The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution

February 19, 2014

The Fog of Peace: The Human Face of Conflict Resolution

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to welcome you all here today.

Our speaker is Gianni Picco, renowned for his negotiating skills and knowledge of people and politics, especially in the Middle East. For many years, his name has resonated with intellectual strength, intuitive skills, and keen judgment—all traits which are abundantly apparent in his recently published book, entitled The Fog of Peace, which Gianni wrote with Gabrielle Rifkind, a British psychotherapist who specializes in conflict resolution. In combining their experiences—one as a practitioner in diplomacy, the other in psychology—this book examines the human face of conflict resolution. Their focus is on what it means to understand the enemy, the enemy's narrative, and why it is important.

Given the history of the 20th century and our contemporary culture of violence, it wouldn't surprise me if your first response to the idea of negotiating with the enemy might be, "Why, that's patently absurd. Why would you want to do that?" But if you knew Gianni and knew how over the course of two decades, while serving as a high-level diplomat at the UN, he played a central role in negotiating the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, met with Saddam Hussein to bring about an end to the bloody Iran-Iraq War, and traveled to both Beirut and Tehran to rescue 11 hostages and 91 other prisoners, including the release of Terry Waite and Terry Anderson, you too would understand why Gianni soon realized that one could negotiate with the enemy and achieve success in doing so.

How was this possible? Without giving too much away, I would argue that one needs to believe that negotiations can succeed where institutions will often fail, and how getting into the mind of the enemy can be far more persuasive than the most fearsome weapons.

For Gianni, success meant building personal relationships quietly, behind the scenes, over a sustained period of time. In the end, The Fog of Peace tells us that the common enemy of all people is not a state, not a religion, not a race, not a culture, not ethnicity, but intolerance. Even more important is the role of the individual in understanding the human factor in conflict situations.

For some, Gianni's observations may be disquieting, as they challenge us to confront the hatreds that cripple our society. For others, he hopes they will see the value in this more nuanced approach.

Please join me in welcoming a man who knows what it means to sit down with the enemy, who learned how to turn swords into plowshares, and is courageous enough to implement a vision for a safer world, Gianni Picco.

Remarks

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: Thank you, Joanne.

I should add to what Joanne has said that I am actually a retired person and I have been so for some time, but not as long as some may think. Though I left the UN per se 20 years ago, I had the good fortune of being asked to help in some cases up to five years ago. That was done on the request of governments in my personal capacity, and I have to say it worked.

I will not, therefore, speak of the theory of negotiation. I will not say much about the book, because otherwise you won't buy it, but I should tell you about Gabrielle Rifkind. As you may gather from our names, we come from different narratives, and not only because of our names and our family names, but also because of our stories. As you have been told, Gabrielle is a psychotherapist. She is a British citizen who spent much time where therapists usually do not go, and that is in the fault-line between two combatants.

As you gather from my name, I am actually not from London. Gabrielle and I met in a place and at a time that has nothing to do with our heritage or our name. We met in Tehran some 10 years ago. It was there that we began our friendship. So I got my psychotherapy cures without any payment.

This book was born out of a strange consideration that we made to each other and a specific request by the publisher, who came two years ago when we were in London and asked us to write something.

I would like to mention here the three kinds of rivers of this book, rivers that have not so much to do with the details of what is written, but how this book was written and why.

The first river is to try to gather history and understand history. That means that history until today will not be the history of tomorrow. Unfortunately, it is difficult to gather what the history of tomorrow will be. But it is a sin and a disaster to imagine that change does not happen. That I have seen in quite different ways in my life.

The second strand of this book is the absolute, indispensable in my view, relevance of the narrative—that is, national narratives, but, profoundly more important at some point, individual narratives. I'll give you examples.

The third point: There is one word that I have banned from this book, and Gabrielle was forced to accept that. This book does not contain the word "impartiality," for three reasons: impartiality does not exist; impartiality has never helped having any solution to anything; and, number three, even if there was such a thing, what was "impartial" in 1956 is not what it is today.

These are the three grand strands of this book.

The work done by Gabrielle in psychoanalyzing Israelis and Palestinians over the years is quite unique. She derives much of what she tells us from the time she spent on the front line of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict with individuals of quite significant rank—I would say high-ranking, all of them—which may even be surprising to many that she was able to "psychoanalyze" individuals who surely would deny it.

