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Ambassador Series

An Interview with Francis J. Ricciardone, Jr., U.S. Ambassador to Turkey

turkey - ambassadorFrancis J. Ricciardone, Jr. was appointed by President Obama to be the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey on January 1, 2011.  He has previously served as Deputy U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, Ambassador to Egypt from 2005 to 2008, and Ambassador to the Philippines and Palau from 2002 to 2005.  Ricciardone has also served as Director of the State Department’s Task Force on the Coalition Against Terrorism and as a Senior Advisor to the Director General of the Foreign Service.  From March 1999 until early 2001, he served as the Secretary of State’s Special Coordinator for the Transition of Iraq.  Ricciardone entered the Foreign Service in 1978 and has won high awards for policy and program management and for political reporting.  A Boston native and summa cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College, he also speaks Italian, Turkish, Arabic, and French.

The Politic: What motivated you to join the Foreign Service?

Why did I want to join the Foreign Service? Because I had a huge curiosity about the world and foreign affairs ever since I was a little kid. I was the grandson of immigrants and I was really fascinated, first as a little kid, at my grandparents’ ability to speak a foreign language with each other and with my parents that I didn’t really understand. I picked up a lot of words of Italian on one side and a little bit of Flemish on my mother’s side and I was just fascinated by it. So, even as a kid I started collecting foreign coins and foreign stamps. It might be hard for you to even imagine what it was like in the days before — you know, the 707 was in my lifetime; I was a little kid when the first commercial jet transport really shrunk the world and I remember my grandparents going off to the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1958.

So all around the world was shrinking. World War II had happened, television was coming up, and there was global coverage… so I was interested in that world. Sputnik happened and world affairs really kind of intruded on our lives. Then I went to Dartmouth College. I’d never heard of the Foreign Service before that, but I happened to have some professors who had been Foreign Service officers and they told me about this career opportunity. These were the Vietnam protest years — I was a Vietnam War protestor, long hair, the beard, the whole deal. The whole deal. And I thought, “Me? In the U.S. government? War-mongering U.S. government? Really? Would I ever want to do such a thing?”

These professors I had — they’ve both passed on — said, “Well you know you have two choices if you care about the world. One is to stay outside and protest and complain. The other is to be inside and try to influence things from the inside.” And so I thought, “Well, I’ll give it a shot.”

So, I took the Foreign Service officer exam and didn’t pass it the first time — I passed the written, but I was still at Dartmouth; I was a senior, I was twenty. They said, “Son, you did well, but get some experience and come back and see us in a few years.” So, that’s what I did. I went out and got some experience as a teacher in international schools. First in Italy — I got a Fulbright scholarship and stayed on — I taught in an international school for a few years. I taught in another international school in Iran for a couple years, kept taking the exam, kept passing the written, and finally I passed the oral exam after taking it a few times. I passed it after having been out a few years and I just did better.

I had to wait a few years on the waiting list and I finally came in like six years after taking the exam for the first time. Meanwhile, I was an international schoolteacher and indulged my interested in world travel from a couple years in Italy and then a couple years in Iran. It was very low salary, hardly any money, but I backpacked and travelled. I went all over the world by bus and hitchhiking with my backpack. It was fun.

The Politic: That sounds like a great perspective on the world and a really interesting introduction to your career. What would you say your job today consists of day to day?

The single word, really, is communications. It’s public communications with a host foreign country. Their government, their people, their business sector, their academia, certainly their media. It’s all about communications within a mission and within an embassy. Here, we’re one of our larger oversees embassies. We’re about 300 Americans or so and about 500 Turks, so internal management and leadership and communications is also part of the job, depending on what position one occupies in an embassy.

I’m in a leadership position, of course. The deputy chief of mission, by the way is a Yalie. He’s a great guy; his name is Jess Baily. So if I’m Dartmouth ’73, I’m guessing he was maybe ten years behind me at Yale, and his son goes to Yale. There are a lot of Yale folks in the Foreign Service, and you must have some professors. In fact, my good friend Marc Grossman teaches up there every Monday. They’ve got a new school there that does foreign affairs enrichment —

The Politic: Yeah, the Jackson Institute.

Yeah! Jackson Institute. And then you’ve got some military people I’ve worked with before. Yale is doing great things for preparing people to become Foreign Affairs professionals, whether to be in the Foreign Service or the Department of State or other U.S. government agencies.

