looked at the world?
JN: I joined the foreign service because I wanted to be a diplomat. I’ve always been an internationalist. I’ve always believed that the United States was a force for good in the world. I believe that remains true to this very day and I don’t think there’s any other country that’s going to replace us as the leader of the liberal order.
We may have to develop some new partnerships going forward and I’ve always been a strong believer in American democracy and in the example that we set for other countries around the world, so none of my core beliefs with regard to foreign policy and how we represent ourselves around the world have changed. Really. Some circumstances may change, but no, the fundamentals have not changed. And I have a lot of faith in the United States and I have a lot of faith in the up-and-coming generation.
I’m really happy, for example, that there’s still thousands of people who take the exam to enter into the foreign service, hundreds of students that I taught. Since retiring from government, I’ve taught at Yale, at George Washington University and now I’m affiliated with the University of Virginia, and there’s just really tremendous interest in international affairs and our relationships with the rest of the world.
There are many that say that the fall of the Berlin Wall was “the end of History,” meaning that the liberal democratic order had won the day. Do you agree with that view? Do you see rising populism in both the United States and Europe as a threat to that order?
JN: Well, I don’t think populism is necessarily particularly constructive, but I do think it also ebbs and flows. I don’t think it’s one of these phenomena that is here to stay. I think populism gets challenged by other types of political leaders: We see the example of Le Pen and Macron in France where nobody’s saying that France at the moment is being governed by populists and yet that was the underlying concern two, three or four years ago.
This does go to the question of whether Mr. Trump is a one-off phenomenon or will there be others like him after this, and I don’t think you and I know the answer to that question. But I certainly think I understand some of the causes underlying the populist movement at the moment. I think it has to do with the changing nature of work. I think it has to do with technology. I think it has to do with immigration, and these are all issues that people are struggling with in their respective societies.
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With nearly half a century of diplomatic experience and having dealt with so many of the major issues of the day, from Vietnam to Iraq, and having contributed to some of the major international agreements that have changed our lives, like NAFTA and the Montreal Protocol on Ozone, what lessons have you drawn from your experience ?
JN: First of all, I think relationships between states are important, I think they need to be nurtured and cultivated, and that we should avoid compulsive reactions to difficult situations. For example, dealing with China; the bilateral relationship with China is going to be with us for the foreseeable future, it’s going to be the most important bilateral relationship we have. It behooves us, whatever we think of their behavior, whatever we think of their actions, to try to understand them as best we can.
I’m heartened by the fact that there are a lot of young Americans today who are doing just that, trying to understand China. How many kids or families do you know where the children are studying Mandarin and want to go over and experience some of it? I think that’s extremely good.
Another important lesson, in my opinion—and I’ve been in several conflicts now, I’ve worked in Vietnam, I’ve worked in Iraq, I was in Central America—a regime change is not necessarily the best solution to some of the problems we see around the world. I’ve seen Ngo Dinh Diem in Vietnam overthrown, the Shah was overthrown, Samosa was overthrown, Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Americans sometimes have this feeling that if we could only get rid of them, the whole problem would go away. But what we find out, as Henry Kissinger likes to say, is that all we’ve done is get an entrance ticket to the next problem. And look at the headaches we created ourselves when we overthrew Saddam Hussein. We thought we’d done a great thing, and what a mess. I was there, I got there about a year after. That was really bad.
If I may be allowed a more personal question. Could you share with us your best memory in all those years of public service? Your worst?
JN: I would say that the two best you’ve already made reference to: The day that we signed the Montreal Protocol to protect the stratospheric ozone layer, since that was negotiated by somebody in my office; and the day we signed NAFTA. Or actually, even better, the day when Congress ratified it.
The saddest day of my career, the saddest recollection of my long, long years of having worked on the Vietnam question, was April 30th, 1975, when the last Americans left Saigon from the roof of the American embassy. I thought it was a great tragedy.