The three strands I just mentioned to you are the consequence in my mind of the world I walk through. Someone  told me that Einstein said never confuse education with learning, for education may be done in the schools but learning is done in the streets. And indeed, in the streets I walked through, from Pakistan to Lebanon, I learned much more than was ever reported, country by country, war by war, unbeknown to many, and certainly unwritten as yet.

That journey taught me things that for some reason were reminiscent of a narrative that was to me very personal, as it is for everybody a personal narrative. It should be said here that my initial narrative as a child was a narrative of the Cold War. But let me be more specific. When the words "Cold War" appear, the image in my mind was the image I had at age three or four, and that was the actual image of the Iron Curtain. I used to go and visit my grandmother in a cemetery that the Cold War had divided into two. How stupid can you be, you cut a cemetery into two pieces?

I come from a past, a family, who had the pleasure of having dinner together when I was a child and every single meal was defined with its own name, except of course that the names of the food on the table carried four different languages: Iberian, German, a bit of Italian, and the by-now-lost mother tongue that only my father spoke.

It was in that context that my father would teach me the two commandments, the only commandments he followed. He was never a religious man, contrary to my mother. He said to me, "There are two things you need to carry with you. Please remember them. Number one is we are children of a lesser god; our tribe is today less than 200,000 people, so we are a small tribe." "We are children of a lesser god," he would say, "but when you look around and you see what children of major gods have been doing for millennia, don't be too sad."

The second commandment he taught me, he said, "Remember well, my son, many ask and very few say thank you."

I carry with me those teachings. I carry with me the seeds of the narrative that the Cold War shaped but that was also changing.

Now, let's go back to this question of the Cold War, because it has more facets in practical significance than just the definition of two words, two politics. I'll give you an example of what I mean.

The Cold War produced at the very beginning something called the United Nations. But the Cold War introduced into the United Nations system of thinking what I call a germ, a germ of failure. That germ is called impartiality. Now, it has to be made clear the way I saw it literally growing up, that impartiality in 1946, when NATO was established—well, it was a few years later, but anyway the seeds were there—the concept of impartiality in those years had a specific purpose to serve on the streets of Europe, and only in one part of the streets of Europe. People didn't tend to differentiate at that time—neither do they now—the difference between the children of Descartes and Hegel and the children of Locke and Hume. It took me some time to understand it, but I got it.

In that context, the children of Descartes and Hegel, by 1946–1947–1948, they joined NATO on the Western side. But there was a problem, and the problem was that while many countries in Europe joined NATO, 40 percent of the population voted for the communist party of Soviet faith within their own countries. Now, this necessarily generated the need for a way to fix it in some way, because in that way it would not be working.

When the UN was established, what was found appropriate to deal with this concept and this problem in many of these countries, which I call the Hegelian and Cartesian countries—what was discovered was that the concept of impartiality would help. Now, anybody—and I'm not speaking in theory; I'm not a theoretician—anybody who believes that impartiality exists must either be sleeping or something of the sort.

Let me just give you a physical example. If we take this table and you sit there and I sit here and I put a glass in the geometrical middle of the table, I will never see this glass as closer to me, but always as closer to you, and vice versa. So to ask somebody to be impartial is to say "do something which you cannot do."

I have not found one successful negotiator who has used impartiality as a way to proceed. Only those who write and give theories but have never been where you can lose your life to discuss negotiations use the concept of impartiality. It simply does not exist, and nobody will ever, that I know, make an agreement on that fake concept.

In this book, by the way, there is a chapter that to some may be surprising, listing the 12 negotiations that the West and Iran have had over the last 30 years. They have all been successful except for one. It also refers to 13 quasi-negotiations, which I'll explain, but basically 12 negotiations. In these 12 negotiations I was directly involved either as a principal or in other cases because I was asked to help out. So I knew what was going on. That is well after the UN as well.

Yes, I did take home people from prison well after my time at the UN. This brings me to the other point, that the whole concept of the UN in conflict resolution has to be reviewed as of 1992. From 1992 onward, multilateralism has not resolved one conflict. The conflicts resolved from 1992 onward have been resolved by bilateralism or minilateralism, not multilateralism. There is a reason for this, which I try to explain there as a practical thing—and I repeat I don't speak of theory; I never refer to a conflict resolution in which I have not been a part. I'm not interested in theory; I'm not interested in professorships or all the rest.

