Virtual Roundtable: Life Lessons Learned With Frank G. Wisner

Wednesday, June 23, 2021
Frank G. Wisner

International Affairs Advisor, Squire Patton Boggs, LLP


Mary and David Boies Distinguished Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy

Frank G. Wisner discusses his distinguished career in public service, including working as former undersecretary of defense for policy, undersecretary of state for international security affairs, and ambassador to Zambia, Egypt, the Philippines, and India. 

Visit “How I Got Here: Frank Wisner” on the Foreign Affairs Career Center for more information. 

The Lives in Public Service Roundtable Series features some of the country’s outstanding public servants discussing the lessons learned from their lives and careers. 

ROSE: Thank you very much, and welcome to another session of our roundtable on lives in public service. To remind folks, over the last few years in these perilous times, seeing all the good people dragged through the mud, I decided it was a new function that I had to fulfill to become the Alan Lomax of the deep state. And so I started an interview series to record the folkways and byways of this forgotten community of national security, diplomatic and other public service professionals before they were lost forever. Today we have a distinguished practitioner, Frank Wisner, who has served in so many different functions, in so many different bureaucracies, primarily in the State Department, but everywhere throughout the government in his involvement in American foreign policy and national security. There's a great interview that was sent to you. I suggest you all read the interviews carefully beforehand, because they're really good. These sessions, these roundtables are sort of like the follow on to the bravo event. I'm Andy Cohen, and this is watch-what-happens-live after the interview, where I go into deeper depth on the fun topics. 


Frank has served throughout his career everywhere from Algeria, to Zambia, to Egypt, to the Philippines, to India, to Washington, and more. And we're going to go through many of those postings and issues today. But the real question is, what makes these people tick? The criteria for involvement in this series is, you have to be a great professional, a great person, and be willing to subject yourself to my pestering annoying questions. So Frank, you have this extraordinary life that's really a kind of streaming series. Let's go back to season one. What kind of kid grows up from an early age wanting to be a foreign service officer?  


WISNER: Well, Gideon, that's a perfectly reasonable question. I'll try to make it not too long in my answer. In a sense, I was born to it. That is, I was born on the eve of World War II. And I was old enough to remember my father in uniform going to war. I remember the type of war that he went to was not a conventional combat role. He was in the intelligence service, the newly formed OSS. And so as I came out of the war years, and my father came home, I was already highly sensitive to the world around me, to the challenges before the United States. Even as a small child, these were pressing matters for me. On top of it, my father had a wanderlust and was unable to sit still in New York and practice law. And so again, at a young age, we moved to Washington, and he was part of the founding generation of the CIA. So I grew up in Washington, in the early and mid and late Cold War years, had a chance to observe many of the great American and many foreign practitioners of diplomacy, National Security Affairs, during that period. 


And so, Gideon, when I was quite young, I'd say 12, 14, some well-meaning adults turned to me and said, as adults occasionally do when they can't think of what to say to a child, said, "What do you wanna be when you grow up?" And I said, "I want to be a diplomat," and being a person of limited imagination, that's exactly what I did. I grew up to be a diplomat and never changed my mind and sit with you today still believing that diplomacy, the public service are among the highest callings we can aspire to as Americans. And so that's been my life. 


ROSE: So let's go to season two, you find yourself a decade or so after this conversation in Algeria, newly independent, the smell of cordite still on the streets and you go around shooting boar and partridge in the countryside. It seems like an entirely different world. Tell us what that was like and tell me what it was like to meet Nasser. 


WISNER: Well, Algeria was, at that time, at the center of the contest.  President Kennedy's administration freshly in office, saw the contest with the erstwhile now Soviet Union. Where was the "third world" as it was called, going to go? The Algerian revolution was over, the French were pulling out. When I arrived, the last of the French were leaving. The FLN that had maintained the revolution against France was coming into town and falling out amongst itself. There was literally shooting on the streets, the clan warfare among the successors to power was in full swing. And, together with the United States, appearing Russians, a full panoply of Soviet bloc diplomats, aid practitioners, lots of Cubans, all bidding for the hand of Algeria, to try to make certain that this country with a reputation of having fought a revolution would be on one side or the other, or at least equidistant between the competing powers of the day. Kennedy had come out early for Algerian independence and he felt strongly about it. And he sent to Algeria brilliant American diplomat, who, in part, schooled him in understanding the nature of the struggle in that country with France, William Porter. Porter went on to have a fantastic career and ended as Under Secretary of State before he retired. 


