Philip C. Habib Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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You said that this was a very human relationship. Are these very tense moments? Does humor ever enter into them? Could you cite an example that comes to mind?
Oh, humor is the great tool of the diplomat. I suppose that, of all the diplomats that I have personally worked with, the one who had the greatest capacity to interject a note of humor at a critical moment was Henry Kissinger. A great wit in many respects. He was even witty through interpreters, and that's difficult. In a tense moment, he had the capacity of saying something. It's a tool that most of us try to use. I use it quite frequently. There are anecdotes one could tell. One anecdote which one of my colleagues is fond of is at one time in my discussions with Mr. Begin, I came to a point where we were really not on the same ground. As is usual, we were debating the issues in perfect honesty (I don't want to denigrate the necessity of debate in negotiation, you have differences which you try to narrow), but it had gotten a little tense. So I looked over at him and I said, "Mr. Begin, Mr. Prime Minister, you're sitting there, you have with you there Mr. Shamir, the Foreign Minister; you've got the Secretary General of the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Kimkee; you've got my dear friend Barron, the Deputy Secretary General; you've got your good right-hand man, Gotège over there." I said, "You know, there you sit with all that talent and here am I, I've got Sam Louis, the ambassador; and I've got Bill Brown; and I've got Maurice Draper." I said, "You know, Mr. Prime Minister, I'm surrounded by WASPs. I've got to get a few people who talk with their hands!" He laughed, he says, "WASP, I know what that is." And we laughed because of the fact that I am quite clearly not a WASP and his colleagues and I were clearly not WASPs and when we talked with our hands, it was part of our relationship. Well, it breaks the ice, it's part of that human relationship and you combine it with a little bit of humor and it moves things along. But he found that a rather enjoyable moment and it turned discussion around. Of course I didn't really mean it. I love Sam, I couldn't want any better team than Sam Louis, Maurice Draper, and Bill Brown. But, to make a point you do things like that .
And this route to humor, and the human element, is something that really crosses cultures.
There's no question. I don't know of any culture that doesn't have humor. Now some of them are difficult to tap. Some people argue that it's very difficult to tell an American joke, say, to an Asian, to a Japanese or a Korean. That isn't always true. I've seen Japanese convulse with laughter over a good American joke -- one that's understandable. I've seen the same thing in China. Chinese are very, very witty. They have a sardonic sense of humor which is very good. It used to go very well with the Kissingerian approach, I might say. When I used to go to China with Secretary Kissinger, we would negotiate. There were moments of substantial laughter on both sides, which as I've said, is one of the tools. It doesn't replace anything in diplomacy. It's a tool.
One of the things in human conflict I think that people often misunderstand is the extent to which the human element enters into the conflict. This role of shuttle diplomat flying between capitals that are ready to go to war seems to be, as you're describing it, a beautiful bridge of that gap. These peoples are divided over various issues but at the same time, you as a shuttle diplomat have to tap human elements to help bridge that interest gap.
The function of mediation is to help narrow gaps and then bridge them. First you have to narrow them. Sometimes they're so wide that you can't build a bridge that wide, so you have to narrow them, look for that common ground. A common phrase in diplomacy is "to find the common ground." A common phrase is "to bridge the gap." A common phrase is "to narrow the differences." A common phrase is "to find the mutual interest." Where does the mutual interest lie? How do you find it? How do you define it? How do you persuade diverse views to reach that final point of, if not agreement, at least understanding? If not from formal acceptance, at least a willingness to state a condition (by a condition I mean fact, not a prelude). So that the kind of diplomacy that you raised, that we're talking about, is the "sexy" modern diplomacy. It's the sort of diplomacy that captures the headlines. But it is not the foundation of the basic relations between nations. It is not the foundation of some sort of strategic understanding. It is not a long-term proposition. Generally speaking, it will only be a part of any diplomat's life for a very brief moment. It's not something that you train for. It's something that you learn as part of the process.
Did your background in New York help prepare you in terms of different ethnic groups?
Well, there's a certain empathy. You understand ethnicity but, you know, the melting pot is very substantial, especially for people like myself who were the youngest member of an immigrant family, educated broadly across the whole length of the country. Ethnicity, or ethnic empathy, is a useful thing. It's useful to understand ethnicity. But you don't have to be part of it in order to understand it. You can understand it intellectually. It's easier if you are part of it, no question about that. There's no question that your formative years leave you with certain attributes. And I spent my formative years in a melting pot, one which was a very vociferous one. The New York melting pot is very vociferous, intellectually and practically, in every term.
You posed an interesting problem in your distinction between crisis diplomacy and long-term hard negotiations. There's several examples in recent American history of diplomats doing the work, engaging over a number of years in serious, hard bargaining, with some kind of treaty emerging -- law of the sea, the SALT talks -- and then it doesn't make the last hurdle. It's either turned back by a new administration or there's not ratification or whatnot. How do you see the outcome there?