Now, what happens? Many also say, especially in the newspapers in this country and many others, "How do you negotiate with Iran?" The moment I read this sentence I know that somebody rather simple is writing the piece. "How do you negotiate with Iran?" Well, the moment you are telling me that, I know one thing: You have never negotiated, because you never negotiate with a country; you negotiate with individuals.

If I had negotiated with President Rafsanjani, which I did, in the presence of only one person, the current foreign minister of Iran, Mohammad Javad Zarif, the actual day for the release of the Western hostages in Lebanon, which actually happened—if you had negotiated at that time with him, would you have negotiated six years later with President Khatami of Iran for the release of the 13 Jews from Shiraz Prison, which took place long after I left the UN, thank God? If you had negotiated with President Rafsanjani the same way as with Khatami, you would have gotten nothing. But President Khatami was, again, simple—three people. It took years, but they came out.

President Khatami knew a little bit about Western philosophy, having spent time in Denmark and in Germany, which I took care to learn about before meeting him the first time. President Rafsanjani had a different history, of course. We met much before he was president and at a time when he was very, very engaged in what he called "open market diplomacy," and with the Iran-Contra Affair and things of that sort.

President Rafsanjani negotiated the release of the Western hostages in a way that was not any different than many others. But he had a reason for doing that. I have always taken care when I try to meet someone to understand or to read as much as I can and to ask people. Had anybody really reflected that President Rafsanjani, the great Ayatollah of Iran, does not have a beard? Does this mean anything to a good negotiator? Well, not in the general sense of people who negotiate just on paper but never resolve anything. It does matter.

Does it mean anything when you know, for instance, that the present leader of Iran has had his own history, and his own history is a personal history? That matters.

President Khatami was a great philosopher. When the formula was found to help the 13 in Shiraz, it was rather important to know philosophy, because the sentence he used would have been a little bit alien to institutions whose time is past, and people would simply have remained in jail.

So once you try to enter the minds of the individuals, they do the same with you. So you have to be ready. Usually, when they want to enter your mind, you don't have anybody around.

According to Israeli intelligence, the man who kidnapped me in Lebanon four times in order to negotiate at the second level the freedom of the American hostages in Lebanon—yes, I was kidnapped in the streets at night, as you know, blindfolded, locked up. Eventually, when I was given permission to see—and I had almost no clothes anymore—I was surrounded by people very well-armed for one man without weapons, and in front of me were two gentlemen—let's call them gentlemen—with masks so I could not see who they were. Israeli intelligence confirmed to me that one of them was Imad Mughniyeh, the second-most-wanted man by the American government, and who, as you know, was killed by Israeli intelligence in 2008 in Damascus. So we are talking reality here, not philosophy.

This person, who was accused of doing whatever, the first time he talked to me, he was masked. I was treated well; I think I was offered fruit. He asked me a question for which I was not prepared, neither as a negotiator nor as a human being, I suppose. He asked me, "Why would you risk your life for somebody who is not a member of your tribe?" The only thing that came to my mind was to telephone a professor at Harvard and say, "Your book doesn't say this when you speak about negotiation. What do I answer?"

There were two problems in that question: one was the answer per se, and one was how do you communicate under those conditions and what is the answer?

My answer was, "I like to pay forward," which was a difficult answer.

He said, "I don't understand."

Now, at that time it was a bit better but not good. It was very bad. My Arabic was poor. My French and my English were okay. His English was poor; his French was okay.

So how do you explain to pay forward? I told him, "What would be the chance 10 years ago that you and I would meet? It was basically zero, zero, zero, zero, zero, whatever. But we did. We are meeting here."

He said, "Okay. So what's the answer?"

"The answer is that 10 years from now there may be a chance that your son and my son will meet somewhere."

He got very, very upset. He moved around. I realized I made another mistake.

He said, "How do you know I have a son?" That was a very silly mistake.

But he came over, and I said, "Well, I just guess that you are a healthy man and you have a son."

He said, "Go ahead."

I said, "They meet 10 years from now. They have never met before. The life of my son depends on what your son would say or do. I pay now so that your son would say the right thing and save the life of my son."

That is the beginning of the execution of the second level of the negotiation. There were three, by the way, and the third one was with the Israeli government. This is exactly what happened. The point is I had no idea what I was to say; I don't know where he was.

Nobody every taught me those things, but I learned those things a little bit at a time from the valleys in the Alps where borders change. One family member fought for the independence of one country. Another family member fought for the independence of a different country. It was difficult to understand my narrative, and certainly not to be caged in by any professor anywhere.

