An Interview with Lewis Lukens, U.S. Ambassador to Senegal
Lewis Lukens, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, is the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal and to Guinea-Bissau. Before that assignment, he served as Executive Director of the State Department’s Executive Secretariat. Lukens has also held a variety of positions in the State Department and White House. He was Senior Director for Administration at the National Security Council during and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. From 2005 to 2008, he was the U.S. Consul General in Vancouver, BC, overseeing the work of eight government agencies and managing a wide range of trade, border, national security, and public diplomacy issues. In addition, he has served as Executive Secretary in Baghdad, Management Counselor in Dublin, and Management Officer in Sydney.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I grew up in the Foreign Service. My father was a Foreign Service officer, so I spent my childhood moving around the world, mostly in Africa. To a certain degree, I think it was in my blood. What appeals to me about the Foreign Service is the ability to have a career path with the government, but also to have new challenges and new co-workers and to live in a new country every couple of years.
The Politic: You have had a long career in the Foreign Service and traveled extensively around the world. What are a few of the most memorable posts you have held?
There are a couple that stand out, and some were in Washington. I spent a year at the White House at the National Security Council. I started the job a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks, and that was a really interesting year to be in the White House and to serve the president. I spent a year in Baghdad opening up our new embassy there from 2004 to 2005, and it was still a very dangerous place at the time, but it was a great opportunity to build an embassy from scratch. We had been closed for a long time before that.
I spent three years as Consul General in Vancouver, British Columbia, which was a terrific post. There are a lot of important and interesting issues in our relationship with the Canadians, and being able to represent the United States in Western Canada was a huge privilege and a lot of fun.
For my last job before I came to Dakar, I was responsible for organizing all of the Secretary of State’s travel, and I traveled over half a million miles with Secretary Hillary Clinton to over a hundred countries. It was a bird’s eye view on U.S. foreign-policy making up close, and a great opportunity to spend time with Secretary Clinton, who was a tremendous Secretary of State.
And being here in Dakar is great: serving as an ambassador in an important post with our most important ally in Francophone Africa is a great place to be. Senegalese people like the United States, and it is an honor and a lot of fun to represent the U.S. here.
The Politic: How does the U.S. Embassy work to improve political, economic, and cultural relations between the United States and Senegal?
Well, we have a host of programs here. We have nineteen U.S. government agencies represented in Dakar, so I will just give you a couple examples of the programs we run here. USAID has an annual budget of about $105 million, which goes to support development assistance in Senegal. Half of that goes to health programs, and we are very involved in family planning. We are involved in helping the Senegalese establish health clinics around the country, especially in more remote areas, and we are very involved in anti-malarial efforts. We also work on agricultural programs and educational programs, such as building schools.
We also support civil society, good governance, and democracy. We have the largest Peace Corps program in Africa here: we have 250 volunteers who come for two years and serve all over Senegal. They work on community health, education, and agricultural projects around the country, and they are great representatives of the United States in Senegal. We have a MCC [Millennium Challenge Corporation] compact with Senegal. It is a $540 million compact that’s improving infrastructure and roads in the north and south of the country, which will better enable the Senegalese to bring goods to market and provide better access to more isolated parts of the country.
There are excellent military relations between the United States and Senegal. Our military is here frequently, training and working with the Senegalese military, which is the most professional military in West Africa. They are setting an example of what a professional African military can look like, and in large part that is due to years of training and cooperation between the U.S. military and the Senegalese military.
In terms of our cultural relations, we have a very active exchange program. We bring American speakers, artists, and bands to Senegal to perform and give lectures. We also send Senegalese to the United States on exchange programs to expose them to our culture and form of government. Those are just a few examples of how we work with the Senegalese to improve, or rather to maintain, our already excellent relations.
The Politic: How successful do you think Senegal’s democratic transition has been? Is the Embassy doing anything to promote good governance in Senegal?
Senegal has had a very successful democratic transition. Their election was a little bit over a year ago, and Macky Sall [current president of Senegal] won the election. The former president was running for a third term in office. The day of the run-off election, the numbers came in from all over Senegal and were monitored by international observers and Senegalese civil society. The numbers clearly showed that Macky Sall was going to win the election. The former president conceded graciously and stepped down, and Macky Sall took over. Senegal is the only country in continental West Africa that has never had a military coup d’état. It has only had democratic transitions of power, and the last two have been between candidates of different parties. Senegal really has the democratic system down, and they do democracy very well here.
To promote good governance, we work with civil society groups. For example, before the election, we funded training for about 4,000 civil society observers to go out all over Senegal to observe the elections, keep an eye out for fraud or voter intimidation, and report back. We are quite involved with civil society at the grassroots level in promoting good governance in Senegal. Since Macky Sall has been elected, he has had a huge focus on good governance and transparency, and we have been very supportive of him. The fact that President Obama is coming here in two weeks is in part recognition of the good work that Macky Sall has done pushing for good governance and transparency here.
The Politic: What sort of preparations have you made for Obama’s visit, and what will Obama do when he’s in Senegal?
He is going to be here exactly two weeks from today, and he will meet with the president of Senegal. He is going to visit Gorée Island, which is one of the places where slaves were shipped to the United States and the Caribbean from West Africa. He is also going to meet with civil society organizations, talk about the role they had during the elections, and lend them support.
