An Interview with Barbara Stephenson, Former U.S. Charge d’Affaires to the United Kingdom
Barbara Stephenson was appointed Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in London in 2010. After the departure of Ambassador Louis Susman, Stephenson was appointed acting Charge d’Affaires, a post she held until August 2013. Stephenson is a Minister Counselor in the career Senior Foreign Service and joined the State Department in 1985. Stephenson served as U.S. Ambassador to Panama from 2008 to 2010 and as Deputy Coordinator for Iraq from 2006 to 2008, during which time Stephenson oversaw the ‘civilian surge’ to Iraq. Stephenson has also worked as special assistant covering European affairs to Under Secretaries for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff and Tom Pickering, and has held the position of Director for Planning in the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. Beyond the UK, Stephenson has served in Northern Ireland, Curacao, South Africa, the Netherlands, El Salvador, and Panama, where she began her career. Before joining the Foreign Service, Stephenson earned a Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, and Ph.D. in English at the University of Florida.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I think as soon as I learned about the Foreign Service — and I learned about it from one of my professors at the University of Florida — it just captured my imagination. It sounded like one of the most exciting possible ways to spend my life. Also, if you are a person who wants to make an impact and shape your world, I thought this was really it. As soon as I looked into it, the idea of living in different places, learning different languages, experiencing different cultures, and having the chance [to be] a representative of a really powerful nation to shape the world… that captured my imagination.
The Politic: What is your day-to-day experience like in your work as an ambassador? Has it varied much across your numerous postings?
It does, it really does. There are certain things that are the same everywhere. You are in charge of a large, interagency team, so 20-40 agencies, and that is one of the glories of the job. In Panama, as Ambassador, a lot of our work was quite operational. It was focused on law enforcement, on helping the Panamanians who were facing a significant uptick in drug trafficking — the murder rate doubled — work out a strategy. It then focused on getting the people and the resources and the coast guard station so that they could actually push back and fight back against this. That is a very operational job.
I will tell you, though, one of the jokes. On the way out, my team gave me a mounted model of Yamalube, which is Yamaha’s motor oil, and the only thing you can put in the boats that had to go out and intercept the bad guys that keeps the motor from going bad. It was kind of an inside joke that our work is so operational down here. “Why is it that the boats always fail?” Figuring that out and being able to solve that problem, to then being Charge d’Affaires in London, where you would not dream of going into work without reading the Financial Times, the Times of London, and the International Herald Tribune, which is a huge edition of the New York Times. This is because I was dealing not with operational issues that Great Britain ran, but knowing that we were going to be talking with them about whatever the burning issues of the day are and thinking up a response. So it varies dramatically depending on where you are.
The Politic: You were stationed in Panama in 1986 and again more recently as the Ambassador. In what ways did Panama change and in what ways did it stay the same over this period?
The changes were that democracy had taken root. [When] I came back the second time, you could count on the president to be elected in an election that was going to be regarded as free and fair, and you could expect that president to serve out his or her term. That was not the case when I was there at the beginning, when it was rotating-door presidents, and what really became a military dictatorship under Manuel Noriega. So democracy took root. That was one important thing.
The other thing that that happened that was really different in Panama was economic growth took off. When I was there the first time, Panama, like many South American countries in the ’80s, was really struggling with a debt burden. They had really gotten on top of that, and they had set up a lot of the economic framework that was necessary to allow economic growth. They had taken control of the Panama Canal, which had been run like a utility when the U.S. ran it up until December 31, 1999. When the Panamanians took it over, they kept it functioning beautifully as a global waterway, but they did not run it as a utility. They actually maximized profit and built free trade centers and ports. They had taken full advantage of the reversion of the canal, and they were going through year-on-year ten percent economic growth, so you really saw the place become much more prosperous and much more middle class.
Finally, on a minor note — but it is worth noting because it gives you hope that things can get better — the focus of my work when I was first stationed in Panama as an economic officer was money laundering. During the twenty years I was away, the sons of the bankers went to very good schools in the U.S., got MBAs in finance, and came back. Between that process and a multilateral process called the Financial Action Task Force, Panama’s banking sector went through a transformation and became a quality banking sector. To me, watching that happen was a real testament to how good American education can be. You do not have to make huge margins when you understand finance. A multilateral process like the Financial Action Task Force… it does not happen instantly. But over the course of ten, fifteen years, you see a major improvement in the banking sector because of this international, peer-level review of the standards. They benchmarked themselves and they met those standards, and they really cared about the report card they got, so the banking sector improved as well.
