The Power of Conversation in a Fractured World: W. Robert Pearson ’68—Calm Inside the Storm
In 1989, American political economist Frances Fukuyama, reviewing the collapse of Soviet-based authoritarian regimes and their replacement by liberal democracies, declared famously “the end of history.” It was a catchy phrase, audacious in its sweep, and now but a wistful postscript to the cold war. Tectonic geopolitical shifts are now transforming the world in ways that are—well, historic.
We seem to live in a bellicose, extremist age increasingly deaf to the quiet art of diplomacy. But W. Robert Pearson ’68, recently retired director general of the Foreign Service, would disagree. He acknowledges today’s challenges, but he has abiding faith in our country’s ability to meet them.
“For the foreseeable future, the U.S. will be the largest single influence in the world,” he says. “That’s not trying to brag. That’s a fact. Our economy is larger than the next three national economies combined. Our armed forces are larger and more powerful than the next ten combined, but I also think that we have learned and the rest of the world has learned that it’s important to find ways to try to work together.”
Pearson specifically rejects the idea that the world is now involved in a “clash of civilizations” fomented by Al Qaeda and others who dream of an extreme Islamic state. They “would like to foster the idea of a clash of civilizations,” he says. “It gives them a paradigm to point to, but I think if other people keep their heads, they’ll see that it’s not true. Without trying to be ideological, democracy is still the most powerful single idea in global culture. I never met a culture or people anywhere who wouldn’t enjoy more power over their personal lives, a greater ability to protect themselves, better health, and better lives for their children. Those things are universal and belie the idea of a clash of civilizations.”
And the fervent anti-American attitudes sweeping the globe? “Today, there isn’t a single issue, even a modest issue, on which people don’t want to know what the Americans think. Even if they don’t agree with us, even if they know in advance that they’re not going to agree with us, they still want to know where we are going to be and what we’re going to think and why we think this way.”
Finding a Universal Language
Pearson exudes the gracious charm of small-town Bells, Tennessee, in which he grew up. He is calm, personable, and engaging, and speaks with a master diplomat’s command of language (he is fluent in Turkish, French, and Chinese). Pearson’s stint in the Navy and his three decades with the Foreign Service has taken him far from the rural high school where his Latin teacher first fired his passion for foreign language and exotic lands. “I read Caesar’s Commentaries and I just loved it,” Pearson recalls. “I think that was the start in terms of foreign service, the idea of languages and cultures and worlds that are beyond your reach well over the horizon.”
He went on to Vanderbilt for his degree and then, on the recommendation of the dean, applied to the Law School. “In those days, life was so simple. Virginia was the only school I applied to because it was the only place I wanted to go. And I really enjoyed the study of law there, developing the discipline of knowing how to think, how to look at a circumstance, how to measure the factors, how to give relative weight, how to make an argument that’s persuasive to somebody, not just because you think it is right but because it is going to produce a result. That is important.”
Graduating from the Law School at the height of the Vietnam War and eligible for the draft, Pearson joined the Navy as a JAG officer. He spent a year in Norfolk, a year in Japan, and then back to San Diego for another year until his enlistment was up. He remained in San Diego for a couple of years as a litigator in private practice and “loved being in a courtroom, loved cross-examination,” but was restless nonetheless.
“I thought about whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing something as wonderful as living in San Diego or go back to something that had been part of my dreams for a long time. I took the Foreign Service exam, went to New Zealand as an experiment to see if I really liked that career or wanted to come back to law. I loved it and my wife loved it, so we stayed.”
Since then, he has served as an envoy to China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution and talked one-on-one with Premier Deng Xiaoping. He once spent a month as executive secretary to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker as they traveled the world enlisting allied support for Desert Storm. Most recently, as the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Pearson managed a difficult relationship with a very reluctant U.S. ally in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Sworn in as ambassador in September 2000, Pearson managed U.S interests as Turkey was recovering from two major financial crises, two wars, and a general election in which, says Pearson, the party coming into power was viewed with great suspicion by Turkey’s traditional ruling elite. It was a transitional moment, and required great diplomatic skill when Turkey balked at supporting the second Gulf war.
“I tried to explain to the Turks that it was in both of our interests to be looking for ways to work together. They had the right to make that decision, but was it the right decision? I think they would’ve been far better off giving us their best advice than separating themselves from us. At the same time, we didn’t judge them and we didn’t accuse them of bad faith. I always tried to show them that whatever the intellectual discourse was, we were talking with people whom we deeply respected, with a culture we deeply admired, and whose values we supported and that we simply were going through a tough time and needed to work on improving it.”
