An Interview with Bill Richardson

by Matt B. on April 13, 2011

Bill Richardson has served as a congressman, UN ambassador, energy secretary, and governor of New Mexico.

This interview took place on March 31 at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

What does the Japan disaster augur for the future of nuclear power in the US?

It’s got to be a challenge for nuclear power to retain its credibility with the American people in the areas of safety and environmental risk. Nonetheless, I do believe that nuclear power should be part of our future energy mix. It’s currently 20%. We have 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states. But I think for the future, we have to have better safety plans in order for nuclear power to retain its credibility with the American people.

What’s your take on the quality and tone of the media’s coverage of the Japan disaster, particularly with regard to health and safety risks?

Well, I believe the media has done a good job. I believe the media has uncovered some serious problems that happened in Japan, especially the utility in Japan, in my judgment, not performing effectively. It was obvious that TEPCO [Tokyo Electric Power Company] did not have a backup plan, did not have emergency plans. They didn’t have any auxiliary power to deal with the disaster. They didn’t have any evacuation plans, health hazard plans. And instead of telling the Japanese government and informing them in a timely fashion, they failed to do that. That was pointed out by the media. And I do believe that sometimes, some media sensationalizes potential problems. They were actually responsible in talking about some of the problems and the excesses that surfaced in the plan.

You’ve negotiated peace settlements all over the world. I’d like to ask for your take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in particular about Israeli settlements. Half a million Israeli settlers now live in hundreds of settlements throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated his plans to increase the rate of settlement expansion. What do these trends tell you about the long-term prospects for a two-state solution and for peace in the region?

Well, these are issues that…those developments are not helpful, obviously. But these are issues that need to be negotiated in the context of an overall settlement. I’m concerned right now about the potential of the Israeli-Palestinian process, because I’m a strong supporter of Israel; however, the landscape and the neighborhood around Israel is dramatically changing and is becoming more unfriendly.

My hope is that there will still be momentum for the two-state solution, that it will involve negotiations that are viable in the areas of Jerusalem, in the areas of the settlements, in the areas of the security issues. But I must say, because of—for instance, I worry that Egypt will not be as supportive of Israel as it has in the past. I worry about the 1979 peace treaty with Israel and Egypt, about it still being viable – I hope it will be. I worry about the broker role that Israel has played in the Middle East issue.

But certainly, I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is somebody that could go down in history as a peacemaker, in sort of a “Nixon goes to China” format. And I believe there’s still a possibility, but I worry about the neighborhood being less favorable to Israel with recent developments.

I’d like to ask a little bit more concretely about the West Bank.  Given the way the map actually looks now – with settlements pockmarked throughout the territory, settler-only roads, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s commitment to continue expanding settlements – what gives you hope that that area could actually be a foundation for a viable Palestinian state?

Look, I think every Israeli prime minister has expanded settlements. I just believe that it could be that the new landscape in the Middle East will spur both sides towards a negotiated settlement, towards resuming the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Look, I can’t speak for certain on what a political leader is going to do, but I know Netanyahu. I know he wants to go down as a man of peace. He’s a pragmatist. He’s got some political issues in his cabinet that he has to deal with – the far right in the Likud Party. But at the same time, I always think there are positive opportunities when there’s a crisis, and there’s a crisis now in the region. You know, a lot of these issues are negotiable, and so I haven’t lost hope.

Let’s talk a little bit about North Korea. You’ve met with officials there several times, most recently in December, in an effort to calm tensions between the North and the South. Did these visits provide any insights that might have been more difficult to garner here in the US?

…Yes, because I’m one of the few people the North Koreans invite and trust. Now, it’s not a badge of honor that I carry, but realistically, somebody has to talk to the North Koreans, who are hostile, unpredictable. They have six, or four, nuclear weapons. There are 28,000 American troops on the DMZ. We have a treaty with South Korea. The region is important, security-wise, to us. So [the] US objective should be, one, to get the North Koreans to terminate, or at least reduce, their nuclear weapons to reduce tension there.

I believe that dialogue with your adversaries is important, so I continue to do this. You can’t do this from here, because all the North Koreans do outside of North Korea is transmit provocative statements. You want to talk to them directly. And I found that the leaders of North Korea, in my last visit, at least in the mid-level bureaucracy of the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Department, are more moderate than their predecessors – that’s a good sign. And so, I believe that it’s important that the United States and the six-party countries, somehow, that those talks re-engage.

What do you think accounts for the moderating positions that you’re seeing among these officials?

Well, they’re moderate officials. They haven’t taken moderate positions yet. They still are very hostile. But it could be that the new leadership in North Korea realizes that they’ve made a dreadful mistake in basically pushing the world towards the brink after their downing of a South Korean ship, killing of civilians, expressing that there’s enriched uranium at their nuclear facility and they’re going to build more weapons, that they’ve reached the point of totally isolating themselves with no hopes of reengaging with the outside world. And I believe because of their economic difficulties’ effect – there’s a food shortage – that hopefully, they’ll be shifting course.

One last topic shift. You’ve played a significant role in the immigration debate in this country. If you could change one thing about the way that our national conversation around immigration takes place, what would it be?

It would be that we not demonize immigrants, that the rhetoric I hear is very harsh, that we should look at economic benefits of immigrants, that we should be realistically looking at the fact that we have 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States and that it’s not realistic to deport them or demonize them, that the dialogue should be what’s in the national interest and what we do with these immigrants.

And I believe what you want to do is give these immigrants responsibilities that they don’t have today….If they want to stay, they should learn English, they should pay back-taxes, they should pay a fine for coming here illegally, they should pass a background check, they should get behind those that are trying to get here legally, they should embrace American values. But to isolate them, to demonize them, to have states take over jurisdiction of undocumented workers, it’s counterproductive and it’s wrong.

And I guess my last wish would be that the Congress takes this up in a bi-partisan way; it can never get passed by one party. And by letting the issue languish, it hurts our country, it hurts our morale, it hurts our unity, and it hurts our economy.

I agree with you that it would be really nice to see a calmer, more humane conversation.  What do you think it would take to shift the national discourse in that direction?

I think there are newly elected Republicans, newly elected Hispanic Republicans – in governorships in New Mexico and in Nevada and a new senator in Texas – I think if those Hispanic Republicans take the lead and tone down the harsh rhetoric in their party – that would be an important start.

You mentioned that you’d like to see illegal immigrants “embracing American values.” What do you think of as the distinctive American values that they ought to embrace?

Well, I think it would be part of passing a background check that—you don’t require this—but that they be solid members of the community that they participate in. And this is not a requirement, that they go to church and that they know a little bit about American history and American civic institutions [and] they know about what it takes to be a responsible citizen.

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