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Diplomat Offers Glimpse Behind Closed Doors


Opening a dialogue with an enemy is complex and requires a delicate touch. Our next guest, Winston Lord, has done it many times, notably secret negotiations with Vietnam at the height of the war and with long-time American enemy China.

Ambassador Winston Lord joins us now. Welcome, ambassador.


Ambassador WINSTON LORD (Diplomat): Nice to be with you.

SEABROOK: How does an American diplomat even begin to negotiate with an enemy country?

Amb. LORD: Well, you get in touch through secret channels. You may have an envoy go over there, not for announced reasons but for some other reasons and talk to the local people, or you may send back-channel messages through the intelligence services. There are ways that you can handle it so only a few people at each end know that you're trying to get going.

In the case of China, which you mentioned, it was even more difficult because we had no communications with China at that point, in 1969 and the early '70s, so we had to go through a third country, notably Pakistan.

SEABROOK: So you send a note through the diplomatic channels there, and then they send it along?


Amb. LORD: Yes, well what happened was we went through several governments, Nixon and/or Kissinger, asking the heads of state whether they would be a channel between us because we didn't know how to get in touch with the Chinese. We had no contact for 22 years. And finally trying various channels, we settled on the Pakistani one as the most reliable for both sides, and we proceeded sending messages through the Pakistani ambassador in Washington. Kissinger and I would meet with him in Kissinger's office. We'd give him a message for the Chinese. He would send it to his president in Pakistan, who would then send it on to Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse-Tung in China.

SEABROOK: Then when a meeting is finally arranged, a secret meeting, what is that room like? It must be full of pressure and things unsaid.

Amb. LORD: Well, they are, because by definition, the reason you have these secret meetings are with enemies usually - you don't need them with friends - they usually take place because you have profound differences with the other country, and it's very hard, given the sensitivity of the relationship and each other's domestic public opinion to negotiate publicly.

So in the case of Vietnam, we were trying to negotiate an end to the very controversial and bloody war that was going on, and we had to have a lot of patience, because this went on for a couple years, and part of the problem was that we were making somewhat generous offers for peace to the Vietnamese at the time.

Because it was secret, we could be more flexible rather than public posturing and propaganda by both sides, but the Vietnamese were stubborn, we didn't make much progress for a while, and meanwhile, Nixon and Kissinger were being lambasted by the press and by the Congress for not trying to negotiate an early end to the war.

SEABROOK: Ambassador Lord, in the current presidential campaign, there's been a pretty stark difference between the candidates on this issue. Senator Barack Obama says he would talk directly with America's enemies, specifically Iran. Hillary Clinton called that naive. Later, John McCain and President Bush also criticized the stance.

When do you think it's appropriate to talk with an enemy?

Amb. LORD: Well, I think you have to be precise here. On the one hand, you should be willing to talk to your enemies. It's not a concession just to talk to them, and you shouldn't place tremendous conditions on doing that before you even sit down because that doesn't make any sense. I mean, for example, to tell Iran they've got to give up all their nuclear weapons, and then we'll sit down with them, that's what you've got to negotiate. So that doesn't make any sense.

Now on the other hand, you can't start with a summit meeting with a declared enemy. What you've got to do is meet at lower levels, let's say assistant secretary or undersecretary of state, before the presidents meet to make sure that there's going to make some sense in a summit, but it's hard to think of any example where you don't at least explore at the working level whether such talks would make some sense.

SEABROOK: Ambassador Winston Lord. Thanks very much, sir.

Amb. LORD: You're welcome, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.