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Ambassador Series

An Interview with Alexander Mark Laskaris, U.S. Ambassador to Guinea

Guinea ambassadorAlexander Mark Laskaris, a career member of the Senior Foreign Service, is the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea. Before this assignment, Laskaris served as Consul General in Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq from June 2010 to July 2012. From 2008 to 2009, he led the U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in Ninewa Province, Iraq. He also served as Deputy Chief of Mission to times: in Burundi from 2003 to 2005, and in Kosovo from 2006 to 2008. Other tours include service in Liberia, Angola and Botswana, as well as the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York and in the Department of State. Prior to joining the Foreign Service in 1991, Laskaris taught English and Mathematics at St. Boniface High School in Galeshewe, Northern Cape Province, South Africa. He holds a B.S. in International Relations Service from Georgetown University and an M.A. in Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College. Laskaris speaks Albanian, Greek, Spanish, French, Kurdish and Portuguese.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

I needed a job. No, but really, I would grown up overseas. My father was a naval attache in an embassy, so I had some sense of what it was. The work appealed to me, the lifestyle appealed to me, the job appealed to me, the service appealed to me — so I joined for a lot of reasons. It was one of the two or three things I considered doing as a career back then.

The Politic: What are some of the unique challenges of working in the Foreign Service?

Being constantly at the bottom of the learning curve wherever you go. Every two or three or four years you have to move and learn another language and another culture’s history and traditions. You arrive at the beginning of the process, knowing next to nothing about the country and the province. Then by some miracle six months, a year, two or three years later, you realize that you actually know something. That is the challenge and that’s the fun: you periodically go back to zero and start with something completely new. Anywhere in the world, any culture, any language, any history.

The Politic: What sort of duties does being an ambassador entail?

That’s a good question; I will let you know when I figure it out. Broadly speaking, the most important thing to me about my job is actually not speaking to people: it is listening to people. I have been doing this for 22 years, and we have been trained on how to speak and how to communicate messages and how to present our country, which is important. But the longer I do this the more convinced I am that people don’t want to hear what I have to say so much as they want me to listen to them. They want power to listen to them, whether it is the power of their country because they are disenfranchised or they feel marginalized from the power of their society, which is the case here. The American ambassador represents a form of power that they can understand, they can see, they can reach out and touch.  People have a need to speak to power and to be heard by power.

So if the job here is to advance American values and American interests, the way you do that is by having common ground, by having commonalities, and by trying to close the gap between the people and their power. I think you get that all over the world today, whether it is Cairo or some other type of situation. You see people think, “We do not want to be alienated from power, we have got to have it, you’ve got to be responsive to us and not the other way around.” As someone who represents power, I see people who are waiting from childhood to feel empowered, to say, “Yes, we can make a difference, we can change things and have some measure of control over our lives. These are the suggestions, go get the results.” I think there is a huge opportunity in Guinea for bridging that gap and getting accountable, responsive government.

The Politic: I understand that before joining the Foreign Service you were already a high school teacher in South Africa.

Yeah, I went to Georgetown in Washington and graduated in 1989, and that was the year of the divestment and sanctions against South Africa. The late president of Georgetown, Rev. Healy, taught a bunch of us about the struggle against apartheid and said, “Why don’t you go teach there and become a Catholic schoolteacher in South Africa?” He sort of turned our dreams into a challenge. There were about 15 of us who went down to teach in South Africa. And it was 1989 and 1990 — I got there while apartheid was still in place and Mandela was in jail.

By the time I left just a few years later, the power situation had turned on its head. And that was a really formative experience for me — seeing the power of great leadership, the power of civil society, and the power of people interested in peaceful democratic change.  Africa happened sort of by accident. I hadn’t intended to be an Africanist, and I was actually thinking of Central America, but obviously that didn’t work out. A lot of it goes back to just being in the right place at the right time.

The Politic: You’ve been in a lot of countries in transitional periods, so in Guinea right now, what are the main things that are threatening the young democracy?

Guinea is emerging from 50-plus years of dictatorship and 50-plus years of corruption. Despite abundant wealth in agriculture and minerals, it’s one of the ten poorest countries in the world. Guineans have a sad history of poor administration, poor governance, and poor economic management. That said, Guinea also has a pretty strong political tradition avoiding the violence of some neighboring states. The challenges to democracy here are things like the people who have grown very used over time to raiding the public treasury and using the public position for private gain.