The Politic: In your extensive experience across numerous regions, what sort of exchange or community outreach programs have you found most effective?
That is a great question. Depending on the set of issues you face and the direction you are trying to go, some things are more useful than others. Obviously, American education in the banking sector was a key part of what I think transformed the banking sector in Panama. I have become such a fan of exchange programs over the course of… well, today is my 28th anniversary being a Foreign Service Officer. I joined 28 years ago today to this day. Over the course of it, I have just become such an admirer of IBLB, International Business and Leadership Program, and Fulbright, not only Fulbright Scholars but also Fulbright Teachers. These broad-based programs are hugely useful for increasing mutual understanding and ties between people.
It was not a government program that led to many of those Panamanians going to really high-quality American universities for MBA’s; that was largely done privately. The elite will just choose to go to the United States, and that is a lesson to us as well to keep those opportunities open and accessible, as the impact is huge. Sometimes, you do exchanges to create mutual understanding, which is a big help. Sometimes, with our military exchanges, it really does create relationships that we then rely on during times of stress. People who come to our military academy maintain a web of relations with American military officers, and that is a big help. So sometimes it is about relationships, and sometimes it is about mutual understanding.
It is also sometimes used for specific problems. For example, in London we were concerned that public opinion about rule of law in America was not as strong as we would have liked it to be. Our mission goal was restoring the foundation of trust. We did actually, very thoughtfully, work to bring over people in the legal sector to look at how our system works. We do have things that are different. For instance, we have plea-bargaining, which is part of how we manage a large caseload. When you see it in its context, I think it all makes a lot more sense. There are targeted issues about which we can say, “You are an expert in this, please come look at our system. We want to show it to you. We think it is better than the presentation that you are getting in the popular media.” So it can be quite broad or rather targeted. Exchange programs are golden. They are well administered. They make such a difference in terms of people who understand where we are coming from.
The Politic: As a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and as someone who has held numerous positions at the State Department, how have you seen the Foreign Service, the State Department, and more generally U.S. diplomacy as a tool of state power transform during your career?
That is another great question; these are so thoughtful. I do not want to in any way come across as someone who is a defeatist about America. I believe our best days are still ahead of us. But during my days we have very much seen the rise of the rest. There was a time early in my career when we could be successful by saying, “We have thought about this a lot in Washington, and this works for us, so this is what we want to do.” And essentially, most people would just sign up for it. It is less like that today. With the rise of the West, and with multipolarity, and with the Obama administration’s focus — I am a big fan of this — on partnerships and alliance, it really requires much more subtle diplomacy, and a lot of it. We really are in there having to make the case on its merits and listen, as well as tell people what our position is. In fact, I believe that we have to be better diplomats and better listeners to understand the other country’s point of view and come up with a proposal that meets their core interests and ours, so I think that is one of the key things. Diplomacy has to become more important, we have to marshal our arguments better, and we have to do a really good job of listening. People don’t just fall into line like they did sometimes in the very early state of my career.
Another change we have seen — and really I think we will know in about a decade whether this was a phase we went through or if this is the future, and I am still sorting this out in my mind — [is that] during the last ten years we sent huge numbers, a significant percentage of the Foreign Service each year, to really dangerous posts where we had active wars going on. That has had an impact on the organization that I think we are all still thinking our way through. There are some raw feelings that I am hoping to work through in my next job so that we all come out of this not with a sense of the people who went over, served in those places and volunteered, and those who did not. [This is] because some officers told me that there is a bit of a division there, and we need to heal that. But we also got out of that an experience of being quite operational with an array of other U.S. government agencies. I think that can be one of the great strengths of the experience of so many Foreign Service Officers. This can working really hand in glove, for example, in Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. military, with AID, with the Department of Justice, and with other government agencies. I think that there is a real strength in our understanding what tools each of our agencies brings to the table, and really how effective they can be when we are all in an orchestra, we all know the score, and we are all playing from the same sheet of music. That has been a big change. A State Department Officer was not called upon to do that much interagency work earlier in my career and that is something that secretary Hillary Clinton crystallized in the QDDR [Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review] that she instituted, to reach beyond our traditional partners and work with other agencies.
