An Interview with Alejandro D. Wolff, U.S. Ambassador to Chile
Ambassador Alejandro D. Wolff joined the Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer in 1979. His assignments in Washington include tours on the Policy Planning Staff (1981-1982); in the Office of Soviet Union Affairs (1988-1989); in the Office of the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (1989-1991); as Deputy Executive Secretary of the Department (1996-1998); and as the Executive Assistant to Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell (1998-2001). Wolff has served in Algeria, Morocco, Chile, Cyprus, the U.S. Mission to the EU in Brussels and France. His most recent assignment was Ambassador and Deputy Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations (2005-2010). Wolff is the recipient of the Department of State’s Distinguished, Superior, and Meritorious Honor Awards. He graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1978 from the University of California at Los Angeles and speaks French and Spanish.
The Politic: Why did you decide to join the Foreign Service?
I was interested in International Relations and the world as a high school student and a college student. When I was growing up, it was still the Cold War era and global issues loomed large for the political class of the United States and the average citizen. So we were all affected by what was happening in the world and so, going into a field that might have some influence on that and could help me better understand developments in the world and do a bit of good for my country were the principal reasons.
The Politic: Was there any particular experience, person or influence in the United States or elsewhere that influenced this decision to enter the Foreign Service?
My family is a family of immigrants, so obviously what happens in the world and what happens in countries around the world had a profound personal impact on my grandparents, my parents, and by extension, me. The fact that we ended up in the United States, a country that had immense tremendous appeal and attraction for its freedoms, its liberties, and its focus on human rights and respect for the individual were influential and have stayed with me ever since.
The Politic: Was there any particular challenge that you faced during your career?
The greatest challenge is the flipside of the greatest advantage and the opportunities that the career provides, which is basically picking up and moving every three years. It opens up wonderful perspectives of other countries and other cultures and gives me an exposure to other ways of life and other ways of thinking that is personally enriching, but also it means that every three years you leave friends, the kids have to change schools, and start over.
The Politic: Does this make you think that there is a particular type, i.e. a particular kind of student or personality better suited for the Foreign Service?
Not particularly. At least judging by my colleagues, it is an incredible diverse group of individuals with diverse backgrounds of experiences and education formation and experiences, as diverse as you can imagine both in terms of educational background, personal experience, [and] work experience. This is a career that I think is accessible to all and of interest to potentially everyone.
The Politic: Recently, there has been a trend of college graduates moving more into the private sector, and less into careers in the public sector such as the Foreign Service. Have you seen this trend happen in your career? If so, why do you think this may be happening, and should we be worried about it?
I think it has to do with economic opportunities in the United States and what is happening in the world. There was great interest in Public Service when I joined the State Department. In the 1970s and the 1980s with the economic boom in the U.S., there was more interest in going into business because salaries and benefits were very competitive. Now, in the post-9/11 period we saw resurgence of great interest and relevance in what was happening in the world, and a huge influx again of potential candidates. Of course, when the economy suffers, public service all of a sudden coincidentally becomes attractive again, and also when benefits are more in keeping with what one can find in the private sector. I don’t think there is anything unique in the education one receives in college that alters dramatically the way you view the world. It is very much societal in nature, but sensitive to trends in the economy and the world.
The Politic: Many students thinking about the Foreign Service worry about representing an administration or a policy that will conflict with their values. Do you have any example of this conflict happening in your career, and how you dealt with it?
I found it to be probably exaggerated as a concern for the simple reason that most of the policies we pursue have a foundation in history, are a function of debate, and are reflective of a general balance of interest that are well articulated, well defined and well understood. Rarely in my career have I found myself in a situation where a policy was so odious or so inimical to my values that it has actually become a concern. The other point is that this is no different from decisions that anyone makes in any field of work and any sphere of work. If you work for a company having an impact the environment, or for a firm carrying predatory lending practices, the moral issues there, the philosophical issues there that people have to grapple with, are not exclusive to the public sector.
The Politic: Let’s talk about Chile. What is the greatest misperception that you have found from Chileans about the United States and vice-versa?
The greatest misperception about the United States is also a function of where they [people] get their information and personal knowledge of the country. Those who had the opportunity to travel, study or live in the United States have no major misperception. I find that people who draw their information from television or media only, can find the information to be skewed or interpreted in a way that is selective. Most people in this time and age really have a pretty good sense of the United States. Misperceptions are not a big problem for us.
The Politic: Obama commended Chile as “one of closest and strongest partners” of the U.S. and this relationship has strengthened in the past decade. Why do you think the U.S.-Chile relationship has been such a diplomatic success in contrast to so many other countries in South America?
A lot of it has to do with the local culture, the philosophy of the Chileans. We have countries that share values and interests. This isn’t a relationship that is defined by a particular problem — whether it is narcotics, immigration, security issues, or the like. It is a positive agenda across the board. Chile, being far away from the US and in a relatively small and homogeneous country, gives an easier time focusing on the shared values and principles that mind the two countries. There is a long history: we are celebrating the third century of relations with Chile. The United States was the first country to recognize Chile and its independence, and establish a permanent mission here. So it goes back quite a way. It is more a function of what Chileans deem to be important, how they see their own role in the world, and the values they ascribe and hold dear; and given their experiences in recent years — the emphasis on democratic institutions, respect for human rights and freedoms, and solid economic policies, those are all issues that they have much in common with Americans.
The Politic: Americans are sometimes surprised to read the history about the U.S.-Chile relationship in particular during the ascent and initial stages of the Pinochet regime in Chile. This is a controversial topic and there is much misunderstanding about it. What’s the official position the U.S. takes with respect to U.S. participation during this period?
Like many historical events all around the world, there is misperception and selective memory that takes place over time. There is a lot that has been written about the Pinochet years, and there are very good books about this. The U.S. has declassified, perhaps more than about any other country than the events related to Chile and documents related from 1968 to the 1990s, so people can draw their own conclusions.
When one looks back historically, there is context and realities of the time. It was a very different world inspired in the politics of the Cold War; there were domestic difficulties, and the most important point to remember is that the events in Chile leading up to the coup and the immediate years afterwards were a function first and foremost of the Chilean reality, not a function of the United States. The U.S. in that historical context had its views and concerns, but we remained faithful to the principles of democracy and human rights and remained in touch with working with the Chilean people as they recovered their democracy, and established stable institutions contributing to Chilean successes.
The Politic: I read recently that the Chileans are being included in the U.S.-Visa waiver program, which is a great success for you, as well as the recent visit from president Obama. Is there is any particular event that you’re particularly proud of during your tenure in Chile?
One of the programs I really like is the “Youth Ambassadors program,” which is taking young students from high schools around the country who are learning English, and allowing them an opportunity to visit the United States, live with families, expand their mutual understanding, increase their leadership skills, and make a contribution to the defense of their communities. It is remarkable most of these young students return and have their lives changed by experiencing new opportunities, new visions and making new friends in the United States. We reach out to many regions in the country, rather than maintain a Santiago-focused relationship. I get a lot of personal satisfaction from it.
Embassy of the United States to Chile: http://chile.usembassy.gov/