Well, the point of that particular episode was it happened to me more than once. There were times I would leave New York knowing that my purpose was to go to Beirut and be taken. My boss did not know this until everything was over.

I will discuss the institution, very briefly. The institution is very interesting.

There are different ways to run an institution. It is a different way to give responsibilities. The first time I took my position in the office of this unknown, misunderstood, Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar—with whom I had a profound, eternally different political point of view, completely, yet we worked together very well—he said to me, "We are in the middle of the Cold War. The organization is finished. Nothing we can do. Do you want to take risks?"

I said, "What is it?"

"Well," he said, "we have to make history if you want to save this organization."

I said, "Oh, great."

"Remember, you have to choose between making history or having a pension."

And he was right. I think I made history; I don't have the pension, because the institution does not forgive what in the seminal book Voltaire's BastardsJohn Ralston Saul, a Canadian professor, said: "In 1815, when the Congress of Vienna took place to close the Napoleonic War, the leaders of Europe got together and decided many things. But one thing that also was decided was from now on 'institutions would no longer be allowed marry genius but only mediocrity.'" So over time the institution has been deteriorating in its actions and activities.

But then comes the Cold War, and the Cold War lasted until 1992. Why was impartiality so strong as a concept during the Cold War? Because it was a good façade that allowed both superpowers to say "When we agree, the kids will agree as well." So it was always a bilateral scene, and it lasted for that time.

The advantage of the Cold War was, I can tell you, especially in negotiating at the end of the Iran–Iraq War—which, by the way, curiously, you don't read this in the books of the professors who teach theory or the great bureaucrats who tell you how to deal with Iran—the end of the war between Iran and Iraq was done without the presence of Iraqis or Iranians. Does anybody tell you? No. You know why? Because even diplomats who were present those days in the UN wrote books with falsity and lies.

That war would not have been finished without the role played by the king of Saudi Arabia, which as far as I know, to this day, was not technically either Iran or Iraq. It was the king of Saudi Arabia.

The last point that I want to make about this is that the change in 1992 was so profound that any given conflict now presents a number of variables that are simply really difficult to manage, to say the least.

On one side, those who say "how do you negotiate with Iran; how do you negotiate with Iceland?"—they are revealing immediately that they have never done a negotiation. But what is important is that they have never done one which has succeeded, which is, if you allow me, a bit of a good test, because words are easy, but at the end of the day, Saddam taught us something.

He gave me the great title in 1983 as being the first Westerner to be anti-Saddam. I was very proud. But it took me many, many years to overcome the stigma that he had given me—the first Westerner against him.

By 1989, he tried the first assassination attempt with a small plane. I was in Baghdad for other reasons. Paradoxically, I was saved by the Algerians. How come the Algerians? Well, another story. So I'm not talking about theory here. The other element of what happened was that, not happy to have failed at that attempt in 1989, in 1997 Saddam was kind enough to have a very high-level individual come to New York and deliver to me my death sentence, which I dutifully took to Washington, where I was advised what not to do.

Now, these things happen because, even in the world of 6 or 7 billion people, individuals do matter. They do matter very, very much.

And they do matter even more when the history is changing so speedily. The Cold War is over. The problem we have now is not conflicts; it is the number of variables in the conflicts. It took me two years to get an article published in The Guardian, the only paper that would publish it a year ago, to say Syria is not a civil war; it is a third chess game between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Hello! Civil war? There wasn't a civil war.

Anybody who knows a little bit of the Great Levant would know that history moves on. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, despite the simplicity of the name—almost like mine—is gone. I love Gertrude Bell when she invented Iraq. But the old thing is gone.

To speak of a civil war in Syria today is to overlook the fact that we are speaking about a much more complex conflict which covers the Syrian-Iraqi space.

Why is this happening? Modernity, two elements in modernity. The first thing is that in the relationship of the nation-state between individuals and institutions, the individual has become much stronger than ever before in history, both because of communications at the individual level, and because of economic interdependence.

Even the language has changed. For centuries, millennia, the neighbor was he or she who can affect my daily life. Well, let me tell you, he or she who can affect our daily life tomorrow in New York can be the farmer in Australia, because if his wheat is not enough for everybody over here, the price of bread in New York will be higher.