I guess the final thing I would say is that who we interact with has changed. Earlier in my career, you could get a lot of your work done with government officials. And political officers — that is what I was — pretty much talked with government officials and we did not really give a lot of speeches or work with the media. We need to reach a much broader group than traditional government actors, and we need to have relationships throughout society. The public outreach is now much more a necessity and much more shared. A whole lot more of the State Department Officers are out there doing outreach. It is just required of everybody, because we know we need to have a much broader conversation than with just the traditional power elite.
The Politic: It seems like interagency cooperation and public outreach are going to be areas that continue to grow. How do you foresee U.S. diplomacy changing in the future — along those lines or in other ways?
That is such a great crystallization of what I am about to talk about. Both the interagency component and the public outreach have to grow, and we have to move beyond vestiges of thinking of State Department political and economic officers as primarily reporting officers. I believe it has increasingly become outdated. We are not observers who report. That is part of what we do, but a whole lot more of it is that we are part of the conversation. On the interagency front, I think that as the QDDR takes root and grows inside the State Department, there is an understanding that the State Department actually has an indispensable role, and you can think of it with a number of metaphors. One is the orchestra conductor. At a big post like London, you have got the military, the intelligence people, you have got all of the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] components — I think it is 41 agencies that are out there — and it is up to the State Department to say — to use the orchestra example — “Look, we have all talked. We agreed that what we are going to play is ‘Beethoven’s Fifth.’ Drums will come in here and clarinets are going to come in here.”
That really is our role, and the agencies look to us to play it. I really want, certainly in my next role, to highlight that in all levels of leadership training, that this is the State Department’s role, and that if we do not play it, the other agencies will say, “What song are we on now?” It is up to us to do that, especially in the embassy setting. We are not one of many agencies; we play a framing role and we have to provide the orchestra conductor if the whole thing is going to work together for maximum impact.
The Politic: You served as Deputy Senior Advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Coordinator for Iraq from 2006-2008, a period that includes the U.S. “surge.” Could you speak to this experience?
That is one of the things I think in the end I am most proud to have been a part — I got a Distinguished Honor Award for that. I was credited with having delivered the “civilian surge,” which was the largest deployment of civilians to a war zone, at least since the Vietnam War. I came in after the Golden Mosque bombing, when the violence reports were just going up, and up, and up. It was an absolutely heartbreaking period. I remember, Christmas of 2006, a correspondence leaked in which it became clear that many people who were serving in Al Anbar province had completely written it off as hopeless. It was a grim, dark time. We came back in then with a new strategy, the “New Way Forward,” which included a military surge and a significant civilian surge. It largely fell to me to shape what that civilian surge would be – how we would protect people out there, what mission we would give them, how we would train them (so that they would know what they were supposed to do in a highly complex environment), and I also had to figure out how to work out the metric which became the heart of the contract with our funders on Capitol Hill. Because there was not a lot of happiness with us after 20 billion dollars in civilian reconstruction money, and [because] we were where we were in 2006, there was not a whole lot of appetite to give us a whole lot of money to go in there and fix this. We got a whole lot, but it wasn’t 20 billion — it was more like two or three — but we were able to deploy about 600 civilians in the course of a year to Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and we sent them out with a clear mission statement. It was: “You will judge your success by the extent to which your provincial government is able to expand Iraq’s own resources — which were extensive — “to meet the needs of Iraqi people in your province.” So the challenge was not so much to go out and build a water plant or an air traffic control tower. The challenge was to get provincial governance up and running. There had not really been a tradition of provincial capitals and governments being spending units of the Iraqi government, so this was a lot of work, even just moving the money: setting up bank accounts, working out Robert’s Rules of Order in Arabic, engaging with the media.
