There will never be another Bill Richardson, but the world needs more like him

His style of diplomacy benefited America and the world immensely. Yet it seems to have gone out of fashion

The late Bill Richardson helped negotiate Taylor Dudley's release from a prison in Kaliningrad, Russia, in January. AFP
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The world needs more people like Bill Richardson, who passed away on Friday. I say this not because he had an exceptional career in public service – seven terms in the US Congress, twice governor of New Mexico, he was also America’s ambassador to the UN and energy secretary during the Clinton administration. Nor because he won a place in the Guinness Book of Records – an achievement of which he was inordinately proud – for the politician who’d shaken the most hands (13,392) in an eight-hour period.

Nor because he was clearly the most amiable of men and held in wide affection. When he stood for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, the first of Latino descent to do so, he looked around the podium during a TV debate and said: “Let me just say, I love all the candidates here. In fact, I think they would all do great in the White House … as my vice president.” Everyone in the room, candidates included, erupted with laughter.

And neither do I say so solely because he became most famous for his skill as a special envoy – sometimes official, sometimes not – to world leaders who were often sworn enemies of the US, frequently securing the return of detained Americans, although it is connected to that.

I say we need more Bill Richardsons because of the wisdom that informed the way he managed to broker deals with an unlikely roster that included Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein and “a Kim or two”, as he put it, referring to the ruling family of North Korea. “Respect the other side. Try to connect personally. Use sense of humour. Let the other side save face,” is how he once described his negotiating style.

Understanding the importance of saving face is also crucial

It sounds such a simple formula. And yet it seems too rare at a time when many public officials try to outdo each other in performative behaviour, never shy of berating other countries and telling them what to do. The point is general, but it would only be fair to add that it is mostly western officials who are guilty of this. We don’t, for instance, hear of Global South countries getting together to denounce the UK for its epidemic of homelessness and child poverty – which affects nearly 30 per cent of children, according to the latest statistics – and “demanding” that the British government take action.

But respecting “the other side” or other peoples appears to be something some officials are just incapable of doing instinctively. I wrote last year about the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, who told an audience – of young diplomats, if you can believe it – that “Europe is a garden ... It is the best combination … that humankind has been able to build. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden. The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means.”

Mr Borrell later claimed his remarks had been misunderstood. “I am sorry if some have felt offended,” he said – a half-hearted apology that has not satisfied the many on social media who have referred to him ever since as “Josep ‘Gardener’ Borrell”.

Another instance that remains etched in the memory is the visit by then UK foreign secretary David Miliband to India in 2009. Mr Miliband caused such outrage by his all-advised words about the Kashmir dispute and his public overfamiliarity with Pranab Mukherjee, his septuagenarian counterpart – whom he kept calling by his first name – that some Indian commentators said it was the worst visit by a British foreign secretary since independence in 1947. If he’d only been a little more sensitive towards his hosts, disaster could easily have been avoided.

Understanding the importance of saving face is also crucial. “Saving face” is not merely some quaint Asian custom, as many Europeans and Americans apparently think. First, it is very real. Second, it ought to be obvious when it matters in geopolitics.

If any politician in Washington ever wants China to take a more accommodating stance on Taiwan (as they would see it), for instance, they have to understand that no Chinese leader can ever be seen to lose face over the issue. This is also going to be key to the future of the South China Sea, much of which Beijing claims, leading to disputes with several South-East Asian countries.

It doesn’t matter what rulings are issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in reference to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Beijing’s claims are illustrated on a map in Chinese passports. It would be politically impossible for any leader to back down on them. All sides are going to have to come to various accommodations that allow each country to present them as “wins” at home.

Mr Richardson would have known this, and although he was concerned primarily with personal diplomacy, he also conducted many missions to Myanmar from the 1990s onwards, negotiating with the military juntas that preceded and succeeded the short-lived period of democracy, and promoting humanitarian causes.

International relations would benefit greatly from the wide adoption of his formula. Let me repeat it: “Respect the other side. Try to connect personally. Use sense of humour. Let the other side save face.” Is that really so hard?

The fact that Mr Richardson was so unusual suggests that it is. Let’s hope, after the eulogies he received from so many, that his counterparts across the West stop to ask themselves: what could we learn from this remarkable man?

Published: September 05, 2023, 2:00 PM