Diplomatic Pouch / July 12, 2012
By Larry Luxner
Three hundred people — most of them paying between $300 and $750 a plate — converged on the Mandarin Oriental Hotel last month to honor five outstanding public servants at the Asia Society’s 2012 Washington Awards Dinner.
Attendees dined on Thai spiced chicken, lemongrass salad, miso glazed salmon, seaweed risotto and chocolate crème brûlée, with music provided by renowned Afghan rabab player Humayoun Sakhi and percussionist Qais Nawaz.
Yet the main focus at the June 19 event was on five men and women who have fostered strong and lasting ties between the United States and Asia: Singapore’s ambassador in Washington, Chan Heng Chee, and four American diplomats — John D. Negroponte, Thomas R. Pickering, Frank G. Wisner and Michèle A. Flournoy.
Chan, who returns to Singapore next month after 16 years representing her country here, received the Asia Society Diplomatic Achievement Award (see our profile of Chan on the cover of this month’s Washington Diplomat). She was introduced by Kurt M. Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“Ambassador Chan was one of the first people I met when I was serving in the Pentagon. I remember at that time recognizing that this was a rare diplomat,” said Campbell, heaping praise on Singapore’s long-serving envoy. “When we think of the term ‘bridge’ in Asia, for me, the model of this bridge is Ambassador Chan. More than anyone I’ve worked with over the course of the last 20 years, she’s been the person I’ve turned to for advice on how to be more effective in our diplomacy and how to be softer in our engagement with our Asian friends.”
Campbell said Chan “will set a bar that no subsequent diplomat will be able to reach. We’re so grateful for what she has done. She’s helped not just Singapore and the United States but all of us — ASEAN, China and Asia as a whole. I cannot tell you how much I will miss her personally.”
Washington Postcolumnist David Ignatius added: “We’re all going to miss you, Ambassador Chan, but especially us journalists, because you were the best-informed ambassador in Washington, and now we’re going to have to find another ambassador to replace you.”
Ignatius later moderated a spirited foreign policy discussion among Negroponte, Wisner and Pickering — all recipients of the Asia Society Lifetime Achievement Award.
Negroponte, 72, held government positions abroad and in Washington from 1960 to 1997 and again from 2001 to 2008. He has been U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Mexico, the Philippines, the United Nations and Iraq. As a more junior diplomat, he was posted to Hong Kong, Vietnam, France, Ecuador and Greece. His most recent position in government was as deputy secretary of state, where he served as the State Department’s chief operating officer.
Pickering, 80, holds the personal rank of career ambassador — the highest in the U.S. Foreign Service. Currently vice-president at Hills & Company, he looks back on a diplomatic career spanning half a century. A special assistant to secretaries of state William P. Rogers and Henry Kissinger from 1973 to 1974, he went on to become ambassador to Russia, India, Israel, El Salvador, Nigeria and Jordan. From 1989 to 1992, he was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and from 1997 to 2001 served as undersecretary of state for political affairs.
Wisner, 74, is an international affairs adviser at Patton Boggs LLP. Like Pickering a career ambassador, Wisner served as top U.S. envoy to India from 1994 to 1997; before that, he was ambassador to Zambia, Egypt and the Philippines. Early last year, President Obama sent Wisner to Egypt to negotiate a resolution to the street protests against Hosni Mubarak; much of Wisner’s diplomatic career has been spent in the Middle East and Asia.
“All three of our honorees began to think about Asia in the Atlantic Century to prepare us for the Pacific Century we are in today,” noted Asia Society President Vishakha N. Desai. “That’s why we’re very proud to honor these three amazing public servants and extraordinary diplomats, who also happen to be part of the Asia Society’s extended family.”
Also feted was Flournoy, who served as the undersecretary of defense for policy from February 2009 to February 2012. In 2007, she co-founded the Center for a New American Security, and before that was senior adviser at another Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Flournoy, 51, is the recipient of the Asia Society’s Policy Achievement Award. In her speech to attendees, the Harvard graduate and former distinguished research professor at Washington’s National Defense University praised President Obama’s decision to focus on Asia early on in his administration.
From the beginning, the president had a vision of where he wanted to take our national security in the future,” she said. “It was clear from the internal discussions that the answer was, first and foremost Asia-Pacific. It is the most important region to our future security and economic prosperity. It is the world’s fastest-growing region, home to more than half the world’s population and so much potential. The president understands how critical our role to provide a bedrock of stability has been to the rise of this region and the emergence of so many strong democracies.”
“Our objectives, said President Obama, are to seek security and stand for an international order in which the rights and responsibilities of all nations are upheld,” Flournoy said. “There’s tremendous bipartisan support for the general thrust of this strategy, and I hope we’ll continue to have that support.”
On the other hand, Flournoy said she’s “really worried” about the growing perception throughout Asia that the United States is a nation in decline.
“I don’t buy it, but it’s there — and as I drew people out and asked why they said that, they talked about the political paralysis that we are experiencing in this country. Flournoy, reminding her audience that “now that I’m out of government, I can say these things,” warned about she calls the tremendous polarization hanging over Washington.
“This is not just about the harm this does to our own citizens,” she said. “The world is watching, and I fervently hope we can get back to a place where our finest traditions come into play. It’s incumbent upon all of us in this town.”