And Porter steered the State Department, guided it as we dealt with the newly emerging Algeria. And it became very quickly the center of world revolution, about every insurgent movement had an office, the Algerians paid everyone's bills. The Russians, the Soviet bloc, the Cubans were all fiercely active. And we were competing, we competed principally with economic means, we provided much food assistance in those early days and then gradually the beginnings of an aid program. But we faced many competitors, not of the least of which was the highly active Arab nationalist movement, headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who believed as the elder statesman of the Arab world, in his eyes, as the president of Egypt, the Arab world's most prominent and powerful nation that he was responsible for the future of this young, as he saw it, Arab nation. And so very early on, the leaders, Ahmed Ben Bella in Algeria, invited Nasser to come. He boarded the Royal, the old royal yacht. He sailed into Algiers Harbor, just as a violent storm broke out. And a portion of the Algerian Navy went out to greet him and sank. It was really a kind of a tragic beginning of the Nasser visit. 


But he traveled around Algeria, emphasizing Algeria's “Arab-ness.” Algeria, and its leadership were equally strongly committed to revolutionary third world, not just to Arabism. And so, Nasser had, with his Eastern Arab pretensions, not the full audience that I think he sought, but he was broadly and welcomed and received. He was taken by Ben Bella up to a town, oh, 50, 60 miles from Algiers, in the mountains, which is actually a majority Berber area. And I decided to go up and tend the rally. I had met Ben Bella, delivering a message from President Kennedy. He spotted me, brought me up, and that was my moment to meet Nasser, and to meet Ben Bella, and Nasser. And so my first real exposure to the sort of superpowers of the revolutionary and Arab age. 


ROSE: When we learn about, well, someone like me, learned about this stuff now, it seems like it's ancient history, half a century ago. How different is Algerian politics or North African politics today than it was then?  


WISNER: The Algerians rapidly moved from a sort of internationalist, third world revolutionary proclivity to dealing with the problems inside the country. And if anything, when Ben Bella was couped out of existence by Boumédiène, the commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, Boumédiène was determined to attend to Algerian matters predominantly, get out of the world of exporting revolution. And that's pretty much where the Algerians have been ever since. They are consumed with themselves, their internal issues. These issues have broken out in the end of the '90s in a really violent Islamist versus army uprising with a great deal of bloodshed. And Algeria is still making sure it's got legs of stability under it. But it's internal, it looks inside itself. It's not a major player in Arab issues or even internationally. 


ROSE: Let's go to season three, Vietnam. I see Charlie Duelfer is on the call. I will go to my grave trying to explain to people why I actually thought there were prohibited WMD in Iraq before 2000 and before the invasion, and why, in some weird way, I supported the war very slightly. Looking back, it is a shock to any of us. Barbara Tuchman's, The March of Folly seems so obvious in retrospect, how could smart countries filled with smart people like you do such stupid things as Vietnam?  


WISNER: Well, it remains a bedeviling question for all of us, for my generation in particular. But it's equally bedeviling because it isn't as if the United States learned the lesson, not to repeat. We seem to be impervious to learning from our mistakes, and therefore, ended up in tragic excesses in Iraq and now in Afghanistan, which we're trying to bring to a close. I hope this period of American history, from the late 1960s through the present, will somehow settle into the American mind. And that 1960s to the present period will take root in the American mind, and we will be careful about how we use American power. 


ROSE: Explain. 


WISNER: And how we set ourselves objectives. But going back to the Vietnam War, as surprising as it may seem to you, Gideon, today, it was equally in the context of the Cold War much less surprising when I was called home from Algeria and told I was going to Vietnam. I still remembered World War II, I remembered, as I told you, my father. I felt I was being asked to go and defend the nation's interest, just like my parent had. My father, I remember with intense pride that I would go to Vietnam, that we were in this existential moment in the Cold War, and the gain for one side perceived to be a loss for the other. On top of it, behind all of these emotions was the fear that Vietnam, if it collapsed, would mean the spread of communist power throughout Southeast Asia. We had just fought a war in Korea, we didn't wanna see South East Asia go sideways. These attitudes came together, and I believe were fed as well in retrospect, by a view that if the Democrats, Kennedy's Democrats, showed the white feather over Vietnam, they would experience the same attacks from the Republican side that the "fall of China" had befallen the Democrats in the early '50s. So all of these led to a massive miscalculation. It was worsened by the fact that in getting into the war in Vietnam, we had no strategy of how we would get out of it, of what goals we were trying to achieve. 


