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Former U.N. Ambassador Thomas Pickering Remembers George H.W. Bush


Only a handful of presidents are best known for their foreign rather than domestic policies, and George Herbert Walker Bush was one of them. A funeral for the 41st president is being held today at the National Cathedral in Washington. Bush presided over a moment of global change, and he brought this deep foreign policy experience to that role. Steve Inskeep spoke to Bush's United Nations ambassador, Thomas Pickering.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: What was it like to work as United Nations ambassador for a president who had himself been United Nations ambassador?

THOMAS PICKERING: (Laughter) In many ways, extremely helpful.

INSKEEP: Helpful because George H.W. Bush knew the issues. Thomas Pickering was a career diplomat who worked with Bush long before he became president. Bush was U.N. ambassador and a diplomat to China and then a vice president deeply engaged in Ronald Reagan's Cold War policies.

PICKERING: The Reagan administration was particularly attached to the growth of what they saw as communist influence in Central America.

INSKEEP: In the 1980s, Pickering was a diplomat in El Salvador. The Reagan administration supported the government against leftist guerrillas, but the government was linked with killings committed by right-wing death squads. The war was losing public support in the United States, and Vice President Bush was brought in to meet Salvadoran leaders.

PICKERING: I attended the meeting. I was the only other American besides the interpreter and Vice President Bush, and he did a magnificent job. And at the end of the meeting, he said something I never expected to hear from the Reagan administration. He said, if you guys, you military, don't stop this death squad killing, there is nothing that either Ronald Reagan or I can do to preserve your assistance programs with the American Congress.

INSKEEP: Pickering contends the Salvadoran government eased its brutality - at least enough to keep support in the US. It was one of many occasions when Bush balanced a strategic goal against basic American values. That was part of the preparation he brought to his presidency in 1989. In 1991, the Soviet Union fell apart.

It seemed that the main thing President Bush did in that circumstance was remain calm and avoid doing too much and let events happen.

PICKERING: You're entirely right. And I thought it was a magnificent display of American diplomacy. We had an interesting small vignette of that at the United Nations. We went away before Christmas of 1991 with the Soviet Union as a member of the Security Council. And the Soviets were concerned that when they came back, they might have to somehow again find a way to become a member of the Security Council because the charter mentioned the Soviet Union. We agreed legally that that would not be something that should really torture the Russians.

INSKEEP: Just let Russia be the Security Council member (ph).

PICKERING: And so we said to the Russians, we'll send you our best lawyers to talk to them about it. And we arranged with the U.N. Secretariat that when we came back again after the Christmas recess, the seats at the table contained the words Russian Federation, not Soviet Union. And it was moved over.

And that was done, obviously, to avoid a huge conflict with the Soviet Union, which, in our view, was then disappearing in any event. And we had to set the stage for a post-Cold War world in which we were not at constant loggerheads with the successor to the Soviet Union.

INSKEEP: President Bush, I suppose it can be said, had the first opportunity to be an architect of the post-Cold War world.

PICKERING: In many ways, he did, and in many ways, he didn't really, I think, feel he was the master of what he called the vision thing. But we did come up with something that had a title to it of a new order. And he in his own way had a personal influence in that, which was great.

INSKEEP: Oh, he spoke of the new world order. That was his phrase.

PICKERING: He did, and he thought that - I don't use those exact word because it harkens back to the 1930s, unfortunately. What is interesting was that he thought that we should look at a world order in which there would be equality and fairness, that people would be treated justly, that people would have their voices heard.

It fitted and suited in many ways his personality. And his thoughts about that kind of way of proceeding internationally were very much a reflection of him and his leadership and ought to go down as part of what I think is the growing positive history of the George H.W. period.

INSKEEP: How do you think that world order has held up now that it's under such stress?

PICKERING: Not well, and in many ways, we are seeing perhaps some of the worst evidence of that in this day and age, both in the attitudes that leaderships have to each other and unfortunately what I see happening here in the United States with respect to the current leadership regarding how and in what way we should participate internationally. It is a breakdown of multilateralism, and there is an emphasis on what I would call goals and thoughts that have very little to do with the international world, too much to do with American triumphalism and too much to do with shortsighted rather than long-term strategic goals.

INSKEEP: Well, Ambassador Pickering, thanks for sharing some of your memories.

PICKERING: Thank you very much. It was great to be with you.

GREENE: That was George H.W. Bush's U.N. ambassador, Thomas Pickering, speaking to Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.