The impatient diplomat: A tribute to Bill Richardson

Good diplomacy is demanding. Good diplomats often don’t take “no” for an answer. They have a certain steely temperament — a mix of tenacity and impatience. Bill Richardson, who served two terms as governor of New Mexico and as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, died Friday, at 75. He leaves behind a long legacy of achievement.

Few people can jump into the deep end of foreign affairs and negotiate with the toughest countries and leaders to navigate prison releases and secure American interests. A globetrotting troubleshooter, Richardson was at the center of negotiations on almost every continent.

Take North Korea — one of the most impenetrable, reclusive societies on the planet. 

Richardson first went there in 1994 as a member of Congress to better understand the North Korean nuclear threat. While en route to Pyongyang, Richardson learned that North Koreans had shot down a U.S. military helicopter, killing one pilot and taking the second pilot hostage. Richardson reportedly stayed for weeks to seek resolution and flew back with the remains of the dead pilot and secured the later release of the surviving pilot.

He opened a line to that closed country, returning in 2007 with a bipartisan delegation to negotiate the return of the remains of six American soldiers killed during the Korean War, and he escorted those remains across the demilitarized zone into South Korea. 

Many might not remember the name Evan Hunziker. In 1996 the American swam from China into North Korea, where he was taken prisoner and held for three months on charges of espionage. Bill Richardson got him home. It was a task he would repeat time and again.

Relationship-building is critical to diplomacy. Richardson’s determination and contacts inside North Korea helped him free Otto Warmbier, an American college student imprisoned in Pyongyang in 2016. Sadly, by the time Bill Richardson secured his freedom and flew him back to the United States, Warmbier was in a coma and would be taken off life support within a month of his release. 

Bill Richardson built a diplomatic portfolio of global respect. Trained at Tufts University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, he was a man who was always on a mission, whether at the United Nations representing the United States, as secretary of Energy, as a governor or as a private citizen. He never stopped working on behalf of Americans. 

In 2020 he helped negotiate the release of Michael White, a Navy Veteran who was freed by Iran.

In 2021, Richardson helped to secure the release of journalist Danny Fester from a jail in Myanmar, where he lived in deplorable conditions for six months. Again, Richardson had built relations with officials there going back to 2012, allowing him to negotiate the release.

Americans detained in Russia also had Bill Richardson lobbying on their behalf. He traveled to Moscow many times to seek the release of Americans, including Trevor Reed, Taylor Dudley, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. Whelan remains imprisoned.

No dictator was too fierce for Richardson. He took on Saddam Hussein, negotiating on behalf of two Americans in Iraq, using his powers of persuasion to free Americans who had been imprisoned for months after illegally crossing into Iraq from Kuwait. 

In 2006 he persuaded Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to free American journalist Paul Salopek. He argued with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan leader Nicholas Maduro. 

Bill Richardson was never awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, although he was nominated several times. I think he should receive it, posthumously. He deserves our gratitude.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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