An Interview with Michael C. Polt, former U.S. Ambassador to Estonia
Michael C. Polt is the Senior Director of the McCain Institute, a ‘decision tank’ researching and advocating for action in foreign policy and security issues. Previously, Polt served for 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service. In his most recent posting, from 2009 to 2012, Polt acted as U.S. Ambassador to Estonia. Before assuming this role, he had served as the Principal Deputy and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs for the State Department under the guidance of Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton. His other postings included Denmark, Germany, Mexico, Panama, Serbia and Montenegro, and Switzerland. He received the Presidential Meritorious Service Award as well as numerous awards from the State Department. Born in Austria, Polt earned his Bachelor’s Degree and Honorary Doctorate from American International College, and he earned his Master’s Degree from the University of Tennessee.
The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?
I am a zero-eth generation American, so I came here as a fourteen-year-old boy from Austria with my mother and my stepfather, who was an American and a Foreign Service Officer. I experienced the Foreign Service as a teenager, and I found it to be really interesting and exciting work. For me, as an immigrant, it was a unique sort of wish and opportunity to be able to serve my new country. I thought it would be fabulous if I would be able to represent my adopted country around the world, and when the opportunity arose, I got my undergraduate degree in English and my graduate degree in public administration, and I started to take the Foreign Service exam. First time I failed it; second time I came close; third time I passed it. The rest was history.
The Politic: What was one of the most challenging aspects of your job? You traveled a lot — was that difficult on your family? Were there any professional difficulties that you had to face along the way?
I think it is good to split this question into two parts, as one is the personal and family aspect, and the other is the professional. We will start with the personal, family one. It is a two-edged sword. The first positive one is that it is a unique opportunity for the entire family to be able to experience many different parts of the world and to travel. It is not just travel as a tourist, but the opportunity to live in countries where you can experience other cultures and bring America together with people in other countries around the world. It is a wonderful opportunity, whether it is for me personally, whether it is for my wife or for my children.
At the same time, it brings a certain number of challenges and disadvantages. I have two children, a daughter and a son. My son loved the Foreign Service life; my daughter, not so much. She always suffered every time we had to move, had to break off relationships and go somewhere else. That was very difficult for her. And it was difficult for the family. For my wife, it also meant that she had to put her own career behind my career for her to be able to be with me wherever we went around the world. It was always a family discussion and a joint decision as to what we were going to do and where we were going to go, so everyone at least felt reasonably comfortable with what we were going to do. I never accepted an assignment without first going home, sitting first with my wife alone and then when the whole family together saying, “So this is what we are proposing to do, can everybody rally around that point?” But there were challenges.
Professionally, there are multiple points in one’s career where one says, “Oh, this was particularly hard or enjoyable or unpleasant.” I think that most of my colleagues together with me would say that some of the most exciting times in our careers were the ones that were the most challenging.
For me, one of those big challenges was when I was in Panama in the [Manuel] Noriega period with the whole family. We were in the midst of very critical policy decisions — what we were going to do about this dysfunctional relationship — with the Noriega regime. At that point, for the first and the only time in my Foreign Service career, I used something called the ‘dissent channel.’ Back in the Vietnam era, when [Henry] Kissinger was the Secretary of State, there was a lot of unhappiness amongst the ranks of the Foreign Service with our policy, and in order to channel those differences of opinion into an organized dissent that would allow people to express their views without it becoming chaotic, he created something called the dissent channel. It allows every Foreign Service Officer, every American diplomat, to express a dissenting view from current U.S. foreign policy within confined channels in the Department of State. [These channels] have to reach all the way up to the Secretary of State, who then responds through his staff to your opinion, either agreeing with you or disagreeing with you but at least giving you a considerate, professional response.
In Panama, I did one of those, for the one and only time in my career on that issue. Then, of course, came the inevitable final straw in our relationship with Noriega, where we eventually took the position to go ahead and take action against him: when we came into Panama, deposed him, actually arrested him, and brought him to justice in the United States. My family was evacuated about nine months before that time, so I was in Panama alone with the family in the United States trying to make things work, never knowing if they were coming back to Panama, if they could come back to Panama. That was a very difficult time, both in the personal sense and in the professional.
The Politic: You have served a lot of your time in Europe, but you also served in Panama in a particularly difficult time in that country’s history. With the recent Benghazi attacks, did you ever feel that you were in danger when you were in Panama? What can the U.S. government do in order to improve the safety of its Foreign Service Officers?
