Campus News

Christopher Hill '74, New U.S. Ambassador to Korea: "War may be hell, but peacekeeping isn't far off"

Story posted June 08, 2004

This is not the easiest time to be a presidential envoy representing the United States overseas. As U.S. actions in Iraq increasingly draw worldwide charges of unilateralism, and worse, many in the international community believe our diplomatic leverage has been dangerously tarnished.

It's not the most difficult situation Christopher Hill '74 has faced. The former U.S. ambassador to Macedonia, Hill was a key member of the diplomatic team that helped to negotiate an end to the 1992-95 Bosnian war. It was not easy or enjoyable, he said, to meet repeatedly with Slobodan Milosevic, "but I do my job."

"Often you're dealing with a lunatic," said Hill, addressing a rapt crowd of Bowdoin alumni during a June 4th talk titled "Mediating Peace," held as part of Bowdoin's 2004 Reunion Weekend. "So you have to make a decision: Can you try to work your prestige and commit to it? That's what we did in Bosnia and it worked with Milosevic. We also made it clear that other countries were engaged -- European Union countries and especially Russia -- to give them buy-in on the peace process. The U.S. was only involved because Clinton was prepared to use military force; we were prepared to go all the way.

"War may be hell, but peacekeeping isn't far off," Hill added. "You have to stick with it to the end."

Hill, who recently has served as U.S. ambassador to Poland, was just appointed by the Bush administration to serve as U.S. ambassador to Korea, beginning July 2004. His appointment was confirmed by the Senate in May.

Hill shared the platform at Bowdoin with Professor Allen Springer, chair of Bowdoin's Department of Government and Legal Studies.

"We've all begun to understand how different what we hoped would be a liberation -- and has become an occupation of Iraq -- has become," said Springer. "Moral doubt is surfacing, not only about the rightness of the occupation, but the broader moral questions about the reasons that led us into the conflict in the first place. To what extent has the U.S. lost the ability to build and lead international coalitions...not just in Middle East, but elsewhere?"

Ever the diplomat, Hill fielded questions about the Iraqi conflict, America's growing disenfranchisement from its European allies, and his own lessons as a peace negotiator, with an impeccable grasp of the Gray Zone. Current criticism about America's so-called swaggering unilateralism is not just a result of the Iraqi war, he said, but a product of years of international policymaking in which the U.S. has led and funded many multilateral initiatives, including the U.N., but also stepped outside their frameworks.

"Iraq is not the root of our problems in our ability to lead a national coalition," Hill said. "The idea of the arrogant American started a little earlier. Already you see the problem in the '90s when Madeline Albright called America 'the indispensable nation.' She meant that we had to support our foreign policy, but that infuriated many other countries. 'Why does America have to be special?' Moreover, in the '90s, we had liberal interventionists, thousands of these NGOs spreading the gospel of American democracy. We need to figure out a way to calm down this notion that we are missionaries out there making the world in our image.

"Americans have got to start speaking with a softer voice, whether you're right or left. To some extent, we've been shrill. The bigger you are, the softer you should speak," he said.

These were frank comments from a man who normally doesn't have the luxury of candor. Hill was quick to point out that his comments were his own, and not representative of U.S. foreign policy. As he spoke more personally about diplomacy, the difficulty of maintaining U.S position while mediating many viewpoints became clear:

"It is important as a presidential envoy to give our government the best defense it can get," said Hill. "I'm careful. But there is a lot of good in our country to defend, and there is a deep reservoir of good feeling about us."

Lately, Hill has been called to defend U.S. position on a number of issues at odds with stands taken by many countries in the European Union. "There is a view in Europe that we think about how to dominate the world," he said. "I have to explain that for many Americans, we're just trying to lead our lives, not convince everyone to be like us. But there are many differences. Europe is in favor of the International Criminal Court. They believe in the Kyoto Treaty; we don't. They believe in not having a death penalty. I always explain to European audiences that many Americans don't like the death penalty, but a majority support it. It's a political process."

Hill is not discouraged by the ideological gulf between the EU and America. He sees it as part of a growth process, as both entities grapple with new identities. Europeans, he says, fail to understand the profound effect September 11th had on American people -- and foreign policy. "Americans have become very aware of the world," he said. "We've brought a transactional approach: Is there a problem out there? Gotta fix it. Most Europeans see problems as processes, not fixed overnight."

Conversely, Americans have failed to recognize the triumph of new European unity: "This is a continent that has produced every bad idea in the world: Nazism, Fascism, Communism. Yet, when you look at what they've done -- stitched the continent together in a way in which no one can make war on each other -- they have finally turned the corner. They're feeling good about this. And perhaps the notion that they need to have an ethnic identity, they've done at the expense of the U.S. Europe needs to slow down and see that a relationship [with the U.S.] is in their interest."

« Back | Campus News | Academic Spotlight | | Subscribe to Bowdoin News by Email