An Interview with Jay N. Anania, U.S. Ambassador to Suriname
Jay N. Anania is a Senior Foreign Service Officer who joined the State Department in 1984. He has been the U.S. Ambassador to Suriname since October 2012, and his previous positions include Management Counselor at Embassy Baghdad, Executive Director for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Bureau of South of Central Asian Affairs, and the State Department’s Acting Chief Information Management Officer. At the Bureaus he was responsible for supporting and directing more than 30 diplomatic posts from Morocco to Bangladesh, and, while at the State Department, he directed the “rightsize” initiative to improve support and protect staff by transferring the work done in overseas posts to regional and domestic locations. Anania has also served in Germany, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico.
The Politic: Why did you choose to join the Foreign Service?
My interest in the Foreign Service really comes from my mother — she was in the Foreign Service herself in the 1950s and had one overseas assignment. She was always interested in the Foreign Service and mentioned it to me as a possibility. Then, in the 1980s, when I was at Kenyon College, the Foreign Service exam was something you had to sign up for and go and take. I did that and managed to pass it. I had to go down to Columbus, Ohio, to the state university for it. So that was the genesis of me joining the Foreign Service. My parents both worked for the federal government, so I came from that background. My father had an overseas tour in Japan. I got to visit him a couple of times, and I liked the idea of representing the U.S. overseas.
The Politic: Did your academic interests in college align with your desire to join the Foreign Service and your travel interests?
I was a liberal arts major, and I was not particularly focused on a particular career objective at that point. I was a history major, and I took political science classes, philosophy, economics — a good liberal arts education that prepared me for many possible things. It did take a while to get into the Foreign Service. In the meantime, I went to North Carolina to complete a master’s degree in business administration, which has certainly come in handy. Both of my degrees are very relevant to what I am doing today.
The Politic: What is the most interesting place that you have served in during your almost 30-year career?
I have had a lot of interesting experiences, but I guess my last role qualifies as an answer to your question: Iraq. I was in Iraq for a year. I was the Management Counselor for Mission Iraq. It was a very important time with the U.S. military’s continued presence in doubt, and ultimately the U.S. military did pull out entirely from Iraq other than those who stayed behind to do training missions there. That was a giant transition, with the State Department taking over responsibility for a number of locations, which had formerly been military bases, and also building our own diplomatic compounds. There was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen in Iraq — there was a lot of uncertainty about what our role would be, and, of course, ongoing security concerns. That was quite an experience. I can say that that is a reflection of the enormous changes that have taken place in the Foreign Service since I joined in 1984. I don’t think that it’s very well understood in the US that the Foreign Service, and in fact other governments’ foreign services as well, is a radically different form of service compared to when I joined. It is a lot riskier; we operate in a lot of places where, traditionally, we frankly would have shut down and gone home long ago. That was quite a change over the course of my career.
The Politic: Related to what you were discussing about how the Foreign Service has changed and your various roles: I read that you came back to Washington and served in a number of positions from around 2002 to 2006. Could you describe briefly what you were doing, and how it differed from your work abroad? Would you ever consider going back?
I served in Washington for two periods in my career. This is another thing that people do not necessarily consider when they think about the Foreign Service. Most people probably are thinking of what we would call “political officers,” who might be out negotiating treaties, or perhaps economic officers, but in fact we have a variety of what we call “cones” [the careers paths in the Foreign Service]. My work has been in what is primarily known as the management area, managing large organizations as I have gone along. So, as a management counselor, which is a position I have held at several embassies, I am basically in charge of making sure that the embassy runs correctly: real estate, cars, the houses, the financial management, HR, computer systems, all those things.
When I was back in Washington, I was, again, working on the management side of things. In 2002 I came back and was working for the person who was the most senior management official at the State Department. He was Grant Green, the Under Secretary of State for Management, and he was very close to Secretary Powell at the time. That was a very good period for the Department and its management because Secretary Powell had a very clear vision of the sorts of things he wanted to do, and he really empowered the people on the management side of the house to make progress on a lot of different issues. I was the head of what was called the “Office of Management Policy” at the time — basically working with the other bureaus in the State Department and the overseas posts to implement Secretary Powell’s vision. As he wrapped up his time, there was a bit of a transition at the State Department going into the second administration of then-President Bush. I became the acting Chief Information Officer for the State Department for about eight or nine months. Then we were working on our global IT systems, and, in particular, putting in place mobile communications, which we had not had before. We issued Blackberries and put in place mechanisms to allow diplomats to access our global systems from home and other places.
