Thomas Reeve "Tom" Pickering (born November 5, 1931) is a retired United States ambassador. Among his many diplomatic appointments, he served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1989 to 1992.
Born in Orange, New Jersey, Pickering is the son of Hamilton Reeve Pickering and Sarah Chasteney Pickering. He graduated from Rutherford High School in Rutherford, New Jersey.
He began attending Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine in 1949 with plans to join the ministry and graduated cum laude in 1953 with high honors in history and is a member of Theta Delta Chi and Phi Beta Kappa. He then earned a master's degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Upon graduation from Tufts, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and attended the University of Melbourne in Australia where he received a second master's degree in 1956. In addition to the honorary doctorate-in-laws degree that Bowdoin awarded him in 1984, Pickering has been the recipient of 12 honorary degrees.
Before joining the State Department, Pickering served on active duty in the United States Navy from 1956 to 1959, and later served in the Naval Reserve where he reached the rank of Lieutenant Commander.
His four-decade-long career in Foreign Service included ambassadorships in Russia (1993–1996); India (1992–1993); to the United Nations (1989–1992); Israel (1985–1988); El Salvador (1983–1985); Nigeria (1981–1983); and Jordan (1974–1978). Additionally, he served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs from 1997 to 2000. He holds the rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Early in his career, he was assigned to the U.S. embassy in Tanzania and later was Special Assistant to Secretaries of State William P. Rogers and Henry Kissinger. When Pickering served as United States Ambassador to Jordan in the mid-1970s, King Hussein declared him “the best American ambassador I’ve dealt with”. From 1978 to 1981, he served as Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. He then spent time as the United States Ambassador to Nigeria before President Ronald Reagan surprisingly replaced the Ambassador to El Salvador, Deane R. Hinton, and put Pickering in his place.
Pickering’s time as United States Ambassador to El Salvador was particularly eventful. Only a year after having been appointed ambassador in 1984, Pickering was the subject of assassination threats from right-wing Salvadoran politicians. The same year, Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina urged that Pickering be dismissed, arguing that he helped manipulate the country’s elections. In both cases, President Ronald Reagan offered Pickering his full support and he secured him a job as United States Ambassador to Israel after his appointment in El Salvador. It was later noted when Pickering was nominated as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations that he played a minor role in the Iran-Contra affair while Ambassador to El Salvador.
As Ambassador to Israel, Pickering led the United States’ criticism of an Israeli policy that expelled Palestinians accused of instilling uprising. Pickering stressed to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that the United States considered the actions illegal and unhelpful for peace efforts.
United Nations and on
President George H.W. Bush’s appointment of Pickering as United States Ambassador to the United Nations was approved almost unanimously in the United State Senate in 1989 with no dissentions and only one abstention. Pickering played a critical role as Ambassador during the First Gulf War, when he helped lead the United Nations Security Council’s response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Bush’s decision to move Pickering from the United Nations to become the United States Ambassador to India was highly criticized given Pickering’s successful tenure. The New York Times declared that Pickering was “arguably the best-ever U.S. representative to that body” and that the move was made simply because he overshadowed Secretary of State James A. Baker during the Persian Gulf Crisis. Pickering’s last ambassadorial appointment was made by President Bill Clinton who designated him United States Ambassador to Russia.
Following the resignation of Secretary of State Warren Christopher in 1996, Pickering was reportedly a top contender for the post, but was ultimately passed over in favor of then-UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright.
From 1997 to 2001, Pickering served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the number-three position at the State Department. When Albright appointed him to the post, Time Magazine declared him the "five star general of the diplomatic corps". In 1998, he was a special envoy to Nigeria and was meeting with imprisoned leader M. K. O. Abiola on the day of his release. In a BBC interview made at the time, Pickering recounted how during the meeting Abiola became ill, and died soon after.
After the State Department
Following his retirement from the Foreign Service in 2001, Pickering served as Senior Vice President for International Relations at Boeing until 2006. Currently he is serving as independent board member at the world's biggest pipe company, OAO TMK, in Moscow. At present, he is affiliated with the International Crisis Group and currently serves as its Co-Chair, and oversees their international actions as a co-chair. In addition, he is Chairman of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, Chairman of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Chairman of the American Academy of Diplomacy, Chairman of the Rostropovich-Vishnevskaya Foundation, and a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Bureau of Asian Research and the Global Panel Foundation based in Berlin, Prague and Sydney.
Following his retirement, the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program was renamed the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship Program to honor Pickering. Fellowships are funded by the U.S. Department of State and administered by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation (WWNFF). In May 2004, Bowdoin awarded Pickering the Bowdoin Prize, the highest award that the College bestows upon its graduates.
Pickering serves on the board of directors for CRDF Global and the American Iranian Council, an organization devoted to the normalization of relations between Iran and America. He is currently a member of the Constitution Project's bipartisan Liberty and Security Committee. He is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Henry L. Stimson Center board of directors as well as the Advisory Board of Eurasia Group, the political risk consultancy firm, and America Abroad Media. He serves on the Guiding Coalition of the nonpartisan Project on National Security Reform. Pickering also serves as an Advisory Board member for the Partnership for a Secure America.
Pickering is a Member of the Global Leadership Foundation, an organization which works to support democratic leadership, prevent and resolve conflict through mediation and promote good governance in the form of democratic institutions, open markets, human rights and the rule of law. It does so by making available, discreetly and in confidence, the experience of former leaders to today’s national leaders. It is a not-for-profit organization composed of former heads of government, senior governmental and international organization officials who work closely with Heads of Government on governance-related issues of concern to them.
In 2012, along with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, Pickering helped lead a State-Department-sponsored panel investigating the Attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
Pickering currently serves on the Governing Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Pickering lives in Fairfax County, Virginia. His wife, the former Alice Jean Stover, whom he married in 1955, died in 2011. The couple had two children, Timothy and Margaret.
Pickering is fluent in French, Spanish, and Swahili, and has a working knowledge of Russian, Hebrew, and Arabic.
Honors and Awards
In May 2015 Pickering received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Brandeis University. He addressed the graduates as the commencement speaker.