We ended up with just one success story after another. The Provincial Reconstruction Team was able to work with provincial governments, from things like Excel spreadsheets to collect what everyone wanted to do for projects, to helping escort the transfer of cash out. The success stories ended in the same way, with the Provincial Reconstruction Team members sitting in the back row while the Iraqis conducted their own meeting. One province held a public ceremony with the media invited to actually hand out the various contracts. So it was transparent, it was accountable, and it was orderly. And you know what happened to the violence levels? They plummeted. And this is really kind of classic conflict theory. When you get a government up and running and people know what the new order will look like, a lot of people will come off the fence and sign up to be part of the new order: “I’d rather take the contract and build the soccer field than stay in the conflict.” When everything is unsettled, conflict often rages.
It was a really unbelievably rewarding experience to watch those provincial governments get up and running and to watch the violence fall. It was also rewarding to personally visit, and to be received by, Iraqis who were grateful, who said things like, “Welcome! You are a friend of Stephanie” — Stephanie was the PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] leader — “and any friend of Stephanie’s is a friend of mine. Stephanie helped us establish governance in our province, and now we are grateful.” That was one of the more positive things I have done in my life, watching the violence level fall. We had been spending 65 cents on the dollar to provide security on construction projects. That number just plummeted once we got this provincial process I described up and running. Pictures started to arrive on our computer screens. Instead of another Marine who had lost his life in Anbar — and these were just so painful to see — we started to get pictures of the soccer league that started to meet on Tuesday nights. It was safe to go out and be part of civic life again in Anbar. These pictures just started flying around, and it really was one of the most remarkable positive transformations that I have been part of. For someone who was never an advocate for going into Iraq, it was a tough decision for me to take that job, but things were going really badly. As Secretary Rice said at the time, “I think we can all agree that the situation is grave and deteriorating, and it is unacceptable to let it go on this way.” So it was a big risk to go into something like that…but then to have it be a positive experience of having governance established, violence fall, civic life return, and in many cases Iraqis grateful to us for the intervention at that level — it was really rewarding.
The Politic: It sounds like your experience in Iraq offers clear lessons on how to use resources during civilian reconstruction efforts.
There were [clear lessons]. One of the things that I think we should just focus on is that it is not the project, it is just governance. I did some of this work at a lower scale in El Salvador from 1990 to 1992, and that is very much the lesson I draw from El Salvador and from Iraq. I think the focus on governance, often at a local level — because that is where you can really see the cycle of democratic accountability take root, [in which] people will elect leaders, the leaders will then conduct the process in an orderly, transparent fashion, and they will then be rewarded by being reelected — it is palpable, and it works.
Often in the early reconstruction efforts we judged ourselves by things like how fast did we spend U.S. taxpayer money, often called the “burn rate.” So you get 20 billion dollars in reconstruction money and your metric is how quickly you are getting it dispersed. I am not a fan of that. I think that leads to a lot of taxpayer money being spent, sometimes on projects that are not really what the local population wanted. And they do not build effective governance, because we sort of did it for them, and in my experience they do not build anything remotely resembling gratitude. That is one of my core things; it should be about governance. You have got to find your local partners, and your first priority is to figure out how to build sustainable governance so that you can actually sit in the back row and they can run the process. Because, until we can be in the back row, we cannot even think about an exit strategy. And the longer we are running those processes for a country… I think our goal should always be to get them running the process as quickly as possible. I never think it is a good thing when we have to run it for another country. You know what it feels like? It feels like humiliation. That is not what we are aiming for.
The Politic: How did your work in Panama and in Iraq prepare you to handle your role in Northern Ireland, as well as the special relationship between the U.S. and the UK? Have you found that U.S. diplomats need different skill sets to be effective in different regions?
I will say part of the reason the special relationship is special is because we are such close partners with the British in Iraq, Afghanistan, and as it really evolved, in Northern Ireland. I am not a key player in Afghanistan, but in Iraq I worked really closely with a lot of British counterparts, and in Northern Ireland obviously as well, because Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. Coming back then, to London, I had a network already of professional relationships – people I knew and people who knew me and trusted me and kind of believed that I knew what I was doing and that if I said in a conversation that I would deliver, I would deliver. Just at that very granular level, the relationships that we develop doing these kinds of things was an important part of my work, and an important part of why I was comfortable to drop back into London. There was no lack of people with whom I had already walked a mile. It does take a lot of time to build the relationships, but the trust is already there from the beginning.