I never remember anybody believing that you could "win the war" and cause the end of communism in the Indochina, in Indochina. But what we were trying to achieve was not at all clear. And it wasn't until we finally realized that we could not survive, the war could not be fought in a successful manner, the North would not cave in, its backing from Russia and from China was too powerful, and its own vibrant sense of nationalism, made it clear, our miscalculation was overwhelming and our allies in Saigon couldn't stand on their own feet. So it took us a while, we finally did the thing, only outcome we could have pursued and that was to negotiate or withdrawal. 


ROSE: I agree entirely with your assessment of what happened and why, the lessons you learned from it about both planning when you actually do a war, and also the things that Americans can and can't do in their interventions. And have been shocked, as you have been, by the loss of what seem to have been actual learning in our field, and the repetition of the same dumb mistakes again and again, and conflict after conflict. Is there any possibility for progress in American foreign policy or is it destined basically just to evaporate when wise old hands retire, and the new schmucks have to learn the same things painfully in their own experience?  


WISNER: Well, we'll have to see. Obviously, none of us can predict the future. I think the mood of the country has very clearly changed for the moment, having just been through Iraq and Afghanistan, there is very little desire to pick another war. We came perilously close to real violence with Iran under the last administration, but nobody was talking about an interest in a full scale and proper war. I think a couple of things, Gideon, come to my mind. First of all, there's still learning to be done. We have to learn now, that despite the end of the Cold War and occasional bursts of American triumphalism, we are part of a world in which power is shared, we are one of many at the global table. And we have to learn our table manners and know how to live at that table and maintain balance with those with whom we don't agree. 


ROSE: Okay, what does that mean in practice?  


WISNER: It means that you're not going to have your way just because you have a history, or even a present day strength, both economic and military, but that you have to make your way with compromise, with understanding the ambitions of other nations, particularly great powers and particularly your adversaries, China today, Russia, nations with which we have profound differences, but you can have profound differences and still manage friction. And that has got to be the next stage in American diplomacy, recognizing the imperatives of the balance of power, that we're all sharing a world that we will be negotiating with one another. We will maintain our national strength, there is no question. In my mind, military strength is the bedrock from which successful diplomacy, economic and military strength, and bedrock from which successful diplomacy can be engaged, but diplomatic and intelligence tools will be the preferred action, preferred tools in the pursuit of global statecraft. 


ROSE: I agree, for what little it's worth, not that anybody cares. But I agree, and I thought that was very well stated. But I always find what's really interesting about this, how a great practitioner like you actually accomplishes something like this, instead of... It's just easy to say those things and hard to actually do something useful while following those principles. So let me take you back to Africa, where you pulled off one of the most incredible little things I've ever sort of read about and it's really interesting, 'cause you were fighting a two-front war. You and Chester Crocker were trying to, in your own way, lay the groundwork for engagement that would lay the ground foundations for the end of apartheid in South Africa by stabilizing the environment and working with the government, while at the same exact time, the CIA and other parts of the administration were fighting vicious covert wars in the same region in a totally uncoordinated way. So you were doing diplomacy with the South Africans of all kinds and with your own government. And you actually managed to pull this stuff off and it worked, so explain. 


WISNER: Well, my hat off to Chest Crocker, who is a brilliant practitioner of American diplomacy and who I admire extravagantly, but let me take you back a step. I first entered these Southern African fray at the request of Henry Kissinger, who, with an election coming up in 1976, saw the collapse of the Portuguese empire in southern Africa and the arrival of the Cubans in Angola, and an extension of the Cold War into southern Africa. There was a Liberation War underway in Rhodesia, then later Zimbabwe, Mozambique, formerly Portuguese Angola, in the fray, South Africa, in the mix midst. In the mix as well was Namibia. So Southern Africa had become a sort of cockpit of Cold War rivalry. That's when I came in. And I came in to deal with the issues of American prestige and power and influence, and our ability to contain the forces of the Cold War. That was my starting point. And I was privileged to work with Dr. Kissinger in securing the first step on the way to independence for Zimbabwe, so that that situation didn't become even more radicalized, and to begin to open up dialogue with the South Africans whose cooperation was required as they were the superpower of the region. 


WISNER: I was then privileged to be part of attempts by the Carter administration to get the British into a place where they could negotiate an outcome in Zimbabwe and a retreat of the white minority government. And then, in the Chester Crocker period, what was called, at the time, constructive engagement, move simultaneously to block the extension of Cold War power, Cuban and Russian power in Mozambique and in Angola, get the South Africans out of Angola and the Cubans out of Angola, and restore Southern Africa, so that in that period of calm, or a greater period of calm, less violent threats, evolution in South Africa's own politics could occur. And it did. As the 1980s drew to the close, and this last decade of the last century came on, South Africa finally took the step of ending minority rule. And so, I think it's a classic case of American diplomacy taking advantage of a fraught situation in a region to preserve balance, to keep, in that sense, the adversaries in check, and permit local circumstances at a degree, relative degree of stability to return to the region. Our interests were well served by active American diplomacy. And we didn't deploy a single American soldier. 


