We spoke with retired-Ambassador Robert Pearson for his perspective on the power of diplomacy. Ambassador Pearson served as U.S. Ambassador to Turkey from 2000 until 2003 and Director-General of the Foreign Service until 2006, among numerous positions in a distinguished diplomatic career. He is currently President of IREX, an international non-profit organization that focuses on promoting lasting change around the world.
Q: Recently, one of the presidential candidates in Afghanistan said that the agreement Secretary Kerry helped broker to audit the recent election “may have saved one million Afghan lives.” How does this reflect the potential impact of diplomacy in preventing conflict?
It’s a fundamental truth that every crisis grows worse if unattended. Diplomacy provides the tools that can reverse that momentum. America’s interests – business, civil and political – are global and we have to be there to protect and encourage what matters to the American people. Establishing stability, often in partnership with our outstanding military—even if it takes a long time—together make possible the good things people seek for themselves and their children. In Afghanistan, it’s creating a process both sides will accept and provides time for deal-making among rival groups, something the Afghans understand well. And there are many other examples in the crises we’re facing today where diplomacy is essential.
Q: As a former-Ambassador to Turkey, can you share with us any first-hand experience with the ability of diplomacy to advance America’s national interests?
Diplomacy’s job is to create a structure for sharing and solving issues of every size, shape and description that affect us internationally. In Turkey, we helped American companies to sell advanced technology to bolster NATO’s air defenses. We helped the sale of wheat to Turkish consumers and provided American cotton for Turkey’s textile manufacturers. We helped open major gas pipelines through Turkey linking central Asian and Caucasus gas fields to world markets enabling lower energy prices for American consumers. We worked with Turkish civil society organizations and cultural groups to strengthen ties with their American counterparts to share expertise. We worked with Turkey to fight the trafficking in young women out of Russia and Eastern Europe. We collaborated closely on stemming heroin and opium smuggling out of Iran and Afghanistan. And every ambassador I know could tell similar stories about the breadth and depth of their engagement on behalf of American business and the American people.
Q: As you know, there are quite a few ambassadorships that remain unconfirmed by the Senate. When we do not have these ambassadors in place around the world, how does that impact our foreign policy?
It is hurting us, and the impasse will continue to damage America’s ability coming out of this recession to capture business overseas and help citizens around the globe. Plus, the impact on the nominees is quite taxing. Some ambassadors have been waiting nearly a year to go to post; their families are in limbo and the issues they must address are in suspended animation while here at home we can’t find a way to get America’s job done overseas. In a world as challenging as this one, self-inflicted injuries have no place.
Q: Diplomacy these days increasingly involves more than meeting government officials behind closed doors, but reaching out to the publics abroad. How has this changed the face of the United States to the rest of the world?
With social media now revolutionizing communication, diplomacy is and will be engaging citizens directly from now on. Sure, this makes for a less predictable process for some, but it’s another creative American idea that has become a part of permanent global culture. It fits us as a country and a people, and it empowers everyone to participate in worldwide conversations. YouTube and other apps and programs play an important role in civil society development and in ensuring open access to information.
Q: As President of IREX, how have you applied your experience as a diplomat to your work helping those in need in the developing world?
All the skills I hoped I learned in a diplomatic career work in development. We can’t do our work without the protection and advice of embassies and missions. In turn, their plans become reality with professional developers and local NGOs at the grassroots levels in communities. There is enormous potential for diplomacy and development to do more together. The more we think and work as one team the sooner we’ll reach that goal of a better world for every life we touch.
Q: IREX is currently working on the Young African Leaders initiative in advance of the African Leaders Summit. What do you think its impact will be for U.S.-Africa relations?
Five hundred young African leaders in business, NGOs and government will be here July 27-30 to meet with President Obama, members of Congress and other key Americans to strengthen their ability to bring about positive permanent change in their home countries. And while there may be five hundred coming, another 49,500 also applied. Young leaders across Africa can make quite a difference, and now their dreams are our responsibility as a nation. Africa is rising faster than ever before; this initiative is a call for a partnership that quickens that progress for the good of all.