To the extent that poverty levels contribute to insecurity, it is one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of per capita GDP. To the extent that demography plays a role, if you look at the age distribution of the country, it is overwhelmingly young. You have a capital city of two million people, and probably a fifth of them do not have access to social services. There is an absence of the rule of law, and an absence of any institutions of governance. It is kind of a perfect storm, and it depends on how you explain chaos in hours of political transition or change. It comes down to how you understand it.

If you have an economic view of things, you can go to the poverty. If you have a technological view of things, you can go to some of the tension between groups, some pastoral, some agricultural. It is really how all these things conspire.  If I dig down deeper, I would say it is the over-personalization of power. There is a complete breakdown of the institutions of government here — of the executive and the legislative and the judicial. There have also been bad individuals in the past, but I think there is a much better and very different individual right now in that position of power.

The key is the institutionalization of power and decentralization, and reconnecting the government to the grassroots. The other side of the equation, the economic side has to do with prosperity. Guinea is a poor rich country or a rich poor country, depending on how you look at it.  It’s not genetic, cultural, or environmental — it is a matter of very bad economic choices going back to 1958. Our official role is not to tell people how to live, but to try to dive into more sensible economic choices.

The Politic: There has been a lot of discussion of ethnic tensions, but it sounds like you would ascribe those more to underlying structural problems?

I have worked in a lot of areas suffering from so-called ethnic conflict. I do not really understand it.  I am a linguist, so I understand language. I was just in Northern Iraq between Arabs and Kurds. I have been in Angola between the people of the coast and the people of the central highlands. To me, to say that this is ethnic conflict is dangerous, because I usually find that it is a code. It means that it’s intractable, unsolvable, and somehow genetic; or it’s so deeply ingrained that it can’t be resolved. It’s like, “This person speaks this language and that person speaks that language, and that is why they hate each other.”

Guinea childrenIf you scratch below the surface, I think there are non-linguistic and non-ethnic reasons behind most of the conflict. If you look at Darfur, if you look at Guinea, the main source of conflict has traditionally been competing models of land use. Think about the American West in the 19th century, cattlemen and farmers arguing about barbed wire: do you fence off the river and the farmland, or do you leave it open range? Then you have the Hutu and Tutsi. They speak the same language and they have the same culture, food, and religion.  Then you explain this conflict with the stereotypical mythology — which I think is unreliable — that short Hutus and tall Tutsis don’t like each other. You had a society whose commercial livelihood was cattle and a society whose traditional livelihood was agriculture living in the same state, and they needed some level of social order to regulate that.

The word “ethnicity” sort of scares me because I do not understand it, and in context I think there is an almost latent racism involved in its use. A lot of it is someone in political power saying, “Of course, it is all tribal, so our political presence is not objectionable because it kept these people from killing each other.” I find that very frustrating and also historically inaccurate.

The Politic: What’s the role of the United States in this transition to democracy?

I think it has to do with technical assistance in the electoral process. The independent National Electoral Commission, the National Foundation for Electoral Systems, the National Democratic Institute, and a couple other partners are providing technical assistance for questions like, “How do you register people, how do you assemble a voter list, how do you register a candidate,” etc. But we are also training people to have eyes on that process, the registration campaign, the campaign itself, the actual mechanics of voting, and the tabulation of votes, to make sure it is a transparent process.

On the nontechnical side and on the policy side, we try to make sure that people on both sides — the ruling party and the opposition — agree on how to do this so it’s fair and transparent. The electoral process should be as inclusive as possible. Part of it for the last six months has been to develop some of the ethical and political issues, but there is a fine line between the technical and political. You have to know whether to just give an opposition party the chance to participate or to pressure them into participating, depending on which day of the week or which party you’re talking about. It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees here. The goal is not just to set up fair elections; the goal is to establish good governance. It is not the first election or the second election, but it’s the third or fourth election that pays dividends. So you steer people into good governance.  We are involved on the technical side, and we are also involved in the sort of problem solving, dispute resolution end of things.

The Politic: Are there any lessons that you learned from your time in South Africa and Kurdistan that you think can be applied to the situation in Guinea right now?

The overarching lesson in Iraq and South Africa is that moral leadership matters. You need people at the top and in positions of authority — whether it’s religious authority, political authority, or any other sort of authority — to say the right things. You need them saying a message of peace and unity instead of conflict between groups. Good will is a prerequisite to future democratic change. That has obviously been the big lesson of my entire career, my entire life, and my South African experience.

It is convenient for me that there are similarities, but it is really hard to tell people that the situation in Guinea today is like the situation in Iraq in 2011, and that the principles are the same: it is the definition of power. I watch what is going on in Iraq in the Kurdistan region and the Sunni-Arab region, and what’s happening is a debate over the nature of power in their society. Is it centralized or decentralized? Is it individualized or institutionalized? What are the roles of majority rule versus minority rights?