ROSE: Same question as North Africa, you look back over a half a century or in this case, several decades at Southern Africa, obvious great strides in getting rid of some of the old problems, but not nearly as much progress as one would have hoped in other ways in creating new wonderful, stable systems. Are you optimistic, pessimistic? Is it all cyclical? Is there any progress? What lessons from... 


WISNER: Well, Gideon, you put your finger on what is our ambition and why. I think we need to have, as a nation, a gradation of ambition, that the interests of the United States at the most ordinary level are well served when there is stability, when there are stable frameworks in which tensions can be managed. Whether it's Joe Biden sitting down with Putin, or being able to find a way to sit down with the Chinese. You need to deal with friction, clashing national interest. That's to create stability. The Middle East is a particularly fraught region. And you need, in the Middle East, to be able to manage the crises and tension, we have to. With Iran today, we have to find our way to get a footing in the region where it isn't a question of American troops being involved or America going to war, but providing a framework within which the tensions of the region can be negotiate among themselves. Stability, a stable framework, a balance with external interests and revolutionary impulses inside the region, stability. 


WISNER: Then after that, there are other American desires or interests, including the promotion of human rights, the expansion of political participation, democratic rule. These are things that occur over time. Under conditions of stability, they begin to occur in an evolutionary manner. But it takes a very long time. I'm reminded of when the United States became involved in Korea or with Japan after World War II, these were ancient societies. Today, they're quite vibrant democracies. But it didn't happen overnight. It happened only over time. And it only happened because there was a framework of stability, in this case, much due to the American presence in Northeast Asia and good economic circumstances. So here, again, I grade my ambitions. My first ambition is to contain difficulty, to preserve the peace. I'm gonna seek stability. I'm gonna seek understandings with other great powers. And I'm going to try to manage quarrels on the ground within the region before I aspire to see democracy break out. So where are we today? The Arab world is still in frightful turmoil. But there are some hope for seeing a measure of stability. Between states, the Iranian discussions with Saudi Arabia are very promising, but the Palestinian matter is deeply disturbing and will continue to be. 


WISNER: Going to the far end of the Arab world, Morocco and Algeria remain as loggerheads. So there's plenty of ruction, plenty of discord, but containing it and managing it is the appropriate definition of the use of American influence. 


ROSE: There are so many things more I wanna ask, but we have some many other great people on this, in this session that I need to let them go at you. So I'm gonna just take one last question before turning you over to the murder board over here. And that is a personal one. So Frank, you are and always have been a jolly guy. You're a fun guy, you are nice, you are personally a wonderful man. At the same time, you have dealt with many of the worst people on the planet in your professional life, and you've dealt with them not in sort of necessarily prescribed ways but as partners in various ways at different times. And you've had to do bad things, and you've worked with bad guys, you've engaged with the dirty hands problem in real life of American foreign policy. And the question I have is, how does a nice person who is a good person able to function in the real world and in the foreign policy, both bureaucratically and internationally? I mean, John le Carré tells us all the things we have to do to protect our country make us horrible, nasty people. You don't seem like a horrible, nasty person. Is that because you're just in denial about the terrible things you've done and continue to do, or is there some secret that the rest of us don't know?  


WISNER: A number of years ago, I was privileged to work with Vernon Jordan, I mean, Vernon Walters, excuse me, General Walters. And he and I went to see the president of Zambia after a blowup in USA-Zambian relations while I was ambassador. And I remember, he poured the flattery on Kenneth Kaunda, the recently deceased, quite wonderful president of Zambia, he came out and he asked me, he said, "Frank," he said, "How did I do?" And I said, "General Walters, you did a great job, but my god, you laid it on thick. What flattery." "Ahh," he said, "Young man, there's one thing I can teach you, a man who does not appreciate flattery has never had any." So I wanna tell you, I appreciated all the very nice things you said about me. I'd like to think I'm a realist, in the sense that I know the core of the practice of diplomacy is recognizing what your nation's interests are, and second, recognizing what you can do and what you can't do, able to appreciate the fact that this is a complicated world, people come to power in other countries for all kinds of complex reasons, and you can change those. To recognize what you can not change, recognize what you can change, and, as Ronald Kneebone used to say, be able to tell, be able to make the distinction. 