The Politic: Could you please tell me a little bit more about your experience in Northern Ireland?
That is one of the best jobs in the Foreign Service. It is a place where the ties of the United States are so close. So many people from Northern Ireland were important in the building of America. So we have just got family ties that are so close, and language. There is just a natural affinity there. The American Consulate General of Belfast — and this is so sacred and it really has to be nurtured with each rotation — has a special place as an honest broker. The person who occupies that job and lives in that wonderful house has convening authority. They have a deeply divided society where the idea of people on the other sides of the divide crossing over into territory and agreeing to meet with this group of people would be a really difficult thing to do — it probably would just not happen. But there was, by the time I got there, already an established convention that if you were invited to breakfast, lunch, or dinner at our Consul General’s residence, it was okay to come. You did not have to explain to people in your community why you were there; it was just accepted as a neutral space with an honest broker, and you could come together to solve problems. That was just so powerful.
In my time there, the Good Friday Agreement had already been in effect for about three years, but support for it was starting to fray, particularly in the Protestant Community, and it took us awhile to figure out what this was about. Part of it was that the Good Friday Agreement had let the paramilitary members of both the Catholic and Protestant sides, Loyalists and Republicans, the ones who were in prison – to essentially be released. This did not strike the Protestants — or “unionists” or “loyalists,” since those are all words that refer to the Protestant side of the equation here — as a good thing as people who believed in the rule of law, and also in many cases they felt preyed upon by the people who were released, and they were not happy with it. It took a lot to figure out what the issue was, why the agreement was losing support.
One challenge was to keep Protestant support strong, and the other really big challenge was to try to get the Catholic — or nationalist — community to fully sign on to the new policing order. There had been a police force there which was essential to the consulate. There was a very strong view on the Catholic or nationalist side of the community that the policing of the Royal Ulster Constabulary had been an imposition of the Crown Justice on an Irish-Catholic population and it was not their justice; it was imposed on them. So transforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary into a police service of Northern Ireland was part of the work that we were involved in while I was there.
Speaking of exchange programs, let me tell you a story about the power of targeted exchange programs. The first half of the new policing force — the new police service of Northern Ireland — was going to be overseen by a board of representatives of political parties across the spectrum. Everyone except the Republicans were on the board. And the basic expectation of everyone was that the board would splinter and shatter and fail over the challenge of making a new police badge, because symbols matter. What the consulate did is send members of the policing board to the United States to look at good examples of policing in places like New York and Boston. We sent them with a terrific facilitator from Mediation Northern Ireland. They formed such a strong, cohesive team with a sense of civic duty, and they tossed out the proposal for a badge and came up with one which actually has space for the heart and the shamrock and the crown. There was room for everything on that badge. It was a beautiful badge, and I still wear it. That policing board came back, delivered a badge, and everyone went, “Oh wow, that is great,” and there is room for everyone, which really is the answer in Northern Ireland.
It went then during a period of, really, a failure of the devolved government; the local parliament collapsed while I was there. It was so discouraging. What did continue to work was the policing board. Many people and the former policing board give the consulate huge credit for bringing them together and helping them become the cohesive body that it was to see Northern Ireland through the crucial challenge of those years.
The Politic: In 2009, Hillary Clinton said that the U.S. relationship with the UK “stands the test of time.” I am hoping that you can tell me about how America’ special relationship with England has evolved in recent years, and perhaps about the future of this relationship?
If you think about the special relationship, it has all sorts of pillars. When I talk about it, we put it in two big baskets: one would be security and one would be prosperity. On security, we are huge partners. When we think about it, the classic image that comes to mind is of the Americans and the British going together across that channel to storm the beaches of Normandy and liberate Europe. And certainly the military cooperation and the shared sacrifice of Iraq and Afghanistan, where for the most part it was a British officer serving as deputy to the American commander — so close, so tight. So that has been an important part of the relationship that is very visible and is what we think of when we think about security.