That happens. That happens. Circumstances ... sometimes after the most horrendous and heart-rending negotiations you produce a result which, somehow or another, does not reach the final stage. The SALT II Treaty is an example. It's also possible that you will produce something which you think fits the circumstances, provides an agreement which serves the general purpose, the general interest, but then circumstances change and there's nothing that you can do to make it effective. Frequently, treaties and agreements are not self-enforcing -- some treaties are self-enforcing and they can be so written, but some are not. If they're not, then it depends on the circumstances subsequent to the negotiations. The classic example of that in our lifetime is, of course, the Vietnam peace agreement. That was not a self-enforcing agreement and, in effect, it depended upon certain attitudes and reactions on the part of the parties to it. And, I might say, not only were those dependencies not evident on the other side, but to an extent, circumstances changed in Washington to a point to where the capacity to support the treaty mechanism (the agreements in the treaty), disappeared. And in the end, what was quite a good effort came to naught, the effort of the negotiation. Now that was a protracted negotiation over years. It took a good piece out of my time but even that -- the length of negotiation and the intensity of negotiation -- is no assurance either that it will succeed or that its results will be as they were expected to be.
Do you think that the failure of many recent treaties to be consummated, either because of our failure or failure on the other side, has any long-term implications?
Well, not long-term implications. For example, the law of the sea was carefully negotiated over a long period of time by the previous administration, or by representatives of the previous administration. The new administration comes in and says, "Look, we want the whole thing to be renegotiated. We don't accept what had been accepted by the previous regime." Now that's a shattering thing in international relations because normally one expects in foreign affairs that the commitments of one administration, or one regime, or one sovereign (if there is a peaceful transfer of power as there is in a democracy or in a constitutional monarchy or a parliamentary system), that the commitments of one will be accepted by the following. That's a tradition. It is a tradition that is not always followed, however. There's no rule that says that has to be. And in this case, the incoming administration had criticized the previous agreement in its electoral campaign. Therefore, it felt it had the right, when it took office, to put into effect its criticism, which is to say, "We don't like certain parts of that treaty, we want to renegotiate them." Now, the nations of the world who were part of the negotiations don't have to accept that. They could say, "Okay, you want to talk about it some more, we're willing to talk, but that's what we want. We're not going to change our position. We have all agreed, you're the only one who hasn't agreed." And that's the situation in New York at the present time. Are we going to be able to persuade the other nations of the world to change their views to meet our perceived interests? Or are they going to go ahead without us? What happens if they do? What will be our position then? All of this is still up for grabs.
In looking back at your career, is there one particular negotiator, a diplomat that you've dealt with who stands out as preeminent?
Well, all negotiators are different, there's no question. In modern times, people that I've sat with, people like Averell Harriman, Henry Kissinger, Cyrus Vance, David Bruce, Dean Rusk, and of course, I have been present when presidents have negotiated but let's not talk about presidents, let's talk about diplomats per se, people occupied constantly with diplomacy. They were all different. They all had different strengths and different weaknesses. Cyrus Vance, for example, is a man whom I hold in the highest regard, both as a person and a negotiator. His absolute, total, and complete honesty was always transmitted to the people he worked with. He's probably the finest public servant I ever worked with. There may be others that have a difference of opinion, but as a human being, he was totally trusted by all the people we were dealing with, no matter which side they were on. That sheer sincere honesty that was part of his nature always came through. On the other hand, the capacity of Henry Kissinger to put things together, to conceptualize, to articulate, to move, to suggest the value of the ambiguity, or to produce the precise word at the right time, was a marvelous thing to observe. The capacity of an Averell Harriman to understand the other guy's point of view; the very human nature and very relaxed yet very tough inner resiliency of a David Bruce --David Bruce had a very relaxed demeanor, but mind like a steel trap, and he knew how to bring things around.
All of them had different qualities that those of us who worked with them respected, appreciated, and learned something from, very frankly. And I could mention others. I hope I haven't left anybody out that's important but Ellsworth Bunker, for example: a distinguished man of great presence whom you instinctively respected. Henry Cabot Lodge, a man who had a touch for the political, a capacity to know the politics of a negotiation, because he was fundamentally a politician, and a good one despite the fact that he wasn't elected when he ran for vice president. That capacity that he had learned running for the Senate, at the feet of his grandfather so to speak, that sort of thing was very useful.
There were certain negotiators who had a tremendous capacity for dealing with the press, dealing with the media. There were others who were not very good at it. Political leadership usually wants to deal with the media. My approach to career, professional leadership is that you don't run your negotiations in the media because we serve a different function. Public relations is not necessarily a part of careerist diplomacy and there times when you don't want to use it. Now there are other times when you use it, let's face it. You need to say things at the right time, but there are times when you need to say nothing. I'm sort of notorious for being the one who says nothing, at great length. I hope I haven't done that today Harry.