And therefore, sitting down with someone whose hands have blood on them is part of life. He rose to the top of his heap by his own devices, but he represents his country and you have interests you're trying to represent. You've got to learn to use the common American expression, walk in his shoes, figure out who he is. If you're gonna convince him of what's important to you, then you have to be able to understand what's important to him. And I don't have to like a person who's sitting across the table, or even agree with his principles, but I am looking at how I can bring his and my interests into line, into an alignment, so that I in the end, can pursue American interest, which is after all the assigned responsibility of a diplomat. And I guess that's about the best way I can describe it. 


ROSE: I think that's a wonderful way to describe it. And on that note, we're gonna bring in our other participants, and we have a wonderful all-star gang as well. Before we get further instructions on how to ask questions, you just basically raise your hand. But we already have in the list, Gary Sick, Stephen Heintz, Karen Sughrue, Gordon Goldstein and Avis Bohlen. So, Gary, you're gonna be first, but I think we're gonna have some instructions first. Gary Sick, you're up first. 


SICK: Okay, I think I'm unmuted at this point. Frank, this is wonderful. I take this as an opportunity to one of those things where all the questions you would like to ask Frank Wisner, but never had the courage to do so to his face, this seems to be the opportunity. My question is, as you know, diplomacy has been described by somebody as telling somebody to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions. And you have always been my champion of the person who could do that, who could. Actually, I have seen you in operation, basically phrasing a question, which is embarrassing or difficult or tough or poignant in such a way that the person would scratch their head heads and say, "Yeah, I need to think about that." And it would come out in a way that wasn't confrontational, and got you somewhere. My question is, and actually, I'm serious about this, is this something that you grew into, that you created over time in your experience, or were you born with it? Did you talk that way to your parents? Is that how you got your way in school? I'm really curious. 


WISNER: Is it nurture or nature? Gary, thank you. By the way, Gideon, that's Gary Sick, a man who has devoted his life to preserving an option in American foreign policy to be able to deal with the major power in the Middle East, Iran. Gary, right from the day of the '79 revolution, when you were the first people to really understand the motor forces at play, to this very moment, I admire you intensely and appreciate the friendship I've had with you over the years. I wish I had a quick and easy answer. I think without attributing matters of personality, or even upbringing, and the manners you're taught or not taught as a child, I think basically, your question, in my mind, comes down to a recognition that respect and trust are key elements in diplomacy. You have to have a sense on the other side of the table, that he can trust your word, and that you respect his interests. And if you can bring that, those two elements to the table and succeed in doing it, then you have a chance to open the way to making an arrangement, coming to a deal, coming to a conclusion. 


WISNER: And you don't either create respect or build trust by aggressive confrontation. That doesn't mean you lie back and take any sense of nonsense from the opposite side. I remember a deeply unpleasant set of exchanges not so many years ago with the Prime Minister of Serbia, during the debates over Kosovo. You make it very clear that nonsense is nonsense, but you can do that in a restrained and common way, because you're looking beyond the argument. It's not to win a debate, but it's to create conditions under which you can come to an agreement. 


ROSE: Beautifully put. Stephen Heintz, you're up next. 


HEINTZ: Thank you, Gideon. And like Gary, I wanted to just say this is an opportunity to say how much wisdom is embedded in Frank Wisner's life and in his career that is of just enormous value to all of us who've had the opportunity to work with him on various projects and to be his friends, which I feel very fortunate enough to count myself as one. And I wanted to ask Frank, to follow on your and Gideon's good conversation about the lessons of Vietnam and in particular, how we think about them in the context of some of the fateful decisions being made in real time. Now that the Biden administration has made the decision to withdraw our forces from Afghanistan, which, of course, also means all of the NATO forces are withdrawing, and all of the contractors who support the Afghan military in some critical ways, those decisions having been made, what is the right policy stance for the United States in the post-military period?  


WISNER: Stephen, I reciprocate your sense of friendship and more than reciprocate the words of admiration I have for you and for the work you've done with the RBF, and your devotion to deeply troubling issues, domestic and international, of which Afghanistan is one of the most recent and prominent. My starting point with Afghanistan looking at it today, is to say to myself, we are fools as Americans, if we believe our interest stop the day that the last American soldier gets on an aeroplane and leaves the country, or however he departs. The obligation is to continue a level of responsibility for an extremely dangerous situation and dangerous part of the world, if left unmanaged, will affect a variety of other American interests, will undermine peace and stability in South Asia, in Central Asia, not to mention Islamic extremism. These factors are not going to go away because we chose to walk away from, or depart, leave Afghanistan, but we're gonna do it in a different way. And that's where we have to think very carefully and not repeat other mistakes of the past. I was present for the final days in Indochina and I feel, to this day, that we looked at departing Indochina as an end game, as opposed to part of a process. 