For me, it was very much family, and then my educational process that brought me into it. In my job, as I mentioned, diplomacy is all about communications for the purpose of persuasion. We are here to try to persuade foreign governments, foreign publics of the wisdom of cooperating with the United States of America. That can be in foreign affairs issues — let’s say votes at the United Nations — or joining with us in some collaborative effort to deal with a world problem, like Syria — bringing coalitions of governments together to help end the Syrian civil war and to mitigate the suffering of those poor people — or in commercial matters.

It’s a very, very competitive world out there for United States businesses, and we like to make sure that there’s a level playing field and that foreign countries consider American foreign goods and services. We’re very often out there advocating that say, Turkish Airlines, or another Turkish airline company, buys Boeings, in competition with Airbus. That’s good for America; it means American jobs. Again, it’s communicating for the purpose of persuasion. That’s sort of the name of our game.

The Politic: Interesting.

It is interesting! It’s fun and challenging; it takes real skill and energy and creativity and persistence. So it’s all things that I’ve just loved doing. I’ve been at this now for thirty-odd years, and there’s just nothing that I’d rather have done. I really encourage people at Yale to consider a career here. If you’ve got curiosity and energy, and just want to continually learn.

The Politic: What are some of the challenges that an ambassador’s job poses?

Well, it depends on where one serves. I’ve served in some of the harder places in the world and I still loved my job, whether in Afghanistan or Iraq, or in places like the Philippines, or places where there’s active conflict and even combat. I’ve liked being in the thick of the action. Turkey is a stable country. It’s a prosperous country now; it moved into the G20 since I served here in the 1990s.

What are the challenges? Well, anywhere I serve, there’s the challenge of cross-cultural communications. In many countries of the world, of course, English is not the native language, so the first challenge a Foreign Service officer would face is he or she will probably have to master a foreign language. And even where they do speak English, whether as a native language or a second language, certainly a foreign culture is a challenge. There are different ways of looking at the world, different ways of coming to conclusions, making decisions, deciding whether they want to cooperate with us, different religions, different forces of history and geography that shape people’s thinking. These all provide the context and the media in which we communicate. The number one challenge wherever we are is cross-cultural communications. I think your question, though, is more about specific challenges dealing with here in Turkey.

The Politic: Yes, how does this play out in Turkey?

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, center, walks with Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., then deputy U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, left, in Kabul (Dec. 8, 2009)

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, center, walks with Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., then deputy U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, left, in Kabul (Dec. 8, 2009)

Well, Turkey is a very different country from the United States; it has a very different historical formation, very strategic geography. It’s surrounded by failed states, weak states, states in conflict — look at Syria; it’s hard to call that a state at all anymore. It’s a state at war with itself, a civil war. There’s Iraq, which is struggling to recover from a series of wars and dictatorships. There’s Iran, which has been in a kind of self-isolation for over thirty years, since its revolution. There are the states that have newly emerged from outside and underneath the Soviet Union, to the North of us, in the Caucuses. There is Cyprus, which still has Turkish forces occupying the Northern part of the island and is struggling to reunify.

In all those areas there are challenges that Turkey faces. Because Turkey is a NATO ally of the United States, we are working with Turkey to try to help resolve any of those very important security challenges that Turkey, as a member of NATO, faces. Whether it’s the Arab-Israeli conflict, which interests many Turks and impacts them and the whole stability of the Eastern Mediterranean or Cyprus, or Syria, or Iraq. Turkey is a pivotal country in all those conflicts and opportunities. Opportunities like bringing to market the gas that is offshore underneath the Eastern Mediterranean. If we can stabilize the area, Turkey stands to benefit.

One of the issues I was been dealing with just over the Thanksgiving [2013] weekend is to try help the Iraqis and the Turks come to terms on a pipeline that will come out of Iraq — through Northern Iraq — through the Kurdish area and into Turkey, so Turks can benefit from the oil and then ship that oil onward potentially to Western markets.

The Politic: In what ways does that threaten the stability of the Iraqi government and U.S. interests in Iraq?

A lot of the oil that is now available and coming online would come into Turkey through a new pipeline, a separate pipeline from Northern Iraq, which is the area now called the Kurdish Regional Government, KRG, or Iraqi Kurdish Region, IKR (both acronyms are used). If the Kurds make an independent deal with the government of Turkey that Baghdad does not approve, this will greatly upset the nationalist sentiments of many Iraqis. And it could lead to a weakening of Iraqi national coherence and integrity.

