Skip to main content

Ambassador Thomas Pickering: “Major Challenges Facing the U.S.”

February 10, 2014


Global interconnectedness, a byproduct of advances in communications technologies, such as social media and the Internet, have made it more important than ever for countries to have diplomatic relations and dialogue, said Ambassador Thomas Pickering to an auditorium full of students and community members. The ambassador’s talk on Feb. 5 at the University of Washington’s Kane Hall highlighted major challenges the U.S. faces on the world stage. The lecture was sponsored by the UW Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and the Henry M. Jackson Foundation.

Pickering talked about technology, climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and global economics in general terms as well as more specifically about Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, China, Korea, Pakistan and Ukraine.

Pickering said the United States is a world power because of its military strength, economic capacity and because of its principles. He added that from time to time people around the world have been disappointed because we haven’t lived up to our principles. Pickering cautioned that the U.S. leadership style needs to change to accommodate other major players in the world such as China.

Communications Technologies

New technologies, especially social media such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs, have increased the pace of the exchange of ideas and changed the way that diplomats communicate in their host countries. Pickering pointed to U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who maintains a blog that is read by 60,000 people on a regular basis. Technology has not replaced the need to learn foreign languages – in fact it may have heightened it, Pickering added.


Governments are paying much more attention to economics than in the recent past. We are still trying to recover from the financial crisis of 2008-2009 as ramifications were large and need to be addressed on a broad basis. Pickering said it appears we are coming out of the crisis, though European countries are still struggling. International institutions are stronger than they were before the crisis, Pickering said.

Energy Policy and Climate Change

audiencePickering said that governments can no longer separate energy policy from climate change, as the two have become interconnected. When pressed to elaborate on climate change, Pickering said that he doesn’t see a way for world governments to stop climate change, so, “We will have to undertake the economic costs of dealing with climate change.” Pickering continued by saying inaction by members of Congress will likely continue because of doubts about future adverse economic effects.


Regarding Syria, Pickering said it has become clear that President Bashar al-Assad is not going anywhere and that the United States must continue to look for a political solution. The deaths of innocent civilians are now likely more than 125,000 and both the opposition and government have become increasing radicalized, Pickering said. He stressed that the conflict destabilizes the rest of the Middle East, especially Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. Pickering said, “The imperative is, I think, for the international community to step up to the plate and deal with this question.” He said the recent conference that brought Syrians together did not yield common ground on a cease-fire or transformation of government, but “that will have to take time.”


Shia majority rule has yet to ensure majority rights are recognized among Sunni and Kurds, Pickering said. That’s the most fundamental problem and it’s a long way from a solution. We have a Group photonew outbreak of violence in Iraq that threatens to continue. Whether Iran and the United States share enough of an interest in stability in Iraq to cooperate to solve the problem is an unknown, he said, but it’s important to look at the possibility.


Pickering said, “We have seen a recent breakthrough with Iran.” He said we have taken the first step to freeze the pieces of Iran’s nuclear program that are most dangerous. The next step is to reduce the possibility that they can create weapons of mass destruction. Over time we may see opportunities to talk more with Iran. He said, “If the alternatives are either Iran having a nuclear weapon or us going to war, then I think it’s far better for us to see if the negotiating route can lead to the answers.”

Afghanistan and Pakistan

Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to be problems for the United States, Pickering said. Besides Pakistan’s status as a nuclear country, an insurgency led by fundamentalist leaders is assuming a larger amount of control over the country. Whether troops will remain in Afghanistan will be resolved in the next year, Pickering said, but Afghanistan needs to show that its military can provide the level of security on its own that is needed for stability and continuity. Afghanistan and Pakistan also need to solve their mutual problems, including continued support for the Taliban.

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Pickering said nuclear nonproliferation is difficult, but moving toward zero could be possible with the availability of ballistic missile defense and new, more-accurate conventional weapons that would protect us from countries that try to “cheat.” He said such progress would only be possible with worldwide inspection and intelligence.

North Korea

When it comes to negotiating with North Korea and its young, inexperienced leader, Pickering said, China remains key. He compared the negotiating style of North Korea to that of a 2-year-old throwing a tantrum. The United States and China need dialogue, he said, about the future of the Korean Peninsula.


In response to a question about Ukraine, Pickering said that Russia seeks to dominate the space around it. It is an effort that is being resisted by significant numbers of Ukrainians, including those who speak Russian. The present leader of Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych, is being widely opposed in the streets. Pickering said it is important for the U.S. to do everything in its power to move the European Union into a stronger relationship with Ukraine – the popular choice for Ukrainians.

Pickering said Russia is trying to call our bluff, but some of the spirit of the Olympics in Sochi is working in our favor. “I would like to see if we can help stabilize the situation and strengthen ties between Ukraine and the European Union.” Pickering said Ukrainian membership in NATO is a step too far.

U.S. State Department

In response to a question about the perceived marginalization of the U.S. State Department, Pickering said the State Department is still the place to be if you want to influence foreign policy. He pointed to Secretary of State John Kerry’s leadership in Iran and Syria as examples, and said diplomacy will continue to be necessary when negotiating with other countries.

By Kristina C. Bowman,