And here again, I think the case is important, very important, that we may be leaving Afghanistan, but our responsibilities and our interests do not stop there. So what are the elements? The elements are what we fought for we must hold true to, and that is support for the governance, an inclusive system of governance that is modern and deals with the social, cultural, political, different divisions inside of Afghanistan, give some real hope of profound stability, some degree of decency in the society, protects, obviously, the interests of women, of minorities, and we need to stand by that. And I'm delighted the President will be receiving President Ashraf Ghani. That's a political signal. It should also be a signal that we haven't left, that our presence is gonna take a new form; political, support for the regime; economic, continued economic support for the regime and for the Afghan military forces that we've trained and brought along this far. But it has to also mean a deep commitment to diplomacy, of bringing together the nations around Afghanistan and participating in creating a degree of a cordon sanitaire around the problem that can actually help contain Afghanistan's furies and bring about a resolution among Afghans. 


So we need to be able to work with India, with Pakistan, with Russia, with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Iran. These are all players in the future, and we have to be at the table. We can't have artificial differences, as we have today. Iran would like to cooperate with the United States over Afghanistan, we've done it in the past, at the Bond Conference, we need to return to that now. So support for the regime, economic, political support for the country, opposition to the violent overthrow of the established system, we have to resist that and we have to be aiming at building that kind of diplomatic framework in which Afghanistan can begin to find its place in the region in a more peaceful manner. 


ROSE: From your lips to God's ears. Karen Sughrue, you're up next in Ask Mr. Wizard with Frank Wisner. 


SUGHRUE: What a treat this is to be talking to the Wiz. [chuckle] So nice to see you, Frank, and to have a chance to thank you for being such a fine human and a public servant. You touched on public attitudes at home and how that affects diplomats' ability to do their job. How has that evolved over the time in your career? Was there a different time than today? And how bad is it now? And what's changed?  


WISNER: Sughrue, what a treat to be with you again. And particularly many in the audience may not know what a fine hand you have in interpreting and dealing with questions of American opinion, media. And I'm just enormously fond of you, and I'm glad to be with you. A fair question. I perhaps have a somewhat biased view in the matter that you've raised. I believe that the country was closer to one as we came out of World War II, that didn't mean we didn't have profound differences. But the country tended to allow administrations to conduct foreign policy in frequently raucous manner, in debates with the Congress, but a sense of some common purpose. Now, this really broke down over Vietnam, and it's never fully been repaired. The great difference today is that we seem to project our domestic political views into our foreign policy and national security space, that we attempt, as a nation, today, our leaders attempt to play politics on a global scale, as opposed to pursue what I believe are essential national interests. And that's a profound danger, particularly as we have fallen into this very sharp partisan divide. 


WISNER: So that today, critical impairment of our capacity to protect the interests of this country lies in the fact that we are no longer a reliable party. If there's an issue today that troubles me, is foreigners look at this country and say, "Can we rely on America's word? Will there be consistency between administrations? Will the United States treaty and other obligations be carried forward by the next administration or will those obligations fall victim to partisan differences?" That's a profound problem. For a nation in whom you have no trust, you can make no deal, and failure to be able to be trusted means every major interest of United States will be at stake. Sughrue, in a word, that's my greatest worry about today, and the greatest decline in a secular manner over the past 80 years, from some degree of coherence, to much less coherence, degree of trust to a real question about America's reliability, and trustworthiness. 


ROSE: That's depressing. Gordon Goldstein, your turn to kiss the piñata before sticking it. 




ROSE: Gordon, you're unmuted, talk. 


GOLDSTEIN: Okay. Can you hear me now?  


ROSE: Yes, we can. 


GOLDSTEIN: Very good. Gideon, thank you. Ambassador Wisner, let me echo the prior expressions of admiration and appreciation for your huge contribution to American diplomacy over the years and to your personal friendship, which has meant so much to me. My question is as follows. Even the most sterling and impeccable career, such as yours, nonetheless, absorb, or obscure periods of difficulty or disruption. And the question I have for you is the following. What for you has been the period of the greatest difficulty or disruption in your career? And what have you learned about yourself as a result, and what can you share with this group today?  


ROSE: And how did you create jolly?  