We don’t want to see Iraq fall apart. Turkey doesn’t want to see Iraq fall apart. Yet the central government of Iraq and the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq have been unable to come to terms so far regarding the export of oil from Northern Iraq. So it is a very sensitive issue for them. We’ve been urging the Turks to work with both Baghdad and Erbil, the center of the regional government of the Kurds, to get a deal where everybody wins, rather than a deal where Kurdish oil gets out, but it leads to a greater separation between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq.

The Politic: How do you think this conflict, or question, might be impacting relations between Turks and the Kurdish minority within Turkey?

That’s a very perceptive question. In fact, there are feelings of affinity — shared ethnicity, shared language, shared historical experience — among the Kurds in Iraq, in the modern states of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. There are even a few that are up there in the Caucuses. They feel like they are a people with a shared historical experience to a certain extent — going back to Ottoman Empire times and even the Iranian Empire. And yet, they have not had a modern state of their own, and this has led to insurrections and even terrorist movements that are not yet resolved in the case of Turkey. The Kurdish movement has actually used terrorist violence, known as the PKK.

Now, improving relations between Ankara, Turkey and the Kurds of Iraq has helped give hope to Turkish Kurds that they too can have recognition within Turkey as Kurds. The ability to speak their language, to listen to music in their own language, even to broadcast in their own language are all newly recognized rights by the central government of Turkey, which used to deny those rights. Masoud Barzani, who used to be the leader of the Iraqi Kurds, has helped win those rights for Turkish Kurds. Indeed, he was just here, ten days ago, in Turkey, in Diyarbakır, for the first ever big public meeting with the Prime Minister of Turkey. At the meeting, the Prime Minister of Turkey and Masoud Barzani of Iraq officiated at the weddings of 300 Kurdish couples. It was an amazing, historical event for Kurds around the world. They know that this happened and are deeply moved by it. A lot of Turks are moved, and other Turks are upset by it, because some Turks worry that it might lead to a weakening of Kurdish feelings of belonging to the Republic of Turkey.

It is a historic, political event that is working itself out within Turkish democracy, and within Iraqi democracy. And the United States’ role is to stand back and encourage both central governments to respect the human rights of all their citizens, including their cultural rights to speak their languages, decide about their education, be peaceful, law-abiding, first-class citizens of their respective countries. It’s really interesting to be serving as an American Foreign Service officer in Turkey today.

The Politic: I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you about something that brought a lot of attention to Turkey over the summer, which was the Gezi Park protests, and the various protests in other cities — Ankara, Izmir — that began after these initial protests. Can you tell me a little bit about how you navigated your role as Ambassador during this somewhat tumultuous time?

Ambassadors must communicate — not just ambassadors, but embassies, as we have officers of different ranks and with different specialties. We communicate publicly and we communicate in confidence with host governments. And our communications, as I mentioned, are usually to persuade of the wisdom of working with us or of our point of view.

In the case of Turkey, a NATO ally and a modern democracy that is struggling like all democracies, it was tricky. This is because the Gezi Park protest exposed fissures in Turkish society and the polarization in Turkish society. Very strong feelings came to the fore and were displayed in public. Sadly, there were some violent manifestations in the park and what we believe — what many Turks believe, and what the government of Turkey has said — was excessive police violence. So, in trying to navigate that, we know the Turkish security forces and police.

Indeed, I was officiating at a joint training event late in May when some of these events started breaking out. We rely on the Turkish police to protect us here in the embassy. We had a suicide bombing in our embassy on February 1, and we relied on rapid police response to that, police protection every day. We share a lot of law enforcement collaboration with the Turks, in Turkey and in third countries, to go after international terrorists, so we’re more than sympathetic.

We actually cooperate with Turkish police, on the one hand. On the other hand, when they’re using excessive force that violates Turkish law and international law, the challenge for us is how to persuade them not to do that. The main source of persuasion has to come from within Turkey: the Turkish people themselves and Turkish lawmakers. Indeed, Turkish leaders — as the crisis went on — called for greater police restraint. President [Abdullah] Gül, for example, deputy Prime Minister [Bülent] Arınç, and finally Prime Minister [Tayyip] Erdoğan himself, realized that the police violence had to be dialed back because it was leading to an ever-worsening spiral of violence and counter-violence.

