April 2, 2021

The past several years have been difficult ones for U.S. diplomacy, said former ambassador Christopher Hill, who is currently serving as SIPA’s George W. Ball Adjunct Professor for spring 2021. Speaking on March 24, the accomplished diplomat highlighted the greatest foreign policy challenges facing the United States and explored how diplomacy could be successful in navigating relationships with different nations.

The semi-annual lecture is named in honor of George W. Ball, the former under secretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. In his remarks, Hill said that Ball—known for his vocal opposition to the Vietnam War—was well aware of the dangers of groupthink, and willing to make tough decisions when required. 

Among the current trends defining U.S. diplomacy and international relations, Hill said, are the breakdown of state structures, rising great power conflict, internal problems in the United States, and the politicization of foreign policy issues. 

We need to secure our leadership in the world, Hill said, but by taking a different approach than usual. While many countries want to see America return to its tradition of engagement in the world, he explained, they want us to be in listening mode, not our typical broadcasting or “secular missionary” mode.

He said the United States should take a cue from China and consider engaging in vaccine diplomacy—a stance that would strengthen our relationships with the global south while also helping with their pandemic recoveries.

Some bilateral relationships, such as those with South Korea and Japan, are already changing for the better, said Hill. He also emphasized the importance of strengthening NATO, and expressed concern about Russia, which he said is in long-term decline.

A declining Russia, Hill said, may be more troubling than an ascending China.

China will continue to grow in any case, said Hill. The task of the United States should not be to hold that nation down, he explained, but rather to make sure China sees itself as a responsible stakeholder in the world. There will be opportunities to collaborate with China on issues like combating climate change and stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, he added.

Hill also expressed interest in building a relationship with India and bringing the country into affairs in Asia. “I’m in favor of a close working relationship with them,” he said, adding that the relationship doesn’t have to bepart of a containment strategy against China.

During the Q&A portion, moderated by Professor Stephen Sestanovich, Hill addressed a question about the role of climate change in future diplomacy efforts. 

All administrations say they’ll focus on climate at first, Hill says. This time around, we likely actually will, as the climate crisis is more pressing than it’s ever been.

Over a lengthy career, Hill served as ambassador to Iraq, South Korea, Poland, and Macedonia. As assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, Hill led U.S. efforts to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. He also worked to help end the Kosovo War in 1999 and the Bosnian War in 1995. 

Hill also served as dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver from 2010 to 2017. At SIPA, he teaches a course in Post-Cold War U.S. Foreign Policy.


The Future of Diplomacy in Uncertain Times: George W. Ball Lecture featuring Christopher Hill
March 24