But, in any event, last year when we were in the Middle East, and again in the fall, and again this spring when I went back at different moments of apparent crisis, I deliberately made the choice that I was not going to negotiate in the public. And therefore I did not give interviews on background, or on foreground (on the record). How you use the press is a part of diplomacy today. The background interview, for example. Or the statement made by "a senior official accompanying the Secretary of State," who is usually the Secretary of State himself, if you know the meaning of the words in a lot of shuttle diplomacy. So that there are different ways to deal with different situations. When we were in the Vietnam peace negotiations, for example, we used to walk out of the meeting, walk over to the television cameras, state our point of view, and walk away. I mean, that was part of the routine. The other side did the same thing. Of course, part of that negotiation was an appeal to public opinion, so you did it. There was a period of about nine months when I was in charge of the delegation in Paris, where I was on live television about two or three times a week. There were periods when the other members of the delegation, the leaders of the delegation, would be on two or three times a week and one had to provide the grist for that mill. Well, you do it.
As everyone out there is listening to you. When are you memoirs going to come out? You have very strong feelings about that don't you?
Yes, I don't believe that a careerist like myself needs to write his memoirs. I take the point of view that Dean Rusk takes in this regard. The things that I worked at are in the record. They'll be available one way or another to anybody, at some time or another. Many memoirs are sort of a justification of what you've done, or how wise you've been, or, if it's a controversial issue, a defense of what you've done. I don't have any records, any personal files. I don't have a diary, I don't have any transcripts. Whatever files I've accumulated over my lifetime are in the State Department files in Washington. The only personal file I have is a clipping file, which is not a basis of memoirs, which somebody did for me most of the time. I would have to spend a great deal of time in Washington going through the files to relive the days of my own experience. But even then, you don't have the sort of thing that's looked for in memoirs today, the verbatim records of what was said by whom, on what occasion. I just don't have it. Besides which, I would rather leave memoir writing to the political leadership. If some of them want to do it, they do it. I think, for example, Henry Kissinger's memoirs are fascinating, and the parts of it that I am familiar with are accurate, I can tell you that. He's a trained historian and his records are voluminous. He's got practically every word that was ever said, by whom, and on what occasion. There used to be an effort to keep the transcripts and to make the transcripts at the time of conversations. So the raw material is there. Besides which, you know, when you are a minor actor in a great drama, and I was, generally speaking, a minor actor in the great drama of the last 15 years or so, who the hell wants to know? Let the principle actors, let the record, let the historian have available to them all of these things. All the papers emerge eventually. All the cables, all the reports, all the action memoranda, all of the decision memoranda sooner or later become available, either under the Freedom of Information Act or in the normal publication of the historical documents of the United States, they'll all be there.
One final question Ambassador Habib. As you look down the road, you see a United States probably whose power is more limited than it was in an earlier period. We can see a Soviet Union that has more power than it did. Clearly we're still going to be very important in the world. Would you like to give us your reflections on what you see America's role in the future, how it might be evolving?
Well, you're quite right. We live with the world, we don't dominate it anymore. If we ever were omnipotent, or omniscient, I think it would be fair to say that today we are not omnipotent, nor are we omniscient. There may have been a few years when that looked like reality, and there are some people that have a nostalgia for those days. But we live in a terribly complex and a terribly dangerous world. I have no doubt that we have the capacity to deal with the complexity and with the danger. I think as long as we stay true to our own traditions, as long as we maintain, as the basic thrust of our foreign policy, the twin objectives of peace and security, I think that we will succeed in maintaining both the peace and security of ourselves and our allies and globally.
The great issues of today, as I said earlier, revolve around the relationship between the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies. These are the great issues of foreign policy today. Somehow or another, we have to deal with the question of military balance if we are going to have security. Somehow or another, we are going to have to deal with the question of how do we manage our relations with the Soviet Union. Somehow or another, we have to deal with the various geopolitical problems that exist around the world, regional disputes, the maintenance of alliances, bilateral disputes, this geopolitical question must be dealt with. And then finally, we have to deal with the issues in foreign affairs in the future that relate to the process of change and the desire of maintaining and sustaining independence in the Third World, and nonaligned countries. That means that we have to devote resources to their development, to their progress. I think that this relationship of the transfer of technology, the transfer of financial resources, the question of trade and markets, the question of commodity flow, and above all, the question of learning to live with change and the desire for independence -- these are the great issues that face the nation. They're not likely to change in the foreseeable future. In fact, they're the heritage of the recent past. And therefore, one has a pretty good idea of what we are going to confront. I think that's a good note to end on, Harry.
Yes. Ambassador Habib, thank you very much for being with us. We can only hope that the next generation of diplomats will offer to our country the kind of hard work and intelligent leadership that you have provided in the diplomatic service. Thank you for being with us.
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