The Politic: Did the management side of things change at all under Secretary Condoleezza Rice?
I would say there was a general continuity. She came up with and espoused the concept of “expeditionary diplomacy,” so that would have been the biggest difference. That came along at the end of her time as Secretary of State. It basically has continued and set the tone for a lot of things that are still going on with the State Department and overseas embassies deployed in nontraditional areas, and areas that historically are dangerous enough that they would have prompted us to close.
The Politic: In general, today, how would you say America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy or State Department policy in general that you would like to see changed?
Well, again, if you are talking to even well-informed people in the United States, they may not realize just how broadly the U.S. is represented abroad. At a typical overseas embassy, and in a larger embassy in particular, you find branches of a large number — sometimes even dozens — of U.S. government agencies. That was certainly the case in Iraq, but it was also the case in Germany when I was there, because almost any agency of the U.S. government now has some form of international engagement or international program. The role of the State Department is very much one of coordination. The role of ambassador is very much one of coordination, but we have no control over the line of money for these various organizations. It is a challenge to coordinate what US agencies are doing and promote coherent policies in the countries we serve in. It is probably the most important role the ambassador plays, behind, obviously, engaging with the senior leadership of foreign countries.
The Politic: Let’s turn now to the country you are now serving in: Suriname. What misperceptions do you think that the average citizen of Suriname has towards America, and what do Americans need to know about this country that probably not a lot of us know?
Actually, I will start off with the misperceptions on the U.S. side. If you talk about the average American, I think they would, first of all, not even know there was a country called Suriname. If they had heard of it, they probably would think that it is in Africa, not in South America. In fact, it is interesting that several people I have met here have business cards that say: “Suriname, South America.” They even have a little map on their business cards, so when they are dealing with international people they can establish that right off the bat. But this is a very unusual country in many ways. It is the smallest country in South America. It is also the only country in South America that speaks Dutch as the official language, although English is also very commonly spoken here. And the history of the country is quite interesting. One fun fact is that the English and Dutch exchanged Suriname for New York, way back when. That is something that tends to get people’s attention in the U.S.
I think the average Surinamer is better-informed about the U.S. than vice-versa, because people here are regularly watching American television. People with more money here tend to have DirectTV Latin American feed, which features a lot of U.S. stations. The local television stations here routinely broadcast U.S. programs — unfortunately, most are pirated programs. This is something we work on. The internet penetration is increasing as well. So, generally speaking, people here are much more informed about the U.S. than the reverse.
However, there certainly are misconceptions, and part of our job as the embassy is to have a robust public diplomacy program where we have outreach to various sectors of Surinamese society, including schools to try to help explain the U.S. and our policies. Of course, in South America, we have both strong and strained relationships with various countries, and there are a lot of discussions on what the role of the U.S. should be and what it has been historically. But, by and large, we enjoy a very good and positive relationship with the people here. This is not a place that has historically had conflicts with the U.S., and we certainly benefit from that. In fact, the most important industrial company in Suriname, in its modern history, has been Alcoa, the aluminum company in America. Their subsidiary here is called Suralco, and for many, many years it was the source of the best jobs and created by far the greatest amount of export earnings for the country. There is a legacy of those who have worked at Alcoa, been trained, and then gone on to work in other fields. So that is another positive thing in the relationship.
The Politic: So going along the lines of this positive relationship — I have read that members of the US armed forces have come to Suriname and provided training for the Surinamese military. Could you describe the program and some positive changes it is driving towards?
We have a multi-faceted relationship with the Surinamese armed forces. First of all, we have a very successful program, which is with the South Dakota National Guard. It was really invigorated by my predecessor, Ambassador John Nay. The National Guards of the U.S. have what are called State Partnership Programs, and several state National Guards have relationships with foreign countries — the one between South Dakota and Suriname is particularly notable and strong. It basically gives the Guard in South Dakota the ability to improve their own skills and their own knowledge about the world by travelling around the world overseas and, in this case, interacting with the Surinamese military. And it gives the military of Suriname an ability to interact with U.S. armed forces, who of course are representing the world’s foremost superpower.