We can learn a lot from the things going on in Turkey right now. You have the leaders saying, “Hey, I was elected,” and the people saying, “Yeah, we elected you — that is interesting but irrelevant.”  So the common denominator between Iraq and Guinea is a society trying to decide the nature of political power. And in both cases there’s a danger that it will be done by violence. If you don’t have a process or tradition, you do not have the means to hold people accountable. You do not have the means to say, “There’s a constitution, follow it. There is an agreed-upon framework, a peace process, a roadmap.”

It is like a bicycle: if you want to make forward progress, you have to stay upright. You want to reach the goal, which is fair elections and democratic responsible governance. But you also have to make sure that you get the milestones right and stay upright. With elections, you eventually you get to the point where local elections are the milestones of forward progress that keep the bicycle upright.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Guinea that’s greatly influenced one of your policies?

Yes, we had several rounds of pretty nasty violence here in Conakry [the capital of Guinea]. After one sort of violent demonstration, I went to a market there and spoke to four business owners whose shops had been burned down. I had my staff members there, so I could talk to two who spoke Fula and two who spoke Susu, which is the language of the coast. I took a bunch of people with me and stood next to [the shopkeepers] in front of the cameras and asked them to tell me what happened. You had two businessmen from this group saying people from the other group looted and burned their shops, and then two guys from this other group are saying the exact same thing. At the end of the day, they all wanted the same thing. It does not matter what language these guys speak at home. [The incident] got good coverage in the local media, and sort of established us as people who are willing to get out of the car, not to preach to people or tell them what do, but just to say, “Tell me what happened.”

About a month ago, we went to the dividing line between two communities. Guineans actually call it the Gulf, as in the Persian Gulf. They have this thing where they name neighborhoods after dangerous parts of the world. There is a part they call the Congo and another part they call Tora Bora.  You get an idea of the reality in Conakry. So we went down this little street in a motorcade following the Prime Minister, and he got off on the right side of the road to a cheering throng of very happy people who supported him. I got out of the left side of the vehicle to a very unhappy, angry, suspicious, and hostile group of people, and I started asking them, “What happened here?” Their response in French was, “They came to attack us.” I sort of pretended to be stupid, which was not much of a stretch, and asked, “Who is ‘they,’ who is ‘us’?” They kept looking at me like, “Are you stupid? They came to attack us.” Finally, one of the guards who spoke English pulled me aside and said, “Let me explain something to you.” I went to the Prime Minister and said, “Listen to these people. Listen to what they are saying.”

Power, represented by me and the Prime Minister, decided to listen to the people who don’t have anyone to listen to them. It was a liberating event for them, to say, “The American ambassador and the Prime Minister were right here, and I gave them a piece of my mind.” On the one hand, you have the institutional framework and the elections and all that, and on the other hand you have the sort of connective tissue between governance and people. Those two experiences very much shaped my understanding of the realities here and my marginal role in them.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any foreign policies that you would want to change?

Individual policies come and go, and you cannot agree with everything you hear all the time. I’ve now been through four administrations, two Democratic and two Republican. Frankly, Guinean policy does not change very much. You are there to serve the elected political leadership and do your duty.  Every once in awhile you get a bad situation where you disagree on principle, but usually, if you are 90 percent happy with what you’re doing, that’s usually pretty good. That is not as hard as most people think.

But again, I want to go back to this notion that all of our training is about how to speak, how to defend America, and how to explain America. I think we focus too much on our message and not enough on what Thomas Jefferson called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” I do not mean running foreign policies by referendum. We have interests and values, and we cannot apologize for them. But I do think we are born into power, nationally and culturally as Americans. We are a people who have lost all understanding of the discourse of the powerless. So if you look at places like Egypt or Turkey, they do not register with us anymore because most of us have forgotten what it is like to be powerless. I think that is the intellectual change that I would try to make.

On the practical side, I wish more people would speak more languages. Foreign language to me is one of the most important tradecraft skills, but it is also the best expression of sympathy and empathy. By not teaching Albanian or learning Swahili, we not only lose an incredible intellectual intelligence edge and  the ability know understand more and perceive more, but also sort of set the bar too low as Americans. In terms of our training and the people who deploy overseas, that is the other thing I would work on the most.

Embassy of the United States to Guinea: http://conakry.usembassy.gov/

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Benjamin Weiner

Benjamin Weiner is a staff writer for The Politic from Cincinnati, Ohio. Contact him at benjamin.weiner@yale.edu.

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