Our role as a friend to Turkey, the Turkish people and the Turkish government was to encourage calm, patience and restraint, while upholding the citizens’ right to peaceful, non-violent freedom of expression. And that’s what we did. I did it in public statements and I did it in our confidential engagements with Turkish officials.

The Politic: What is the aftermath of those protests looking like? Do you think that the protests undermined the people’s faith in the government to act peacefully and democratically?

Well, you know, it depends who you speak with in Turkey, but I guess for the most authoritative reaction and description of what had happened and what it meant, I would refer you to the statements of President Gül, himself. For example, look at his speech to the parliament in October, and then at other Turkish leaders. The Turkish foreign minister was in Washington about two or three weeks ago — I was there — to speak at a think-tank. Some of these Turkish leaders have referred to the Gezi Park Protests and the lessons learned from them as reflecting a maturation of Turkish democracy, where the states and the people learn from such events how to improve the protection of rights of expression. They learn from mistakes, they acknowledge mistakes, and learn from them.

That’s on the government’s side. On the part of the people, you’ll find many who believe that this marked a new level of engagement by middle-class people and a younger generation who had presumed themselves to be disaffected, apathetic, and not engaged. Many people who had not been activists found that they have a new desire to be engaged in public debate and public policy. You know, someone said that optimist is to a diplomat what courage is to a soldier. And I believe that. I am optimistic about Turkey. I believe the Gezi Park incident has led to a lot of soul-searching across the Turkish public and the Turkish government as to what is the right way to protect individual freedoms and public freedom of expression.

There seems to be a broad recognition that there were mistakes. I don’t know anybody — even among the opposition to the government — who thinks that setting automobiles on fire and smashing windows and smashing tiles and smashing buses was a good thing. I don’t know any opposition people who support that. There must be some on the fringes, but the mainstream opposition does not support that kind of thing. I don’t know anybody in the government who thinks that the excessive use of pepper spray and water cannons and police beating unarmed young people — mostly young people and middle class people, who were not, themselves, throwing Molotov cocktails or breaking things — is an experience they want to repeat. Bottom line, I think Turkish democracy matured over this past year. And people still debating what it means is also a good thing.

The Politic: The protests were also discussed in terms of Turkey’s possible joining the EU. I understand that talks between Turkey and the EU recently resumed after a three-year hiatus, but issues such as Prime Minister Erdoğan’s response to the Gezi Park Protests, Kurdish-Turkish relations, and Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus have often been cited as reasons for Turkey not being allowed to join. Given the U.S.’s close partnership with both the EU and Turkey, what sort of challenges does this situation pose to your office?

Well, the United State for years and years and years has supported the goal of bringing Turkey into the European Union as a full member. We believe it is good for our European Union partners and it’s also good for Turkey. Turkey is a major economy; it’s now the seventeenth largest economy in the world, having just tied or beaten out Italy. It’s a market of some 76 million increasingly prosperous people, so it’s a great producer, and therefore there’s a natural economic affinity with European Union.

We believe there’s a cultural contrast, but by and large, the Turkish government has stated that Turkey shares fundamental values with the EU. They have formally signed on to the Maastricht Principles, which are the core of European Union membership. Those are high values of human rights and democracy that the United States largely shares, too. So, we continue to support that.

Now, all that said, joining the European Union is a huge and complicated step for any country — notice that the United States has not joined the European Union. It means the submersion of one’s national sovereignty to a certain important extent to the collective sovereignty of an international body. I don’t know too many Americans who would favor the United States submerging our national decision-making authority on economic affairs, political affairs, monetary affairs, and so much else to some giant international organization.

Look at the discussions in our country about joining NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement. Just to get a free trade agreement is a hugely controversial thing in our country — whether it’s with our North American neighbors, Mexico and Canada, or looking at a Pacific free-trade region or a European free-trade region. Think how complicated and controversial that is in our country and then imagine how much more than just a free trade agreement the European Union is. When it comes down to it, it will be a very difficult thing for Turkey to accept, and for the Europeans to accept.

It’s going to take many negotiations of all these different issues — to meld their legal systems and economic systems — across the board. We wish both sides success, but nobody should imagine that this is a simple or easy thing, like just admitting them to a club. It is much more than that. It is a fundamental restructuring of a country’s sovereignty when a country agrees to joint the European Union. It is more complicated than being a member of NATO, which is only a national security alliance.

Embassy of the United States to Turkey: http://turkey.usembassy.gov/index.html

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