We have had a number of cooperative exchanges that have taken place. Some of the Surinamese defense forces have travelled all the way to South Dakota, not only to tour facilities and meet the people, but also to witness a very important thing: the disaster preparedness exercise. In fact, when they visited South Dakota there was flooding at the time, and they witnessed a live exercise when the National Guard was deployed and assisted with disaster relief. That was directly relevant to Suriname because, while there are no tropical storms here — no high winds or earthquakes – we do get flooding. The national army here is very much involved in disaster relief efforts, so that was a positive thing. The National Guard from South Dakota has also been down here and conducted basic training sessions for the military. They have brought medical personnel down here to do some health clinics, so that has been a very positive thing.
Suriname has only been independent since 1975. It went through a very, very difficult period in the 1980s and early 1990s when there were military coups. The situation was quite dire here economically and socially. Quite frankly, the country is still recovering from that period, so helping to build institutional capacity here is a very important goal for the United States. We are involved in those efforts with a number of the different ministries here. The challenge for us is to identify with the Surinamese what their priorities are and then, when our interests overlap, to work in those areas. That is the focus of this embassy.
The Politic: What is, in your opinion, the most pressing issue facing Suriname? I read about the health challenges, HIV/AIDS, drug trade, etc., but is there any one issue that you would pinpoint as the most pressing one facing Suriname? Is there a way that U.S. policy regarding this issue can change to help the situation?
Well, Suriname is definitely a developing country. It has done pretty well economically over the past few years, but its further growth is kind of tenuous because it depends very heavily on extractive industries. So over the last few years there has been a giant increase in the export of gold, and they are going to expand gold production. Anytime you are very much tied to a commodity, any changes in global prices can have a very positive or very devastating effect on an economy. So diversification of the economy is a huge issue here. Another one, in fact the one I would emphasize if I were in the government here, would be education. Trying to improve the educational system in general, but particularly to expand the scope of the educational system because Suriname is a country that doesn’t have a lot of people — about 550,000 — but it does have a lot of land. The size of the country is about equivalent to the U.S. state of Georgia. There are a lot of people who live in the interior who come from indigenous tribes, descendants of slaves, etc., and those people are really underserved by the government. In order for them to make progress, and for society as a whole to make progress, education is absolutely critical. A third thing that is very important, which the U.S. highlighted in its most recent human rights report for Suriname, is corruption in society (particularly government corruption).
The Politic: Is there any one person (professor, colleague, etc.) that has had a significant impact on your life and career?
I really cannot point to one person — I have benefited from the guidance and mentorship of many people over the years. If I had to pinpoint a factor of success, though, I would have to say again that it is education and the opportunity that I had to study. Fortunately, my parents emphasized education; they were the first children in their families who went to college. I had an opportunity to go to an excellent school, Kenyon College, and that liberal arts education has really been the foundation of everything I have done since then. Getting additional training in business was also very positive for me. The ways I have learned to write and organize thoughts has also been critical, in addition to family support.
The Politic: What do you enjoy most about your job?
Suriname is an incredibly diverse place. It is really fascinating to get out and meet very interesting people and especially to find the people who are succeeding — the people who have managed to build successful businesses and to provide job opportunities for other people. There are a lot of people here who work for nonprofits and try to make a difference in society, and it’s really inspiring to meet those people. A lot of times we tend to focus on the weak spots and the criticisms we might have for a government or its policies, but there are a lot of really friendly, inspiring people here.
The society here is really very friendly, especially coming from Iraq where you have these terrible sectarian divides. You have people who, perhaps to Western minds, share the same religion, but in reality they are bitter enemies and killing each other. I read this week that there was another wave of car bombs in Iraq; people are dying by the scores. It’s all very depressing.
In Suriname’s short history, there have certainly been some down times, as I mentioned. But the fact is that, at the moment, there is a great degree of social harmony here. You see there are differences between people based on their ethnic backgrounds and religions, but people tend to get along pretty well here, and national institutions have representatives from different backgrounds. That is a very positive thing and something that Suriname can really be proud of. I think people here take it for granted, but if you look around at other countries in the region, you find the countries are split based on ethnic/racial grounds. That is really not the case here.
Embassy of the United States to Suriname: http://suriname.usembassy.gov/index.html