So the very concept of neighbor, which to me was almost an obsessive concept when I was a child because of all those borders changing—every generation in my family for the last 100 years had a different border outside of the house. Every generation, everything changed.

Now the Cold War put us into a mood where we don't think about the change. The change is enormous because the nation-state is weakening, because the individual has so much more power vis-à-vis an institution, like never before in previous history.

Now, when that happens, one has to think about it a little bit differently. But most importantly, I think, at the end of the day one has to have the possibility, the courage to say, "We've got to understand how the person who sits there in front of me and wants something talks to me about it."

I should add a last little tidbit. If that was, as Israeli intelligence told me, Imad Mughniyeh, the second thing he told me in that conversation was "Do you think that I am so stupid not to know that taking civilian people from the streets as a hostage is wrong? Of course I know it's wrong. Because if you don't accept that, if you say I don't know that"—listen to this—"if you tell me, Mr. P, that I don't know that taking innocent people from the street hostage is wrong, then you're insulting my mother, because you are saying to me my mother did not teach me."

To understand the mind, the narrative—was it so special? No, it was not a special mind. It was a mind that needed to be poked, and if you poke wrongly, you die. So what? We all have to die sooner or later. Isn't it better to die for something good? Isn't it better to say, "Okay, I die, but at least somebody goes home"?

So the end of this journey—a completely different episode, which I'll not mention here because it refers to other negotiations—somebody asked me, "At the end of the day, why did you take all those risks?" I had to go back to my father. I said, "Because I had to say 'thank you' to someone."

Thank you.

Questions

QUESTION: Matthew Olson.

I have so many questions I can't cover them all. But the big one: What was your native language, for less than 200,000 people?

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: A variation of Rhaeto-Romansh, the fourth language of Switzerland. We spoke a variation of Romansh. It is in three different valleys on the east of the Swiss part. It is a mild variation of that. Now, that language has been killed over time, of course, because of a number of reasons. On paper it took a long time even to be allowed to speak it. I'm speaking about modern times; I'm not speaking about ancient times.

QUESTION: Given the personal negotiations going on now by our Secretary of State Kerry with Abbas and Netanyahu, how would you recommend that proceed? It really is a personal one. If it were not for Mr. Kerry, we wouldn't be having these talks.

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: Well, in 1979 I was on my way to Jerusalem. I was supposed to be posted there before the new secretary-general was appointed at some of the offices in Jerusalem. I really wanted to go because Jerusalem has such a fascination for so many around the world, and I am one of those. Then it did not happen for a number of reasons.

What is going on now is profoundly different from what was going on before. We cannot speak about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict today without saying, "We are speaking today. What happened 20 years ago, 15 years, is a different story."

And I'll tell you what is the greatest difference. This is not a compliment or a criticism. It is in my view a move of history. History has moved forward, and in moving forward it has changed things.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has grown with history and has changed with history. The most important change is that this conflict in the region—not among the two people, in the region—in my opinion is no longer pivotal. It is no longer pivotal.

You have a war—tough luck. You have peace—okay. The impact of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today is so much less than it was 15 or 20 years ago, because history moves on. That's the whole point. History moves on. We have too many leaders around the world which call themselves leaders who cannot lead without an enemy.

JOANNE MYERS: Let me ask you a question. When did you first realize how important it was to understand the narrative, to understand the other, in conflict resolution?

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: Well, I understood a little bit before because we had a kind of—let's not call it a cold war—there was a kind of mini-war in my family since I was a child. I'll give you an example.

JOANNE MYERS: It all goes back to childhood.

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: Well, I am what I am because I was born in that way.

In 1980—President Tito of Yugoslavia died in 1980—I traveled with him to Belgrade—I don't even remember the reason. And then, since Belgrade was not far from the eastern Alps where I come from, I said to him, "If you'll give me another day, I'll just go and see my mother and then I'll come back to New York," which I did. I went to see my mother. 

She said, "Where are you coming from?"

I said, "I'm coming from Belgrade."

She said to me, "Why did you betray me?"

My father got my arm and said, "You say nothing because you have nothing to say."

That was the end of the conversation. I never forgot it.

The narrative of my mother could not have been changed by what her young son could have told her. So that's a bit of the story. But it is a true story that it is what I see happening. It is a narrative that we carry with us. Sometimes there is nothing we can do.