WISNER: That's a probing question, Gordon. And I, again, in your case, reciprocate admiration and friendship. I have learned a lot from you. And I'm particularly struck by my very careful reading of your account with McGeorge Bundy. And a lesson that you bring to the fore in that account, that helps me better understand the world in which, I believe, if my memory is correct, you asked McGeorge Bundy, "Looking back at Vietnam, what went wrong?" And his answer to you that you brought to the fore is that we overestimated our ability to compel others to do what we want them to do and we underestimated others' ability to resist. In those two key lessons, lie many mistakes in American foreign policy, and a recognition that we can't force people to do, where they do not believe their interests take them, nor do we have the power to compel them with just golden rules for the conduct of American statecraft. And so, I wanna thank you. I hold those close. Sure, there are many difficulties in life. And I've had my measure, all of us do. Some are personal. My wife died during my time in the State Department right in the middle of the Vietnam, the withdrawal from Saigon. I am very proud that we discharged our final duty, but it was a time of personal, deep personal anguish for me. 


I've had a sense of watching Vietnam, where I devoted number of years of my life, watching it come apart, that was a sense of profound disruption or disappointment. At the same time, we rise to the occasion. If we examine that which lets us down or disappoints us, what are the core lessons? And I think finally, a bit of difficulty I've come to give Vietnam some perspective, and it gives me a chance to judge other American engagements. During the Obama administration, I was asked to carry word to Mubarak about his leaving office. I did as I was instructed. The policy changed, and that was disappointing to me because I believe the United States is better angels or where we are seen to be helping to solve problems, not march at the head of a protest. It undercut our position in the region. And there was absolutely no way we were going to decide the future of the Egyptian revolution, as we subsequently learned. So these disappointments come or disagreements over policy, but you learn from them. You try to put them into some perspective. You try to learn about how to make sure you don't make the mistake twice, how to be sure you have solid domestic support for the position you're advocating, that your instructions remain current, that you are able to adapt and to be convincing with those on the other side of the table. So God tests us all with challenges. We all have them. And if we live up to them, then we carry forward and meet the merit of our lives. 


ROSE: Wow. 


WISNER: Gordon, thank you. 


ROSE: Thank you. Avis Bohlen, you're up next. 


BOHLEN: Frank, hello. Thank you for this wonderful talk. I think, you've laid out what could be the credo for any diplomat, and I hope maybe it could be shared more widely with people in the state, within an A-100 class, let's say. And my question goes to that American diplomacy can be no better than its practitioners. And I wondered if you would say a few words about how you see the foreign service today, which is certainly not the foreign service that you entered many decades ago, where women, not just say minorities, were not welcome. And today, it struggles not only with the trauma of the Trump years but with problems of diversity and inclusion and trying to maintain its important standards of excellent. 


WISNER: Avis, thank you. Gosh, for all of those on this call, you truth in advertising, Avis and I've been friends from childhood. I was a great admirer of her father's and delighted in the friendship in regard of her mother. And Avis and I have known each other. I've admired her career in diplomacy in Paris, in Bulgaria, as Assistant Secretary, and she and I are both today, committed to the success of the American Academy of Diplomacy. Both of us spent our lives in this profession. And it's a fair question you put. I'm always an optimist about the Foreign Service. It's particularly dear to me. I believe the nation must have a trained, experienced and dedicated and reliable, treated with reliability by the political structures of this country. If we don't, administrations come and administrations go, but there must be a core of professional advice, not only assessments of what issues lie before the United States, but how to address those issues, how to find compromises, how to manage reaching decisions inside Washington. These are skills, as one great diplomat of Avis' and my time, Phil Habib, used to say about diplomacy and about the Foreign Service, "It's more like a fine wine that has to mature." You don't just pick it off out of a college textbook and put it into effect. It's a lifelong commitment. 


And here, the Foreign Service is not the only institution by any means, but it's got to be one of the bedrock, the bedrock of consistency of our ability to conduct foreign policy and protect the national interest. So where are we today? Where were we? In so many ways, and Avis, you underscored them, we're a much better service. That is we're open, really, to all types of Americans. I remember, when I joined the service, it used to be said diversity meant that you didn't come from the Middle East, or went to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or one of the Ivy League colleges. Actually, you might have been educated in the Middle West or the far west. Diversity today means including all Americans and bringing to the table, varieties of points of view and attitude, skills, education, background. And I think the service's emphasis on diversity is going to strengthen it. It won't come immediately, become immediately obvious, but the disciplines of the service will harness that diversity in a creative way. So I'm very pleased. 