My own guess is over the next decade this aspect will slightly diminish in importance. The British military is scaled back due to budget constraints. We are also going through a period of scaling back. But there is extremely close cooperation in counterterrorism and intelligence, and in what I think — well, not just me but the Director of National Intelligence, [James] Clapper — is the cyber threat, and the UK is our closest partner in that arena as well. We are the world’s two biggest innovators, so as innovative societies and innovative economies, we have the most to lose from cyber attacks, which, in one version of them, just suck away our intellectual property. But because we are such innovative societies, we are also the most likely to be able to stay in front of this challenge, and — in a collaborative way — work to continue to confront the emerging and rising challenge of cyber threats. That is how I see the security side of it evolving, with more of an emphasis on counterterrorism, intelligence sharing, and coping with the emerging cyber threat I think is going to become increasingly important in the security side. And not that the military side will not remain important, but I think that the dimension of cyber threats is taking on additional importance.
On the prosperity side, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership has the potential to really consolidate a shared U.S. and UK vision of how we would like the global economy to work, that is, open and transparent, with high standards — free markets serving free people. And so I think if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is able to come to fruition we will see that shared U.S.-UK view in those things that I just talked about become rounded and anchored in an important agreement.
The other thing that I think is changing — and this is less the U.S.-UK relationship but it is going to have an impact – is our energy independence is just a big tectonic plate shift. We have, for my entire career, had this sort of strategic Achilles’ heel, and that has been dependence on foreign oil. We are less dependent everyday. We are looking to surpass Saudi Arabia as the largest producer of oil by, is it 2020? This is going to change things geostrategically, and we have not completely worked our way through what that looks like in the U.S.-UK relationship. I think it tells you that America’s best days are still ahead. I believe that America’s increasing energy independence gives us latitude and a very bright economic future. I think it makes us a very good partner for the UK because I think we are still the partner you would want to count on, and I also think this situation is going to have geostrategic implications that we are all going to be wrestling with over the next two to three years.
The Politic: Could you tell me about your experience while you were stationed in the UK?
I was the senior career person in charge of the largest U.S. embassy in Europe, with 41 agencies represented, so I spent an awful lot of my time in that orchestra conductor role that I talked to you about earlier, having endless conversations with some of the finest agency heads that represent America anywhere in the world, and I just pay tribute to them. What a privilege to work with people of that quality — bringing them together to solve problems, figuring out how we address the deficit of trust in our judicial system, and working together on the Olympics (because I was there for the London 2012 Olympics, which was the largest peacetime security mobilization in British history). And after being the closest partner on counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation we had to do a huge job of work to be sure that cooperation and those systems would be robust and resilient and fluid enough to handle whatever uptick of volume that you could expect from a major sporting event like the London Olympics.
So, my major work for the first couple years was bringing that team together, creating a strong sense of collaboration — that is what they say to me they most valued me for, that it was the finest interagency experience that they had. And then the big challenge we faced that tested us on that was the London 2012 Olympics, and our team just did beautifully. They were able to think, “If I try to do this, it is going to have this impact on your agency, so I am going to go back to my headquarters and explain why we really should not do that.” That kind of thing about thinking about the whole effort rather than just my agency priorities — we saw a lot of that, having a larger mission in mind. And we ended up with a very, very grateful set of partners in the UK. On the way out the police chief wrote me a lovely letter thanking me for all of the collaboration and saying that it really reached a high point during the London Olympics. So that was a high point of what I did during the first two and a half years.
The final six months when I was Charge d’Affaires someone else moved into that number two slot, and I became the public face of the embassy. So that got to be a lot more [of] going to Buckingham Palace and getting to see the two Americans who were chosen for the first ever Queen’s Prize for Engineering — to be awarded by the Queen — doing the BBC interview on why Americans were so excited about the royal baby being born, doing interviews after the Boston Marathon bombings to talk about how grateful Americans were [for] the support from London (the London Marathon was a week later). So I became much more of a public face in my home stretch there because I was Charge d’Affaires.
The Politic: I would like to ask another question about Britain: Polls show that the United States is less popular with British citizens than Britain is with U.S. citizens. Could you provide some insight into why that is the case?
That is such an interesting way to put that question. There is a movie — I think it is not quite capturing the zeitgeist the way it did a couple years ago — that everybody always makes sure that you have seen if you are serving in a position like I was in London. It is called “Love Actually,” and it has got Hugh Grant as the British Prime Minister. And you reach this moment there where Hugh Grant just says, “No Mr. President, I am not going to do that, it is not in Britain’s interest. I have to stand up for Britain,” and the whole place breaks out into applause. I think part of this comes from us being a very large country, and we are in no way threatened by Britain, and in no way does anybody in America think the British tell us what to do. That is not completely true when you are in Britain.
