Bill Richardson, the Democrat who parlayed a political career into a unique role as a global crisis negotiator, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to free hostages and political prisoners around the world.
Richardson was nominated along with Richardson Center for Global Engagement, a nonprofit he founded, by four Democratic senators, Bob Menéndez (N.J.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), Martin Heinrich (N.M.) and Ben Ray Luján (N.M.).
“Needless to say, I am honored by this nomination of a prestigious award, knowing it’s a long shot,” Richardson told The Hill.
“I’m especially humbled by the support of American hostage families and human rights families. But hostage diplomacy worldwide is only going to increase and is at the very least here to stay, especially affecting Americans.”
Richardson has been nominated for the prestigious award before, but this nomination is notable because it is backed by four senators.
In their nominating letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, the lawmakers touted Richardson’s central role in the liberation of 15 political prisoners, including professional basketball player Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Trevor Reed, both repatriated after high-stakes prisoner swaps with Russia.
Richardson’s nomination is also supported by 14 letters from former hostages and their families, praising his role in their liberation.
“We feel lucky to have been introduced to the Richardson Center and will forever be grateful for them. I am confident that without their experience, commitment, and passion for the work to reunite families, I would not be home today,” wrote Griner and her wife, Cherelle Griner.
Yet Richardson’s initiation as a hostage negotiator was circumstantial.
In 1994, Richardson — then in his 6th term in Congress — was tapped by former President Clinton to negotiate the release of two U.S. pilots shot down after their helicopter strayed into North Korean airspace.
“He was there on a visit and basically – back then it was the Clinton administration – and Clinton asked him, ‘hey, you stay there until we can get our pilot back.’ And so he did,” said Mickey Bergman, vice president and executive director of the Richardson Center.
Richardson secured the release of Chief Warrant Officer Bobby Hall, who survived the crash, and the repatriation of the other pilot’s body, setting the stage for the next phase of his political career.
In 1997, Clinton named him UN ambassador, then secretary of energy in 1998, Richardson served two terms as governor of New Mexico from 2003 to 2011, and mounted a presidential run in 2008.
But throughout, Richardson stuck to the role of geopolitical freelancer with a specialty in hostage negotiations.
Both Richardson and Bergman — who Richardson calls “the soul of this operation” — said they were hooked on the risky work when they first experienced a family reunification.
“The day-to-day is very, very hard and grinding and frustrating. And so seeing that reminds you why you do what you do, motivates you and also locks you in. And once you have that, you know you cannot walk away from it. You have to keep doing that,” said Bergman.
The most obvious risk in these high-stakes negotiations involves paying house calls in places where authorities are in the business of taking political prisoners or hostages.
Sanitary risks are also a concern — one rescue involved flying from Myanmar with an unvaccinated hostage recently released from a Burmese jail.
And political risks can threaten the success of rescue operations.
In 2022, Biden administration officials came close to publicly chastising Richardson for his role in negotiations to release Griner and Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine who is still detained in Russia.
“Our concern is that private citizens attempting to broker a deal do not and cannot speak for the U.S. government,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in a November 2022 briefing, referring to Richardson’s efforts in those cases.
The four senators who nominated Richardson specifically praised the center’s role in those cases, as well as 14 other resolved cases and eight pending ones, “amongst other discrete cases.”
Political tensions come with the territory — in Richardson’s final days in office as governor, he risked angering the Obama administration by talking to North Korea to defuse tensions after an artillery attack on a South Korean island.
Richardson’s capital is in his political connections, domestic and otherwise, and his ability to talk to people on a human level.
Richardson credits his people skills to growing up bilingual and bicultural – he spent his childhood in Mexico City before returning to the United States as a teenager.
“It’s about emotional intelligence,” said Bergman. “For him it’s a gift.”
Those talks require access, for which Richardson has to tread carefully in his dealings with some of the world’s most calculating political operators, including those in Washington, D.C.
And success sometimes requires risking that access.
Paula Reed, Trevor Reed’s mother, wrote in her letter of support for the Nobel nomination that Richardson and Bergman informed her in February of 2022 of a prospective deal cut with Russia for Trevor’s release, which was time-sensitive and not yet approved by the Biden administration.
In March of that year, the Reed family protested a visit by President Biden to Fort Worth and eventually got a meeting with the president in Washington, where they told Biden they knew a deal was available.
“I know without a doubt in my mind, that us having the prior knowledge of Governor’s and Mickey’s trip to Russia and the deal laid out there, and us relaying that to President, was a huge factor in President Biden deciding to approve the deal. I honestly believe that was a crucial element to bringing Trevor back home,” wrote Reed.
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