Yes, there were times in Panama leading up to the invasion and during the civil unrest. And there was the final election that Noriega stole from the opposition parties and the opposition leaders were beaten up in the streets and some people got killed. I was on the phone with one opposition leader while the demonstration was going on where one of the main opposition party leaders got severely beaten up and one of his bodyguards got shot and killed. It was a difficult time.
What can the U.S. government do to protect its diplomats even more? I think that the Department [of State] takes the safety and security of its diplomats very seriously. The U.S. government does not play lightly with the lives of any of its representatives anywhere in the world, particularly those of us who are on the front lines but without weapons. We all know when we sign up for this job that there is a certain risk that we take. There is no such thing as total security, and not all of us in our assignments can be enveloped in a security package bubble that protects us 24/7. In fact, we wouldn’t want it to be [that way], because we couldn’t do our job. If you told me that I would have to travel like the President, for instance, in that kind of security package, it would be impossible. I would not be able to go ahead and do the things that I am supposed to do as a diplomat overseas. I have to go out and talk to people; I have to be able to get close to the situation.
When my colleague in Libya travelled to Benghazi, he did not go there because he felt like taking an outing, it was his job. He had to go there in order to understand what was going on in that part of the country, to be able to be a constructive representative of the United States, and to tell Washington what was really going on. And he knew that there were risks that were going to be taken there. That does not mean that he was at fault — of course not. All of us take certain risks — prudent risks. We are taught in our training how best to protect ourselves, what kinds of things we should do and look out for, and we all have security professionals at our embassies overseas who help us manage the risk, because you cannot completely eliminate it.
The Politic: Before we turn to policy, is there one person, experience, or event in your country that has influenced one or more of your policies, and how so?
We are going to talk later on about my ambassadorship in Estonia, but I was also Ambassador in Serbia before that. I came into Belgrade as Ambassador a few months after the bombing in Yugoslavia to end the bloodshed that was still going on as a part of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. I came into a situation where the relationship with the government was still complicated, where the U.S. and our European friends were still trying to work with the Serbian government and the Serbian people to try to find a positive way forward, given the reality of the split up of Yugoslavia.
I found, in my relationships both with officials of Serbia and Montenegro (because that was still part of the overall complex then) and the people of the country, there was a dichotomy. One was a very firm and somewhat backward-looking approach by the government of how the future of Serbia should play out. In other words, there was a lot of loss of empire, loss of national identity, loss of cohesion, and feelings that wrong had been done to the Serbian people all the way back to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. My attitude always was, “Well, I accept the historical account of the history of your country, except to move forward, you have to look to the future and not continuously debate what had happened in the past. You have to be aware of the past, you have to be conscious of history, but to move forward.”
When I talked to the people, that seemed to resonate more with individuals who were not in government than the government policy did. In my interaction with the public and the press in Serbia, I always tried to make clear that the Serbian people deserve a future, a positive and forward-looking future. I felt that the government was not really doing them a good service by constantly looking at what happened in the past. So in that sense, it influenced my view of the direction of public diplomacy.
You have heard that term used before: in other words, the ‘public’ element of our diplomacy, the part that’s not behind the screen. It has an increasingly important role to play in modern diplomacy in the 21st century. As American diplomats, we are not only doing things calmly behind the scenes –—which we also do, and negotiate things that we do not want to be public because sensitivities require that you keep them confidential until you are able to jointly announce (hopefully) some kind of positive outcome of the negotiation. There is another element, where you can influence negotiations by making public contacts with everyone in the country of assignment. That is sometimes seen with some suspicion on the part of governments overseas, but it is a very strong part of American culture. We tend to debate things very openly, and hopefully we come to conclusions based on having an open airing of our views. So that experience in Serbia and the Balkans influenced my thinking that public diplomacy is a critical part of diplomatic representation abroad.
The Politic: Did you find that [public diplomacy] got easier with the rise of social media and the spread of the Internet over the region?
It got easier and more complex at the same time. Easier in the sense that, everything that everyone else has access to, we as public officials also have access to. So we were able to do our outreach through many more channels than was previously possible. Before the rise of the Internet, it was through a press release. Who does a press release anymore? You now have all kinds of methods to get the word out. That of course meant a lot more players were coming into what used to be the purview of us, as professional diplomats. I welcomed that. I think that when you open up dialogue, conversation, and communication, America wins because we are all about democracy, transparency, and democratic action. Now, when you look to what is happening here and our political differences in this town, you would not necessarily think so, but this is just one slice in one period of time. The overall philosophy of America is: We talk, we communicate, we are transparent, we are open. So while [the Internet and social media] make it more complex because a lot more people come to the table and say, “I have a view too, what about this, what about that policy,” it actually works in the favor of the United States.
