Negroponte: a negotiator with right touch to deal with China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 March, 2007, 12:00am

When John Negroponte first trod the corridors of power as a junior recruit at the US Department of State in 1960, Dwight Eisenhower was America's president and Mao Zedong chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.

Cold war tensions were high and the US had begun dipping its toe in a conflict that would dominate the next decade: Vietnam.

Nine presidents and more than 46 years later, after a career that has seen him serve in eight diplomatic posts on three continents as well as the White House and United Nations, Mr Negroponte, 67, is back where he began, with a very different world map spread before him and a sign on his office door reading 'Deputy Secretary of State'.

'As our nation's second-ranking diplomat, he's going to be a strong and confident advocate for our interests and, equally importantly, our ideals around the world,' President George W. Bush said at Mr Negroponte's swearing-in ceremony last week.

'I know him to be a man of vision and character ... a good negotiator. It doesn't hurt that he can play a mean game of poker.'

As he visits the mainland this week for the first time in his new role, many are placing their stakes on the former cold war diplomatic warrior building a constructive new phase of high-level dialogue between Washington and Beijing.

Since the departure of his predecessor Robert Zoellick, who left his post seven months ago, the State Department has lacked a heavy hitter with the experience to direct the rapprochement while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice focuses on Iraq.

'Negroponte's appointment definitely fills a vacuum. He's an old Asia hand,' said Jeffrey Bader, an expert in US-China relations at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

John Dimitri Negroponte was born in London in 1939, the son of Greek shipping magnate Dimitri Negroponte and his wife, Catherine.

The young John and his two brothers, Nick and George, enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle throughout childhood, shuttling between homes in Britain, America and Switzerland. They learned to ski, how to act in polite company, and how to speak good English, French, Spanish and Greek.

'Our family was very international,' his younger brother Nick recalled for The Washington Post in 2004. 'At the dinner table when people spoke, it was rare they would keep their sentence in one language.'

At the upmarket Buckley School in Manhattan and then the elite Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, classmates recognised him as a driven, high achiever big on articulacy and athletic ability. He swam, played soccer and golf, joined the debating society, won a prize for his French language skills and expressed an interest in studying law. His studies at Yale University occupied the latter years of the 1950s.

The call-up for his diplomatic career came in 1960 at the age of just 21 after he passed the Foreign Service entrance exams with flying colours. He was seen as a rising star and his first posting was to Hong Kong, then in 1964 to Saigon - now Ho Chi Minh City - the escalation 'and Americanisation' of the Vietnam conflict having just begun.

Mr Negroponte's swift integration in Saigon - where he added fluent Vietnamese to his linguistic skills - so impressed his masters that in 1971 he was hand-picked by Henry Kissinger, who was then president Richard Nixon's national security adviser and later secretary of state, to join his team at peace talks in Paris to broker an end to the Vietnam war.

'He brings great steadiness and solidity ... patience and subtlety,' Dr Kissinger would later remark.

In 1976, Mr Negroponte married Diana Villiers, daughter of the former chairman of British Steel, whom he had met at a British embassy dinner in Saigon in 1968. They have five children - Marina, Alejandra, John, George and Sophia - all adopted from Honduras during his 1981-1985 tenure there as US ambassador.

But that posting was not without its controversy. For all the diplomatic adulation, Mr Negroponte also has detractors within the human rights movement, who have long attempted to hold him to account for turning a blind eye to atrocities wreaked by Battalion 316, a Honduran military death squad that eliminated hundreds of the country's government opponents and his support of the country's brutal dictatorship.

At the time, the US needed Honduran territory as a base for US-funded 'Contra' troops fighting president Ronald Reagan's covert war against Marxist Sandanistas in neighbouring Nicaragua - an affair that would later cause a political explosion in Washington.

'What the Honduran chapter really exposed was a person who will do anything to serve his office. A man of suavity and elegancy and a rapier-like determination to advance his career,' said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, of Mr Negroponte.

'Underneath that veneer of civility, there's ruthlessness. It's breathtaking that he was able to just walk away and move into the next chapter of his career.'

That next chapter was as US ambassador to Mexico, then the Philippines, before he withdrew from government service to enter the corporate world.

President Bush recalled him to public service in 2001, appointing him US ambassador to the United Nations. His confirmation by the Senate was far from plain sailing, however; Democratic Senator John Kerry, among others, called for Mr Negroponte's role in Central America to be 'carefully and thoroughly examined' and his appointment was delayed for six months amid hearings and deep scrutiny. After terrorists struck the US on September 11, 2001, however, the Senate relented.

His attempts to win consensus in the UN Security Council for a resolution sanctioning military action in Afghanistan failed, leaving the US without a legal international mandate for what came next. Yet the UN's then secretary-general Kofi Annan spoke of him as an 'outstanding professional, a great diplomat and a wonderful ambassador'.

Mr Bush also felt that such qualities made Mr Negroponte an ideal choice to be America's ambassador to Iraq in 2004, following the fall of Saddam Hussein, and less than a year later, to become the first director of national intelligence - 'one of the most demanding assignments in government', as Mr Bush called it.

He overhauled outdated intelligence gathering and reinvigorated the management structure.

Seen as 'risk factors' in America's relationship with China are Beijing's defence spending and 'rapid militarisation,' its sudden launch of an armed ballistic missile to shoot down a defunct space satellite in January and its resistance of sanctions against Iran.

'But the Chinese government got a lot of credit within the administration for its role in last month's breakthrough on North Korea's nuclear disarmament and that gives both sides a degree of confidence that they are each dealing with people on the other side who listen,' Mr Bader said. 'He's a serious and thoughtful guy - pragmatic, not ideological. That's always good when you're dealing with the Chinese. He does his homework and knows how to listen. He's a good fit.'