This is a close partnership, but we are a much larger country. Our military is ten times bigger than that of Britain, and it is often the case that ten to one is the ratio on the size of the partner organizations — not the diplomats, because our diplomatic core is so small — but for military or for intelligence organizations, we are a lot bigger. You are there with a much larger partner. That chafes a bit. And that is what I think it really comes down to. It just has to do with being close partners with a country that is really big. And there is a sour taste in Britain in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Many British do not think that this was a good thing for their country to have done. It will take awhile for the sense that they were brought into a war that they should not have been brought into to dissipate.
The Politic: Earlier you mentioned that one of the challenges for the United States and Britain in the years to come is cyber security. Could you speak to the WikiLeaks cable that caused some controversy in Panama in 2010?
There was a very negative side of WikiLeaks, and the very negative side is that the people who trust us to be honest brokers, and to insist on good governance, and respect for human rights — those people are more reluctant, I think, to come to us and talk to us, and frankly, even our government counterparts from foreign governments [are] too, when they do not have the assurance that this conversation will be kept confidential. So I think that the conduct of diplomacy has been made more difficult because the private space of trust has been compromised. And as I said to some of the journalists and editors during the time of WikiLeaks, “You know, you would really, really hate to see your reporter’s notebook published, because if [it] were, you could not do your job and be able to put those interviews and stories together. You could not point out government corruption or break the Walter Reed story like The Washington Post did without that private space of trust where people could come to you without fear of reprisal for having talked to you.” So I think this is an unfortunate thing, but it probably has affected the way that American diplomats report back to Washington. We still get the job done, but I think there might be less texture and specificity than there was before because of the fear that it might get leaked again. So I think we have lost something because of WikiLeaks.
But what we gained from WikiLeaks, and I think the cable you referred to that leaked on Christmas Eve of 2010 shows this, is that American diplomats were behind closed doors, by and large, standing up for the same principles that we espouse in public. We were walking the walk, not just talking the talk. I think it showed us to be principled and to be advocates of good governance, delivering for citizens, and for following the rule of law, and I think that in many ways the American Foreign Service ended up looking awfully good at what we do as a result of WikiLeaks.
The Politic: I admire your position both now and in 2010. In a crisis situation, how much of your decision making is driven by the policies that are already set, and how much independence do you have in decision-making?
You have a lot. You got some really important guidelines and structures, and I think particularly in an embassy with a country team they work very well. The Emergency Action Committee, the EAC, is a subset of the country team that convenes whenever there is a crisis. People know their roles and their responsibilities, and the consular team always reminds us of the no double standard — if we are taking precautions because of threat information we have, we have to share that with the broader American community. The intelligence people will help us to understand how to read this threat. The diplomatic security people at the State Department will walk us through the practical countermeasures we can take. The public affairs team will talk about how the impact of this is going to be seen and how we might message it. The roles and responsibilities are clearly defined, and the team comes together cohesively. The Deputy Chief of Mission, DCM, which is the role I had in London for the first two and a half years, is the chair of that committee. How you really respond to that set of facts that are out there… you have a fair bit of room to be able to make a recommendation to Washington to do X and not Y.
The Politic: What are some of the challenges of working in the Foreign Service?
Personally, some of the challenges are that we are just in the middle of a move, and your children end up going to half a dozen schools — well maybe not quite that bad, but it sure feels like it — before they go off to college. So you move the kids around a lot, and you hope that they are stronger as a result of it, but sometimes they look just awfully lonely and battered as you have just picked up all of their roots. These moves are hard, and they take a toll on them.
