North Korea’s nuclear test reminds me of my last days in the Foreign Service around 1996-97. I was the American Embassy’s science officer in Rome, working on nuclear non-proliferation issues, as well as a number of other matters, such as the environment.
At that time, Italy held the rotating presidency of the European Union, so that I dealt with the Italian government both on bilateral issues and on issues for the whole European Union. The first agreement intended to rein in North Korean nuclear proliferation was in effect, the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, under which the US, Japan and South Korea were to provide North Korea with certain things in return for North Korean nuclear restraint. In the short term we were to provide North Korea with fuel oil to keep its conventional electric power plants running, and in the future with nuclear electric power plants that did not use or produce materials that could be used in a bomb.
I don’t remember all the details, but the US was obligated to pay several million dollars for the fuel oil to be supplied to North Korea. The US Congress refused to appropriate those funds, which meant that we could not meet our obligation under the KEDO agreement. It became my job to go to the Italians and the EU and ask them to provide funding for the fuel oil that the US Congress would provide.
I found this very unpleasant, although the Italians were very polite and listened patiently. I thought that the US should meet its obligations under the agreement, and not provide North Korea with an excuse, US noncompliance, to renounce the agreement and resume its nuclear bomb program. This was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back, and I retired from the Foreign Service and returned to the US.
In addition to the KEDO fiasco, a number of other things had gone badly for the issues for which I was responsible. Almost the day after I arrived, the State Department was sued by four environmental groups for failing to force Italy to implement UN resolutions regarding the use of driftnets to catch swordfish in the Mediterranean. As I recall the groups were the legal arms of Greenpeace, the Humane Society, the Sierra Club, and one or two other groups. The State Department lost the case, and in effect a Federal judge assumed control of US policy regarding Italian use of driftnets. What would happen if some policy issue arose was that the judge would consult the environmental groups, and they would consult with a Greenpeace activist, who was really the only person on the spot. He would visit fishing boats, inspect their nets and their catch and report back to his colleagues in the US, who would report back to the judge, who in turn would approve (or not) whatever policy proposal was on the table. This meant that in effect my office worked for the Greenpeace representative on this issue. One of my last acts was to accompany the Ambassador to meet with the Italian Agriculture Minister on this issue because Sicilian fishermen had hired Mafia hit men to kill fisheries enforcement personnel if they harassed the fishermen. Supporters of the fishermen were also blocking streets in downtown Rome. The main message I had for Ambassador was that he could not agree definitively to any proposal from the Minister, because it would have to be approved by the Federal judge back in the US. The Ambassador was not happy about that.
In addition, the Space Shuttle had flown an Italian tethered satellite, the TSS-1R, which was to be extended on the tether about 20 km from the Shuttle and reeled back in. The tether broke and the satellite drifted off into space. The crew of the Columbia’s STS-75 mission came to Italy to meet with the Italians about the mission. Unfortunately, because of the loss of the satellite, the visit became something of an apology tour, which I was responsible for organizing.
Another somewhat unfortunate, space-related incident occurred at a cocktail party given to celebrate the launch by the US of an Italian telecommunications satellite. At the party, I met a man who worked for the telecommunications company whose satellite was being launched. He said something like, “You Americans must really hate me, since you won’t let my daughter go to Disney World.” I was taken aback. He said his daughter had applied for a visa to go to Disney World, but the Embassy had refused to give her one because her father worked for the telecommunications company. Apparently the company had some tenuous connection with Cuba, and the Helms-Burton Act prohibited us from issuing visas to employees or their families. I went to see the Consul General, who is in charge of visas, the next day. She told me that what he said was correct and there was nothing she could do about it. At some point, I had read Herman Wouk’s Winds of War books. In them, the heroine, a Jewish mother, wants to leave Italy to go to Israel. She is told that she can go, but her child cannot; they will not give the child a visa. It seemed too similar. It was Rome; it was a child’s visa. Why should the US punish children for the sins of their parents? Even the Bible Old Testament says, “In those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
There were probably some other things that led to my retirement, but a diplomat is to some extent a salesman for his country. As an Army Vietnam veteran, the son of a veteran of World War II and Korea, the grandson of a veteran of the Spanish-American War and World War I, and the great-grandson of a veteran of the Civil War, I loved my country, but I felt that it was not living up to its reputation and was not upholding its honor. I was old enough and had served long enough to retire; so, I did. I didn’t have to explain any more why it looked like North Korea was honoring the KEDO agreement and the US was not, giving North Korea a perfect excuse to resume its nuclear program. I did not have to explain how we lost Italy’s satellite. I did not have to explain why the US punished children for the sins of their fathers.
Good diplomats do a lot of things that they may not like doing. I often lied to protect intelligence or to protect negotiating positions. If I had not been eligible for retirement, I probably would not have fallen on my sword and resigned. I wish I had left under better circumstances, but I have many good memories of my career. It seemed, however, that no matter how high you rose, you always could end up responsible for policies that you disagreed with. Even the Secretary of State has to do what the President wants. Ask Hillary about Syria or Libya.