Someone in my neighborhood, it was rather a mini-family, spent two-and-a-half years in Auschwitz. He came back. I was very young, of course—indeed, I was born after World War II. I just remember my first sight of this man: very, very tall and very thin. One thing I noticed was that he would only eat a little bit. My mother told me, "He cannot eat more because if he eats too much he will die because he could not take more," a process which gradually started and went on for 10 years.

By 1947, another member of my family was asked a question in the street there where the Iron Curtain runs. The man said, "We're looking for Dr. So-and-So."

He said, "You don't have to look. It's me. What can I do for you?"

The man said, "Can you join us in this office, please?"

We are still looking for him.

So if this is my story, this is the story of many people around the world. If we don't enter the thing, if my father had not stopped me from saying anything, I would have betrayed the counsel. You have to know the narrative before you can say anything, because if you don't know the narrative, you are just going to stumble into the great mistakes of history.

And again, the great hope we have, and I have for the next generation, is that the practical change of the nation-state which is under way will open new possibilities.

For those who are familiar with the Schengen Agreement and those who live on the lines of the Schengen Agreement in Europe, meaning no borders, they will know that the daily lives of the people living along the Schengen Agreement, which are tens of millions by now, have dramatically changed every day. You have people with their house in one so-called country, they have their office in another so-called country, and they go shopping in a third country, because there are no borders and it is very convenient and that's the way you do it. That's one of the indications of the evolution of the nation-state, let alone everything else in the global economy and all the rest or in communication.

Technology is basically taking down the nation-state, because technology has given and is giving the individual so much ability and power. It was unthinkable.

I love the 1648 Peace of Westphalia and the birth of the nation-state. I like 48 because I was born in ‘48—what can I say? But I cannot forget the great wisdom of the Canadian professor [John Ralston Saul]—call him anything you like; he had many professions in his life—institutions have done their part of contribution. They have gone. There is no hope to imagine.

Now, I suppose you are aware that the greatest negotiation between Iran and the United States took place in Germany after the Afghanistan debacle with the Taliban and September 11 and we went to war. Then, when the whole thing collapsed finally, six countries met in Germany, and of those six countries—of course history was repeated, the group of six met about the end of the war. Of course it is correct.

But two gentlemen went for coffee and four went for tea. The two that went for coffee were an American and an Iranian individual. Why Iranian? Because Iran had supported the anti-Taliban forces in 1986 together with Russia. Somebody else supported the Taliban with the Pakistanis.

But in Bonn that negotiation took place. It was done. It was positive. But there was no great hullabaloo of meetings in the great Palace of Versailles and similar things. It was the role of those individuals who knew how to use the time, the moment, and the power given to them. That's what negotiations are all about. You have to bring home the result.

We are talking about the second-highest Hezbollah leader who tells me, "I'm not stupid. Don't give me this question of impartiality. I'm not stupid."

If he understands it, why can't an organization like the UN understand? It was a joke. It was a word, an idea, which was useful in the Western European countries of Descartes and Hegel simply because they had to deal with 40 percent of the population that was communist, therefore not NATO, and 60 percent was for NATO. So they invented this thing and they said "impartiality will be."

But today who speaks to me about impartiality? I had somebody, who I will not mention out of respect for his mother, who said to me, "I am envoy of the UN in this country, but I'm still very credible because I am impartial."

I said, "Thank you very much, sir. I don't think that you will have ever any solution."

Impartial? Nobody, even the combatants, believes in impartiality, for the reason I told you: the glass, the geometrical center; you cannot see this.

The first time I arrived in Cypress when I was a young kid, after the Greco-Turk war, in 1974, I arrived on a Sunday night. I still remember. On Monday morning, a Greek paper said, "This young man has arrived. He is pro-Turk." "What do you mean? I just arrived on a plane. I haven't seen anything"—and I was accused of being pro-Turkish on the morning after my arrival.

The stupidity of the question of impartiality is absolutely—we are all partial. I want to be partial, you should want to be partial, because you want to be right. That's why we want to do that. But if we do that, number one, we better be right; and second, we better do exactly what Shimon Peres said: "negotiating is not bargaining; it is creating."

QUESTION: I was wondering if you could shed any light on what's going on in North Korea? What is your take on Bill Richardson and, on a much lighter note, Dennis Rodman?

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: I mentioned here that my journey literally on the streets went from Pakistan to Lebanon; Cypress a little bit, quite a bit actually; and then a bit in Europe. I was very lucky on top of that because my so-called education took place in university in what is called normally Italy, in the United States, in Czechoslovakia, and in the Netherlands. So I picked up pieces. But then I should add I learned poetry from the Irish.

