Getting to Know Thomas Pickering

Interviewed by Jefferson Morley

“Getting to Know” is an occasional series that will introduce Arms Control Today readers to interesting people active in the world of arms control.

In 2000, Thomas Pickering retired from the U.S. Foreign Service after a 40-year career that culminated in his tenure as undersecretary of state under President Bill Clinton. But “retirement” hardly describes what he has done since then. Pickering has worked as head of Boeing’s international offices for five years and has emerged as a leading voice for a negotiated settlement of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

Arms Control Today caught up with him by phone Dec. 20. The interview was conducted by Jefferson Morley and has been edited for length and clarity.

After a long career, you retired in 2000. A lot of people would go off and play golf. Why on earth did you make it your hobby to try to solve an intractable problem like Iran’s nuclear program?

A lot of people, when they retire, look forward to a different way of life. I’ve always been interested in continuing to stay engaged.… [The] Iran [issue] began very early after I retired in the beginning of 2000. Bill Luers, who was president of the United Nations Association and a former ambassador, got very interested in Iran too and wanted [to] set up a “track two” dialogue, among experts and Iranians about the nuclear program. We began talks. They were held in places like Stockholm and Vienna. A group of us wrote for The New York Review of Books on some suggestions that came out of our discussions. We thought all the war talk of a year and a half ago was taking us in the wrong direction. Nobody was pushing back with a real assessment of what was going on.

Did you ever think you would care about arms control?

I had come into the Foreign Service in 1959 from three and a half years in naval intelligence. I was a photo interpreter. I knew a lot about the military…about ground forces, and I thought [about] marrying that background and those skills and getting into [arms control] diplomacy, which was clearly likely to be at the leading edge of our major diplomacy, particularly in the Kennedy days. I thought I could bring a little bit to the table.

What was your proudest accomplishment in arms control?

As a very junior [Foreign Service officer] in 1960-1961, I was tasked with writing a comprehensive test ban treaty. I had to clear it with the State Department and the interagency community, which was a huge task. I was working with people like Joseph Sisco, who was already an icon in American foreign policy. We did it, and we put it up to the Russians. We wound up doing a limited version of the treaty.

Do you ever get discouraged in this line of work, working with issues that persist over years or decades?

You recognize that negotiations take a long time. They require a lot of innovation. They require a lot of perseverance. They require a lot of explaining. And they require a lot of cooperation.

How do you summon the wherewithal to keep going?

If the national interest is served by this kind of an objective, which I believe it is, then it is worth continuing to flail away at it.

What was your greatest defeat or frustration in the arms control area?

I think the greatest frustration is that we have not yet been able to put in place the United States’ adherence to a comprehensive test ban treaty after all these years. I started writing [the treaty] in 1960 and 1961.

What would you say to a young person starting out in arms control today, like you were 50 years ago?

You don’t make a lot of money; don’t count on that. But you can have an enormous influence on the future of your country and on critical questions. If you work hard, you stay the course, you take the opportunities that come along...[y]ou’ll work with terrific people on a wide variety of subjects in arms and arms control. I think that diplomacy and the Foreign Service is a hugely interesting and stimulating and demanding career.