The Politic: Turning now to your time in Estonia — and this is a good segue because Estonia is known for its technology sector and also how much Internet connectivity it has – what kind of internet policies has Estonia adopted that you think that the United States should also adopt in order to promote the technology sector here?
What Estonia has done in the technology area, but also done overall after the collapse of the Soviet Union, is to me nothing short of miraculous. In just twenty years, what Estonia has done to transform its country into a modern Western economy, political system, business environment, and society is remarkable. And they have taken an approach that is exactly the opposite of what I told you [in a previous conversation] about Serbia and the Balkans. They did not look at the past; they looked only at the future. As I said, and I know this from my experience and from my long conversation with them from when I was there, they said, “What is the most effective, modern way of democratic existence in the world today?” And they identified that, looked at it, familiarized themselves with it, and said, “Let’s just do that.” There was a very quick national consensus, they moved in that direction, and they implemented policies and infrastructure and processes which basically jumped an entire generation or two or three of previous legacy developments in other countries, including our own.
I think Estonia is ahead of the United States in governance. I think Estonia is ahead of the U.S. in a pragmatic and practical approach towards cyber security and cyber defense, having been the victim of cyber attack in the past, and I think that Estonia is ahead of us in terms of de-bureaucratizing government processes and making access of citizens to government services much more direct and much less cumbersome.
I wrote a blog piece right after I came back from Estonia last fall about my experience in the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], and it was a perfect example of how Estonia approaches e-governance and government services and technology and how the United States, and in this case the state of Virginia, does. I am not complaining about how I was treated, it was very professional and I got good service at the Virginia DMV, but I waited for two and a half hours for a process that in Estonia probably takes about ten minutes. And in that sense, I think that Estonia has the advantage of being a small country and having a very close knit society where you pick up the phone and say, “Listen, this is a crazy process,” and they say, “Okay let’s do that,” and they do it. We have a huge, complex country, and it’s much more difficult. That said, I think that we have shown in the past that we can learn from other people’s experiences and implement it for ourselves and make positive change happen in our country. I think that we have a lot that we can learn from the Estonians in that regard.
The Politic: Estonia has a lot of flexibility because it is such a small country, but other small countries in Europe, including Iceland, have had difficult relations with the EU. Iceland just rejected its EU bid. How do you see the role of Estonia within the EU, and then, moving forward, how do you see it benefitting from the proposed TTIP partnership?
Membership in the E.U. for Estonia was not simply a matter of economic policy or political goals; it was the wholesale integration of the country, permanently and irrevocably, into Western society. The historical experience of Estonia has always been: When is the next invader coming to take over our country? And they were determined after they regained their freedom from the Soviet Union that this would be the last time that they would have to fight for their freedom. The way for them to go ahead and see that freedom preserved and protected was to join all of the western clubs that they could possible join — NATO, EU, I used to joke in Estonia that if they could have joined NATA, they would have, but they were in the wrong geographic location — in other words, join every club that makes you a member of democratic free societies economically, politically, socially, and in every possible way. And not just join them so that you get a benefit, but also [so that you can] make a positive contribution to it, so that those clubs can see the value of Estonian membership.
The Estonians are strong NATO partners. For a small country with a small military, they maintain that 2 percent of GDP defense commitment that they make of their national budget. They contribute in Afghanistan. They are strong allies for a small country and make a major contribution.
For the EU, joining the Eurozone — not just the EU first but also the Eurozone thereafter — it was also a matter of, “Well, once we are a member of the Eurozone, our currencies, this is now the sort of final straw in the full European integration.” And people used to ask them, “But the Eurozone is in trouble, why would you want to join it when it was in trouble?” To them, it was a matter of, “Okay, that is true, but being part of a club has not only benefits but it also has responsibilities. So we are there for the good and the bad, we think it is an overall good, and we will work through the difficult times together with our partners.” The kind of rational, focused, and unemotional approach to doing the right thing seems to be almost a very typical Estonian trait in my experience. I believe that contributed to that incredible twenty-year progression that they made in what I consider to be the right direction.
The Politic: Estonia has been called one of the “Baltic Tigers” along with Lithuania and Latvia, and they had tremendous growth after the break-up of the Soviet Union, as you mentioned. Now with the rise of the BRIC countries and their growing economic power, do see the Baltic countries making great strides in this century as well, or do you think that their growth was mostly contained in the post-Soviet era?