If I have to worry, I have seen times in our lives, you and I lived through your father's trials and tribulations at the hands of Senator McCarthy, your uncle, Charlie Thayer, was virtually destroyed by that period. I've seen breakdowns between the professional Foreign Service and our political establishment. But I really must say that suspicion of the Foreign Service is the last administration's ally and not to be trusted, is really a very disturbing and much too deeply embedded a trend that the newly arriving administration and in our very partisan country looks at those who occupy permanent positions as having some element of disloyalty about them. It can't be that way. The Foreign Service makes sense for our political masters, when it is understood and accepted that the service is there to serve the president, and that's their fundamental loyalty, and not to be looked at is some holdover of deep state dissidents. The service is there to serve. And we could healthily... We need to get back to that framework of trust, and it's not going to be easy, it's become a very bad habit. 


ROSE: Last two questions. We're gonna bunch them together, Marshall Bouton, and the mysterious 2232579, whoever that is. 




BOUTON: Hello, Frank. I just wanted to add my voice of admiration, respect and affection for you and for all you've done for our country over the course of your career, and continue to do in various non-official, but helpfully to officials, way. It's been my great privilege to work with Frank Wisner since the mid-1980s, with a special focus for both of us on India. It's been an even greater privilege for me to come to town him as a friend. And I just have respected so much all that way he has done things. I wanted to ask Frank, one of the things that was remarkable that I learned about you was the passion you brought to your subject at the same time that you kept firmly in view, your purpose in India, in particular, I'm talking about now, of serving the US national interest. Somehow you combined enormous passion and vigor for the place, for the people, for the issues, which you retain today, in the case of our ups and downs in the relationship with India. And never swerved from what you saw as the ultimate goal of a stronger tie. I just wanna thank you for all you've done and ask you how you've managed to meld those things together, as you do with so much else. Thank you, Gideon, for the opportunity. 


ROSE: Thanks, Marshall, and whoever is 2232579, speak now or forever hold your peace. 




ROSE: Well, Is there is there somebody who is on as 2232579? The new number two, if this is the prisoner? Okay, well, your mic is open. Okay, well, in that case, Frank answer Marshall's question and... 


WISNER: Be happy to, be happy to. I was privileged to be asked by President Clinton to be ambassador in New Delhi. And shortly before I left, I picked up the telephone and called John Kenneth Galbraith, who I'd known is a young man, friend of parents. And I told him I'd been asked to be ambassador in India, and I was greeted with the most extraordinary silence, and it wouldn't end. And finally I broke the silence myself and asked Master Galbraith, Dr. Galbraith, and I said, "Are you really on the line?" And after a moment, he cleared his throat and he said, "Frank," he said, "Let me welcome you to a life sentence." And it's absolutely true. India is a most absorbing, absorbing issue of American foreign policy, not to mention, and a civilization of extraordinary quality, a history that is completely absorbing. You cannot approach India without being willing to serve that life sentence. And I was very quickly brought into it. Yes, I was lucky to be enthusiastic by nature, but India really is something you can get your arms around and become involved in. But right at the outset, and this is early '90s, I believed we were headed into a world in which the United States had to create a structure of great power relations, and use those relationships with each great power to help maintain balance with other powers. 


The classic balance of power framework. And then India was emerging as a great power. It had all the weaknesses you can imagine. Its economy was underperforming, is about the nicest thing you could say about it. It looked inside itself and less at the world, and long record of hostility towards the United States borne over many years, some cultural reasons for it. And yet, there was an inevitability about the United States and India coming together. And today, that relationship is really powered by common concerns over China, and how to manage Chinese power. I believed in the '90s, we had to end up with a powerful relationship with India. And the contributions of the two governments would be asymmetric. We would end up having to put more into the relationship than the Indians would put into it. And yet, we needed India to be a functioning power if we were to maintain the balance. And so that attitude fired me, Marshall, in the early to mid-1990s and remains with me today. And it has been a real treat to be associated with you, to have somebody in my circle of friends who understands India, understands people, understands language, understands culture the way you do, to be privileged to have your friendship over these years. 


ROSE: So with that, one of the... Churchill famously said, "One of the great traditions of the British Navy were rum, buggery, and the lash." One of the great traditions of the Council is, we actually end our events on time. Frank, now that you know what the toasts at your bar mitzvah would have been liked if you'd had one, you can die happy, and we will all look forward to continuing our conversation. Thank you for your service. Thank you for your willingness to enlighten us about your service and your thoughts. And I welcome you all to future sessions of our roundtable with other great figures in American public life. Thank you all. 

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