Players: Christopher R. Hill

Longtime Statesman Puts Best Face Forward for U.S.

Christopher Hill prefers to speak on the record, sometimes at multiple news conferences in a day.
Christopher Hill prefers to speak on the record, sometimes at multiple news conferences in a day. (By Claro Cortes Iv -- Reuters)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill, who over the weekend as chief U.S. negotiator reached a tentative agreement with North Korea on ending its nuclear programs, was a fresh-faced 21-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon when he learned his first lesson in diplomacy.

Hill's job in 1973 was to ride around on a Suzuki dirt bike and audit the books of credit unions in 28 villages and plantations. He discovered one board of directors had taken 60 percent of the money, so he gave an impassioned speech denouncing the malfeasance to hundreds of villagers sitting on a mountainside. His presentation was met with applause and gratitude -- and then the assembled group immediately reelected everyone he had just condemned.

"I realized I didn't know beans about what was going on in this tea plantation," Hill recalled over breakfast recently. It turned out the board reflected a careful amalgam of tribal interests, and it didn't matter whether it ran a good credit union or not.

The lesson, according to Hill: "When something's happened, it's happened for a reason and you do your best to understand that reason. But don't necessarily think you can change it."

Hill, with a dry wit and easy manner, has taken that adage to heart during more than two decades of difficult diplomatic assignments in the foreign service, shuttling back and forth between Asia and Europe.

During the Clinton administration, Hill was a key negotiator in the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war, and he played an important role in the crisis over Kosovo. He was ambassador to Macedonia when protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy in 1999 over NATO airstrikes in Yugoslavia.

The embassy in Macedonia, unlike most overseas missions, had never been given Marine guards. The protesters quickly overran the guard posts and began to use the embassy flagpole as a battering ram. When a top State Department official called Hill during the crisis to ask where his Marines were, Hill sardonically noted he didn't have any -- but there were Marines at the embassy in Luxembourg.

Former U.N. ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, who described Hill as "brilliant, fearless and argumentative" in his book on the Dayton negotiations, said that Hill manages to be both "very cool and very passionate." This unique combination, he said, enhances Hill's "extremely good negotiating skills."

Hill also has an easy familiarity with the media. In a city where scores of officials hide behind the cloak of anonymity in speaking to journalists, Hill prefers to speak on the record. He conducted two or three news conferences a day during the talks in Beijing.

The son of a foreign service officer, Hill's first posting was in Belgrade. He had lived there as a child and remembers playing with the daughter of the U.S. ambassador, the legendary George F. Kennan.

Hill has a knack for attracting high-profile sponsors. He was a rising star during the Clinton administration, winning his first ambassadorship on the recommendation of the president of Macedonia. Then he came to President Bush's attention when the president of Poland lavishly praised Hill's performance as ambassador there and requested that Hill stay on.

Some former Clinton administration officials say that Hill sometimes appeared to exceed his negotiating instructions, or at least have a creative interpretation of them. And some conservative officials in the current administration are not happy with the deal he reached in Beijing with North Korea -- and were openly gleeful yesterday when Pyongyang appeared to try to wiggle out of the deal.

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