Former U.S. Ambassador Will Discuss Balkan Peace Talks And American Foreign Policy At NIU Conference

Apr 17, 2018

James Pardew, a former U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria, will speak at a Northern Illinois University conference this Thursday. He was involved extensively in American efforts to stop conflict in the former territories of Yugoslavia, particularly Bosnia and Macedonia. WNIJ's Chase Cavanaugh spoke with Ambassador Pardew about that work and his thoughts on U.S. foreign policy.

Ambassador Pardew, what do you plan to discuss at Northern Illinois University?

“I’m going to be talking about the United States engagement in the Balkans during the breakup of Yugoslavia, but I’m not just talking about the history of that. I want to talk about why that was a success and how it worked and compare that to the current situation and to draw out some lessons that I learned that I think are important for America as we move forward in the world today.”

James Pardew is a career U.S. Army officer and a veteran diplomat who has held positions including ambassador to Bulgaria and deputy assistant secretary general for operations at NATO.
Credit Northern Illinois University

You cover a lot of these lessons in your new book Peacemakers and mention American leadership and strong cooperation with our European Allies as two success factors. Could you elaborate on this?

“Until 1995, the U.S. was on the sidelines and didn’t participate; but, when we entered the game, we brought focus and unity to the international effort. Secondly, the peace settlements were all based on democratic values. American leadership and democratic values governed the outlook of the international community. We did it in close cooperation with our traditional European allies, and we also involved major international organizations: the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO.”

Russia was one of the parties at that table, and you noted in the book that they were quite helpful in these talks. How did we go from active cooperation to the antagonistic relationship we have with the Kremlin today?

“Once Putin rose to power in 1999, the relationship with Russia deteriorated rapidly, and it continued to deteriorate. Every U.S. President since Bill Clinton has tried to establish a proper and cooperative relationship with Russia, but Putin wants none of that. He’s reverted back to the Russian, old Soviet attitude toward the West. That is, he would like to undermine democracy, including the democracy of the United States, and to separate the United States from its closest European allies. They work very hard to do that.”

How do you believe we should handle the current U.S.-Russia relationship, especially when we still partner with them in such areas as sending astronauts up to the International Space Station?

“I think you have to push back on Russia where they are threatening our interests and threatening democracy; but, to the degree that we can work with them in practical ways, I think we should do that.”

You started working in the Balkans and with the State Department after a nearly 30-year career in the U.S. Army, but much of your work was done in conjunction with our career diplomats in the U.S. Foreign Service. Where do they fit into these larger negotiations?

“The Foreign Service of the United States is, in some ways, an alternative to the use of military force. It allows us to use our influence through our relationships rather than through military pressure, and that’s almost always preferable. I believe that the use of military force is a last resort, not a first resort. And between the emergence of a conflict and the resolution of that conflict are many, many steps before you get to military force.” 

What are your thoughts on President Trump’s current foreign policy?

“There are two elements of the Trump foreign policy that bother me. One is the unilateral and nationalist nature of it that is America First, which implies that we don’t really care about the things that we’ve promoted for years. And the second thing that bothers me about this foreign policy is the militarism of it, and it’s a very dangerous attitude. The appointment of John Bolton as the National Security Advisor is particularly alarming because he is a very militant and extreme, I would say, conservative figure who’s never seen a war he didn’t want to participate in.”

What is your opinion on Trump’s more direct approach toward meeting with the leaders of North Korea?

“Ordinarily, a meeting with the United States President and a foreign leader is the last step in negotiating a solution. It’s not the first. So to push the president into a meeting ill-prepared with Kim Jong-un, I think, is dangerous. Now maybe they’ll get lucky, but I don’t think you ought to rely on luck. You ought to rely on professional competence, and I have real concerns about that."

And how do you feel he’s handling our tools of statecraft?

“I am also horrified by what this administration has done in the Foreign Service. Deep cuts in the State Department budget -- essentially purging the Senior Foreign Service -- and kind of a resentment or hostility toward the professionals in the Foreign Service of the United States, which I think is not only unfair but it’s also dangerous. These people are critical to our relationships abroad, and reducing that capability does not support our national interest.”

With the U.S. drawing back on its foreign commitments, what risk is there for other countries to step in and take our place?

"The international community, international environment that we live in, hates a vacuum; and, if the United States breaks away from its leadership role around the world, someone will fill it. I think China sees themselves as a powerful leader that would like to step in -- particularly in Asia, but in other regions as well. I think the behavior of Russia also is fairly aggressive because they sense U.S. withdrawal from important parts of the world."

Finally, how would you promote further interest in foreign policy, particularly when taking into account your past experiences?

“Americans just need to understand that we don’t live in isolation. We are engaged, whether we like it or not, and we need to have the best possible people working on that, and we need to be very cautious about how we use military force and how we go about our business in the world.”

  •  Ambassador Pardew is the keynote speaker at the second annual Conference on Global Problems and Community Praxis at Northern Illinois University. He is scheduled to speak at 6 p.m. Thursday in Barsema Hall.