There has been a really interesting op-ed that has created, I think, a bit of a buzz, that my old boss Tom Pickering wrote jointly with Susan Johnson, the head of AFSA [American Foreign Service Association], and Ronald Neumann, a distinguished Former Ambassador of ours. It talks about the shrinking space for career diplomats, essentially, that the Foreign Service Act and previous legislation was about being sure that our Foreign Service had space for leaders who were long-term, nonpartisan, not personality driven, and really were there to contribute to the vitality of the institution. And they get figures that say if you take a certain group of leadership positions, something like 25 percent of those positions were political appointments in 1975, and now 61 percent are today, so there is shrinking space for career Foreign Service leaders, and the op-ed argues that we are being relegated to staff positions. That is a downside.
I am now becoming very senior in my organization, and I feel that. I think that is one of the challenges. As one of my dear British colleagues said to me, “I know it is great representing America, such a powerful country, as an American diplomat. But you know what? I can rise to the top of my profession. I can hope to be Ambassador in Washington. You could never hope to be Ambassador in London.” And I think that is one of the downsides of it, the way that we, unlike almost all other Western industrialized countries, have a lot less space for the career diplomats. So that is one of the negatives you start to feel when you are as senior as I am; there are few tracks left open.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in your career that has shaped implementation of a policy for which you are responsible, or that made an impact on the way that you do your work?
I think it would be Tom Pickering. I was his Special Assistant for Europe, in probably 1997 to 1998, and he is one of the great giants of American diplomacy. It was a small team of five, and Europe takes up a huge part of what that office does. He had some things he would say. He would watch us doing something, knowing it wasn’t going to make much of a difference, and he would call that “Nordic track diplomacy” — you would kind of huff and puff and make your point, but you were not really shaping the world in the direction you were trying to go. I use that a lot when I am talking to my teams over the year. Maybe we should do a little less Nordic track diplomacy and think, “What might we do that would not just check the box and would actually take us closer to the outcome we decided was in America’s best interests.” Just that way of doing work is one of the main ones.
The Politic: You mentioned earlier your “next job.” Could you tell me about the next step for you in your career?
Yes, I am going to go do my institution-building tour. I am very excited about this. I became a Senior Foreign Service Officer under Colin Powell’s leadership. And Colin Powell, of course, was a person who spent a lot of his time thinking about of the strength of the institution. He founded Leadership and Management School at the Foreign Service Institute, and I was one of the first classes to come through. He gave us a chat as we became Senior Foreign Service Officers, and a handful of us sat at a table there with him, and he said, “It is a characteristic of successful institutions that their best leaders devote at least one of their tours to strengthening the institution.”
So I have always held that promise that that was something I was going to do. And lo and behold I have been chosen as Dean of the Leadership and Management School that Colin Powell founded. It is a terrific perch for me to try to have a crystallized conversation with all levels of the Foreign Service coming through. We were talking about the leadership challenges, that we need to be the orchestra conductor — we really need to fill that role and bring together the entire inter-agency team in one unified effort.
This is a wonderful perch to talk about, “How do you make that real?” The Leadership and Management School has a range of training courses. Not just for ambassadors going out, career or non-career, but also for deputy chiefs of mission going out, and for each level as you become a Senior Foreign Service Officer, and down below that we are ranked for FS one, two, and three. As you get promoted through those you come through the Leadership and Management School for a few weeks to think about, “What does it mean to be an effective leader and manager at this next stage in my career?” So I have a real opportunity to leave a lasting imprint on this institution. It is a perfect perch, and I am actually just delighted.
The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?
I would like to see us be as effective as possible for the challenges that are coming down the pipe. I think that we essentially have to up our game. I believe that the challenges American diplomats are going to face in the decade ahead are going to require us to be very good at being diplomats. It is not going to be enough to say, “We talked about this in Washington, here is the answer.” We are going to have to do an awful lot of relationship-building, listening, and understanding where other people are coming from. It is a lot of this partnership that we have seen be such a theme under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The stump speech I used to give in London was called “from superpower to super partner.” It was a great way to capture this, that it is the core work of diplomacy to form these partnerships and these relationships and also to keep the very broad interagency presence we have at some of our large embassies overseas functioning coherently: the agencies working off the same sheet of music, all knowing what our mission is and how we will know we have achieved it, understanding what part they have to play in order to make the whole thing a success. That is the challenge that I am going to try to tackle over the next couple of years as Dean of the Leadership and Management School, to up our game and make us better at that across the ranks.
Embassy of the United States to the United Kingdom: http://london.usembassy.gov/