FEATURE STORY: Picking Pickering’s brain
JACKSON, WYO – When Thomas Pickering entered the Foreign Service in 1959, the Cold War was just beginning. The Soviet Union saw NATO as a threat and U.S. and Soviet Union foreign policy carefully danced around each other, worrying about the smallest misstep. Climate change was a term not yet in the common vernacular, and environmental consequences weren’t major factors in foreign policy. There were talks about disarmament, but it would be years before significant action was taken.
Today, Pickering sees a focus on environmental consequences in foreign policy, an emphasis on human rights internationally and a lingering “hangover” of the Cold War that colors how Russians and Americans see each other.
On Feb. 27, Pickering will share insight he gained from 40 years in the Foreign Service to explain what the United States is facing now in terms of foreign policy.
InterConnections21 invited Pickering to speak in Jackson. The organization, which brings at least one high-profile speaker to town each year, wanted to have someone talk about the complexities of international diplomacy and the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, explained Evan Huggins, program associate with InterConnections21.
“What we ended up getting with Pickering was that and a lot more,” he said.
Throughout his career, Pickering worked in Geneva and East Africa, was ambassador to Jordan, Nigeria, El Salvador, Israel, India, Russia and the United Nations during his career. He also served as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs. Following his retirement in 2000, he worked at Boeing as senior vice president for international relations until 2006 and he co-chaired the Benghazi Review Commission in 2012. He currently is vice chairman of Hills & Company, an international consulting firm that advises on global investments and trade. He also is engaged in a study about the future relationships between Pakistan and countries in the region.
The bulk of his talk in Jackson will cover some of the changes impacting foreign and security policy and also the challenges the United States faces when it comes to international policy. The talk will hit on several areas, including “Partners and Rivals: China, Russia, EU and Iran,” “The Arab Transition: Syria, Egypt, etc.,” “Energy, Environment and Climate Change,” “The World Financial Crisis and Recovery” and “Terrorism: Iraq, Afghanistan and Drones.”
While the United States’ foreign policy covers a wide range of topics, some of the country’s most consuming priorities include Syria, Egypt and Israel, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, all of which Pickering said he will discuss.
Another area many people are interested in is the international financial crisis. Pickering plans to talk about what is happening globally and discuss possible solutions. He will talk about China and Iran and their long-term economic stability. He will also talk about nuclear weapons, the growth of poverty in regions throughout the world, and what energy development and climate change mean in terms of foreign policy.
While these issues might occur far from home, it’s important for people to have a basic understanding. Polling data showed that Americans think 25 percent of the country’s budget is spent on foreign aid, but it’s actually about 1 percent, Pickering said. That shows Americans’ lack of understanding when it comes to this nation’s foreign policy.
Especially in today’s world, where people are more connected than ever, what happens in faraway countries can have repercussions felt worldwide.
Pickering became interested in history and politics while studying at Bowdoin College. He knew he wanted to enter the Foreign Service and passed the written exam after finishing, but the program stopped intakes during a controversial time in foreign policy. Pickering went on to study in Australia on a Fulbright Scholarship, earn a master’s degree from Tufts University, and serve in the United States Navy before entering the Foreign Service in 1959. His interest in global politics was fostered while in school, so he often reaches out to students to talk about policy issues and international career opportunities.
InterConnections21 works extensively with Teton County’s Model United Nations program and focuses on exposing students in Jackson to international issues and career opportunities.
“The way we see our role, is to inform students and community members about international issues and, if they want, to help them get involved,” Huggins said.
While in town Pickering will meet with about 50 students from local high schools, selected by their continuing expressed interest in foreign policy. Pickering will meet with the students Feb. 26 and give a talk, “Getting Involved: International Hotspots and Global Career Opportunities.”
In preparation for Pickering’s talk, students have been divided into four groups. Each group has been given a flashpoint – Syria, Iran, Egypt or the Ukraine – to study. They have also been assigned international careers to research, including business, consulting to the Peace Corps, foreign service, NGOs and banking. Students are required to submit at least five questions before the event, although they are free to ask additional questions, Huggins said.
Pickering will speak for about 30 minutes and then spend about an hour and a half answering questions. The required preparation for students is meant to give the talk structure without being too rigid, and also allow the students and Pickering to engage in more meaningful dialogue, since students will have a baseline understanding of some international issues ahead of time.
While in Jackson, Pickering also will participate in a videoconference with the University of Wyoming’s Global and Area Studies Program, Casper College, Northwest College in Powell and the University of Montana’s Model UN program. It will include a question and answer on “The Iran Interim Agreement: Next Steps and Likely Consequences in Iran, the U.S. and the Middle East.”
InterConnections21 was founded in 1998 and hosts the Teton County Model UN each fall. It also organizes international service trips for students and brings speakers to Jackson each year to talk about foreign policy and international relations.
“We live in an interconnected world,” Huggins said. “These are issues that impact everyone.”
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