Pearson’s work with the Turks typifies his entire approach to international relations and negotiations. “At a global level we are all alike,” he says, “but to operate on that basis is a huge mistake. Knowing how to sense what lies underneath and turn it to practical use is a very important skill.”
For example, Pearson says that a large part of the world sees the idea of compromise as roughly equivalent to concession. The American “win-win” approach—you need a little something, I need a little something—appears to ask the other side to disclose a weakness. Many cultures balk at that. The Chinese “spend endless amounts of time testing every point of your presentation, honing it, putting it in the furnace, and burning it down to its bare essence to learn your real position. If you have any internal contradictions, they find them. Then at the very end they calculate what deal would be minimally acceptable plus a little bit to show good will and that’s what they offer.”
The Foreign Service, the diplomatic arm of the U.S. Department of State, understands these idiosyncrasies and is in the best position to teach how to study and utilize other cultures’ negotiation techniques. “We’re the people who are talking to those who want to come to this country as business visitors or tourists or students,” he says. “We’re the people who are working with other countries’ police forces to go after drug dealers. We’re the ones who negotiate arrangements to make air travel easier or to keep our cargoes safe or to facilitate trade and growth. That’s what we do all day every day everywhere in more than 265 places around the world.”
Pearson says that good Foreign Service officers have an inquisitive mind and a willingness to listen to others even if they deeply disagree with them. They also understand how to be frank while pushing the discussion onto a fruitful path. “The traditional view of diplomacy, that one must always say something nice, is completely mistaken,” he says. “You often have to tell people things that aren’t pleasant. You have to be very clear about it, but you have to do so in a way that allows the conversation to keep moving toward a solution.”
Changes after 9/11
Before the terrorists’ attacks on September 11, 2001, the Foreign Service received an average 12,000 applications every year. After 9/11, that number surged to more than 30,000. That was a welcome change from the ’90s, when the end of the cold war caused Congress to cut funding, leaving the Foreign Service chronically understaffed for years. Apparently, lawmakers didn’t see enough reason to deploy public diplomacy officers all over the world, but 9/11 changed that. “I think we paid a price for that,” says Pearson, “and 9/11 was part of it.” Today, “there is no substitute for one-on-one contact between an American and an audience; no amount of film or printed material or broadcast can match it,” he says. “Certainly, those convey information, but conviction comes with a conversation. We need more people in more places talking about American values and interests.”
Pearson cites statistics showing that by the middle of this century, the population of all of North America and Europe will make up just ten percent of the world’s population. He says that our success in promoting American interests will depend on our ability to work with the next dozen or more countries rounding out the bulk of the world’s population.
“That is a completely different scenario than the cold war, when we were dealing with just one counterpart,” he says. “On a whole range of issues, we will need greater expertise while also increasing our skills dealing with failed, failing, and post-conflict states. American diplomats will have to act as catalysts working with our military closely, working with U.N. organizations and other international organizations closely, fashioning solutions for the recovery of states. It will be a major element of the concept of threat in the next twenty-five years.”
The Next Chapter
After all the miles and cities, the many different homes and postings, the myriad places and people and challenges, Pearson retired from the Foreign Service in April 2006. A tall, vibrant man who wore his leadership role comfortably, he seems to have left at the top of his game. But that’s really the point.
“Ted Williams batted .400 and when did he retire?” he asks with an easy smile. [After hitting a home run in his final at-bat—editor] “I’ve had a wonderful career. Some days you may wish didn’t happen, but no day was dull. If you didn’t like what you were doing, in two or three years you could be doing something else. If you did like what you were doing, you had a finite period of time in which to accomplish it. That sharpened the mind, too. But now, I’m ready to try something else.”
Pearson plans to take a road tour of France with his wife, see some more of the U.S. behind the handlebars of his ’97 Harley, then explore a couple of book ideas about the future of diplomacy in an age increasingly reliant on military solutions.
“America is all about action, about what you do. We have always de-emphasized what you say, how you present things, and how you argue things, but actually, they are a tremendously influential part of life. That is how we solve our problems. As a diplomat, I have tried to help people solve those problems in a much more complicated environment, but it’s the same principle. I would like to write something that puts that value back into how we work for our country’s best interests.”