Talking Points

Ever wish you could ask the mayor about urban development, or a battalion chief about fighting the Waldo Canyon fire, or a Nobel Prize winner about the nature of reality? In our first-ever Interview Issue, we asked 18 of the city’s brightest, most outspoken leaders and personalities those questions, and many more. Turn the page to hear them speak out—in their own words.
January 2013

Christopher Hill photo

Christopher Hill

The dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies and former ambassador to Iraq on the global hot spots for 2013. Interview by Luc Hatlestad 

How did you decide to make the move into academia? 

I’d had a 33-year career in the Foreign Service, I was in my fourth ambassadorship—I’d been in Macedonia, Poland, and South Korea prior to Iraq—and I didn’t want a fifth. I got a call from an associate of Madeleine Albright, who asked if I’d be interested in being the dean at the University of Denver’s international studies program, so I looked into it. I had never been to Denver before, came out here, called my wife, and said, “We really ought to think about this place,” and here I am. 

Tell me about your career.

I joined the Foreign Service after the Peace Corps. In the mid-’90s I worked on the Bosnian peace settlements with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and we also worked together on the Dayton Peace Accords. From there I went on to Macedonia and did some of the same things in Kosovo, again trying to get the Serbs and Albanians to be on the same sheet of music. I was in Poland when 9/11 happened. Poland became one of the only countries to join the United States during the actual war in Iraq. Then I went to South Korea, where I negotiated with the North Koreans. 

How do you acclimate yourself to all these new places?

You crack books, put yourself in listening mode, meet a lot of people, and learn to recognize patterns. As different as they all sound, there are similar patterns in trying to convince people to do things they don’t want to do and to make sure that they think you are looking for a solution. Given that America’s considered a very strong and big country, it helps to speak with a soft voice and not just wag your finger at them. That kind of behavior doesn’t go very far.

We just ended a campaign in which it was suggested that a measured approach like that might be called apologism. Is that just campaign trail nonsense? 

I don’t think effective diplomats ever go around apologizing. At the same time, we shouldn’t go around bragging, or go around shaking our fists. You try to make sure that people understand what your objectives are, and why the United States has a continuing interest. Our people don’t go around apologizing, so I think to some extent that was campaign rhetoric. 

What are our most pressing diplomatic issues in the coming year? 

This problem of nuclear aspirations by Iran is very destabilizing in the region. And Syria has become a sectarian civil war where you have Sunnis against Shia and some of the nastier sides of the historical legacy of the Middle East being played out. If we don’t solve Syria, the problem could metastasize into places like Lebanon and, unfortunately, Iraq. The China relationship is absolutely crucial to our future. It’s too big to fail.