I don't think that I have any poetry for North Korea. I do not know. I just don't know that world. I can't say.

My position is to call things for what they are. Joanne was very kind. She wrote to me about the recognition that I received from governments, including of course President Bush, senior, and others.

But there is one kind of recognition that I will never forget because it is superior to all. That had to do not with the saved hostages, unfortunately, but with the remains of Colonel Higgins, killed under the UN flag in Lebanon in 1988. Unfortunately, his death was not what anybody should have.

When they brought back his remains—the other one being from another American who was chief of station in Beirut in 1984—the wife of Colonel Higgins asked me to go to St. Andrews, where the plane landed with the body of her husband. Of course, all the military were there. She was alone at the side of the plane. She asked to be alone. Then she asked me to go to her, which was another 50 yards over there. I went to her. She said to me, "Thank you." I think that was a bigger medal than any I had ever received. I'll never forget that image. She said, "Thank you." I have no words to say. What kind of thank-you to bring back a dead body. Not much of a thank-you.

Many people ask me, "Why did you risk your life?" The only answer is that I have much to thank those who help my children.

QUESTION: My name is Victor Germack.

Putting yourself in the position of President Obama, do you think he understands the narrative that's going on with the Syrian conflict? And if you were sitting in his chair, what steps might you take to ameliorate the conflict?

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: In that piece I referred to, this article in The Guardian one year ago, I made a suggestion—a humble comment more than a suggestion—I am in no position to give suggestions to anybody; you know, we children of a lesser god don't make suggestions, we just work. My suggestion was, if this is not a civil war of the traditional kind we have seen in Israel and other places, and if indeed we are beyond the Cold War, we have to recognize the changes which have happened in the Greater Levant.

If one of the changes is, in my view, that the borders of Sykes-Picot and Gertrude Bell are no more, and they are no more for some time now, the answer to that issue is we need definitely a spoken understanding—no agreements, no papers (I don't like paper)—between Moscow and Washington about the region, in some way an understanding, something where the world will say, "Oh, they have agreed on something, even if we don't know what it is."

But most importantly—and this is more than just an understanding—the real powers who have the key for that situation have got to have the courage to look in the eyes and solve it. This is Iran and Saudi Arabia. If Iran and Saudi Arabia don't talk to each other about the problem there, there will be no solution. Everything else—Geneva II, III, 1/22, those are fun, and I have great respect for Mr. Brahimi—but just you cannot do it. This is a different world. This is rebuilding the architecture of the Greater Levant.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no longer pivotal for the region. It is a sad problem, it is what you want to say, but the impact on the region is much smaller than it was 15 years ago.

When Mr. Rabin was killed, I literally cried. He was a man who could have changed and brought about a tremendous—after that, and I am very specific. I am not saying things and then I go away.

The European Union in 2002 offered me to be their envoy on the road map in the quartet. I know I got a call. I was in Colorado, in the mountains. I don't know what I was doing.

I said, "Mr. Minister, what for? I met with you"—the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was 2002; it's all on tape, as you know, so it's now for the public to find out—"What you have in your hand now is nothing and you are wasting time on this concept of a quartet and a road map." I said, "In 10 years from now you will still be here doing nothing."

Now it's 11 years after. Nothing has happened on that particular initiative. So what is going on now I think is the only answer. There is nothing else.

The question is, how can this be found in the context of a new history, of a new architecture? Sykes-Picot is gone. The borders are gone. If you walk to the border today between Iraq and Syria, they don't even know where they are.

But this is a compounding element on top of the fact that the world is changing, the significance of the nation-state is changing, the boundaries have a different meaning, the individual identities have a different meaning. The Kurds want to be Kurds in their particular corner.

I want to be my own people. Nothing happens if I am. Because I have Schengen, because I have the same currency, because I have the same economy? So let's put this in perspective.

The nation-state crumbling in some cases is not a disaster. One just has to steer it in a way which makes sense for everybody. It is not a disaster. It is not always right or wrong, black or white. No. It's like life, isn't it? A bit of gray, a bit of light. We try to do the best we can for our children. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we don't.

Thank you.

JOANNE MYERS: Thank you very much, Gianni, for sharing your narrative with us.

GIANDOMENICO PICCO: Thank you so much.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less