He’s going to have a meeting with Supreme Court justices from around Africa to talk about the importance of a strong, independent judiciary in African democracies. He is going to do an event that promotes Senegal’s recent joining of the New Alliance for Food Security, which is under UN auspices but is a plan to use private-sector investment to help spur agricultural development in the less-developed world. So that is a pretty full program — he is here for one full day.
The Politic: What perception does the average citizen of Senegal and Guinea-Bissau have of America? Is it generally positive?
The United States has an approval rating in Senegal of about 80 percent. We are well regarded here — I think we have a higher approval rating than any other country in Senegal. A lot of Senegalese live in the United States, so there are very close ties. Government ties are very warm and close and cooperative, but there are also just excellent ties between the American people and Senegalese people. A lot of American students come here for semesters abroad, and there are a lot of exchanges between our people. Senegal is a 95 percent Muslim country, and the fact that the United States is so well regarded here reflects the historically close ties and active diplomacy between the United States and Senegal.
The Politic: While serving as a U.S. Ambassador, what do you think has been your greatest achievement and your greatest disappointment or frustration?
I think my greatest achievement has been really pushing to strengthen the ties between our countries since Macky Sall was elected [president of Senegal] last year. Secretary of State Clinton came here last summer for a visit — she had an excellent visit here and gave a big speech at the university that was very well received. The president of Senegal was invited to a meeting at the White House in March, and he met with President Obama. They had a good discussion about democracy and development in West Africa. In that meeting, the president of Senegal invited President Obama to come to Senegal, and so this visit from Obama will be the capstone of a year of really intense diplomacy and strengthening of ties between the countries.
As far as frustrations or disappointments — I cannot say I have any disappointments here. But I was struck when I got here that there are a lot of people and organizations from other countries working on development projects in Senegal. The EU has a really robust development program here. The Chinese are here in quite strong numbers. The Japanese have their own version of the Peace Corps and their own development agency. Other countries also have development programs here. And then you have the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and a lot of UN agencies.
All these development agencies do not have a particularly well-coordinated approach to development in Senegal; they all did their own thing. So we worked hard to set up a coordinating group between all the different donors. It has been helpful to bring people together, find ways to better coordinate, and avoid duplication in development efforts by all these different countries and agencies.
The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Senegal or Guinea-Bissau that has greatly influenced one or more of your policies? How so?
Not really, because U.S. government policies are not really my policies. Our policies toward Senegal—promoting democracy, supporting civil society, encouraging economic growth through investment, implementing development programs—are set through an inter-agency process in Washington. I obviously have a role and input into that process. The reporting and analysis we do on a daily basis in Senegal influences that inter-agency process, which has a big effect on what our policies are. But there are enough people involved that one experience or event for me does not have a real effect on U.S. government policy in Senegal.
The Politic: Which aspects of the United Nations cause you the most concern? Which areas of the UN need more support?
The UN has a really large presence in Senegal, and I find it to be quite effective. They are very strong interlocutors of ours — they have a very good feel for what is happening not just in Senegal but also in the region. So I find the UN to be a very effective mechanism for development assistance, project funding, and policy analysis in West Africa. My greatest exposure to the UN has been at this job, so I cannot really comment beyond the exposure I have had in the last couple of years here, but I meet regularly with the UN and always appreciate their perspective on the situation here.
The Politic: In general, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and what elements of American foreign policy, if any, would you most want to change?
First of all, I think the United States is very well represented abroad. For 24 years, I have been in the Foreign Service serving with some of the best and brightest in the United States. The colleagues I have had over the past 24 years are hard-working, smart, dedicated, and sacrifice for their country. We all spend most of our careers overseas, which is not always easy, but people do it because they can make a difference and love their country. And I do not mean just the State Department — there are 19 agencies represented here at our embassy. We have people from all across the U.S. government working to try to improve relations with Senegal and other countries in West Africa. The United States is really well represented by its Foreign Service and other overseas agencies.
As far as what elements of U.S. foreign policy I would want to change, I honestly wish that we were better funded. The entire U.S. international affairs budget is just over one percent over our national budget. A lot could be done with a little bit more money. We are constrained by our lack of resources and the current budget climate. We are a very cost-effective method of outreach and promotion of American values and exports. A large part of what we do now is commercial diplomacy and promoting U.S. exports, which creates American jobs. I think most Americans don’t realize that the entire foreign affairs budget is such a small percentage of our overall national budget. If there is one thing I could change, it would be greater recognition by the American people and Congress that a small increase in our funding can have a big impact on the safety of American citizens overseas, the promotion of American exports, and tourism to the United States from overseas — all of which benefit the American people.
The Politic: Do you have any advice for college students pursuing a career in diplomacy and international relations?
I do. For students interested in joining the Foreign Service or getting involved in international relations or development work, a couple of things: seek out internships that give you an opportunity to work in the government and dip your toes into the water. The State Department has an excellent internship program. Travel if you can — being exposed to the world and traveling will give you a better sense of whether this is the kind of career you want to pursue. [Traveling] is also richly rewarding in and of itself. Read a lot. To prepare for the Foreign Service exam, just read. Read the New York Times, Time Magazine, The Economist — there is a lot of great information out there, and a well-read candidate will always do better than someone who has not been following what is happening in the world.
Reach out and talk to people in the field. There is nothing like talking to a current Foreign Service officer to find out if the Foreign Service is something that you really want to pursue. Ultimately, my strongest piece of advice is, if you really think you are interested in this, try to find an internship in a government agency to see what it is like to serve in that field. Do it for a summer, and see how you feel about it.
Embassy of the United States to Senegal: http://dakar.usembassy.gov/