I think that they will continue to progress positively and improve the prosperity of their population as well as their further integration into the global economy and global political system. With the realization that these are small countries, they are not going to become a Brazil or India because the size dimensions are just different. That said, with the knowledge economy of the 21st century, size does not matter as much as it used to in the 19th or 20th centuries, obviously. So in that sense, I think that [they have] rationality and frugality.
The Estonians have no budget deficits, they have no national debt, and when they had that Baltic Tiger vast growth spurt that they underwent, what did they do during that time? They saved a lot of money. So when the inevitable downturn came, they had money in the bank that they could use to help them through the difficult period. And that is important for the United States to realize. Their population was willing to take the lumps of an economic downturn by accepting reduced benefits and wages, layoffs, and the need to find part-time work.
I am not saying that the American people are not equally resilient. Of course we are. But they were willing to go ahead to say, for future benefit, we are willing to scale back some, personally and as a nation, in order to go ahead and emerge even better at the other side. And there was virtually no social upheaval; there were no demonstrations in the streets. People just put an extra layer of warm clothes on in the winter and moved through it. Overall, it was sort of a national commitment to using the good to prepare for the not-so-good and make the coming better on the other side. That’s why I think that Estonia and their partners to the south are going to progress well in the future.
I think that you will see that sort of north-south dichotomy continue to play out. I think that they will play along with the Finlands and the Swedens and the Denmarks and Norways more so than they are going to identify with the issues in Greece or elsewhere in other parts of Europe.
The Politic: With the potential of TTIP to eliminate most trade barriers between the U.S. and European countries, do you think that this represents a rise in regional trade agreements that is in response to the failure of the WTO? How do you see the WTO playing a role in the future with the failure of the Doha round?
WTO was important of course, and the entire concept of global free trade is an essential, ongoing goal that we should pursue. That said, if you cannot move on the largest possible scale, should you just sit on your hands or revert to nationalization of your interests and build up barriers? The answer is obviously no, so what is the next best thing to do? The answer is to look at some your largest economic relationships and try to expand those even further. The largest economic relationship in the world is between the U.S. and Europe, not between the United States and China or between China and Europe. Even though China is immensely important, the largest economic relationship, and, for that matter, the largest relationship on the security side as well, is between the United States and Europe.
I think that TTIP is important. Not all of my colleagues would agree with that in terms of importance to the United States; some would argue that the U.S. is already an extremely open market, and further opening the U.S. market will benefit Europe disproportionately to the U.S. gaining access to the European market, which is already saturated. I disagree with that. I think that removing non-tariff trade barriers, all of the things that TTIP is hopefully going to address, including different standards for vehicular safety equipment, electrical systems standards — I have never understood for all of my travels in the Foreign Service, over three decades, why an American car bumper is not as safe as a European car bumper, and vice versa. Why can I not take a European car, bring it to the United States and simply change the license plates and drive it, and vice versa? Well, because there are all of these rules and regulations that say that our vehicular standards are different from yours or our headlights go two feet farther or two feet [fewer] or they go to the right or to the left. If TTIP can address these not terribly sensible barriers to trade, I think that it is going to free an additional entrepreneurial and trading spurt that is certainly going to benefit both Europe and the United States. And Estonia will be on the vanguard of advocating a fulsome TTIP agreement, because as far as they are concerned, let free enterprise rule, let businesses make business decisions, and keep government as far out of the business sector as you possibly can.
The Politic: Turning away from economic issues and to Estonian and U.S. foreign policy, how has Estonia dealt with its relationship with Russia? In 2007, they had an issue with [the controversial Bronze Soldier, a statue and controversial Soviet World War II memorial], and that has complicated relations a bit. The U.S. also has strained relations with Russia over Syrian issues. Do you see more partnerships in the future between the U.S. and Estonia in terms of potentially combatting Russian influence?
I would not want to use the term ‘combatting,’ but I understand what you are talking about. Because we do not have an adversarial relationship with Russia, we want to have a constructive relationship with Russia on issues that are of equal importance to both of our countries. That said, clearly Estonia has a history with the Soviet Union and Russia. So does the United States. Estonia and the United States are allies. Russia and the United States are not allies; we are hopefully partners on many issues, but we are not allies. So in that sense, I think that we will continue to work with Estonia on the security side to make sure that our NATO commitment to each other for the common defense is complete, recognizable, exercisable, demonstrable. Estonia is a small nation with a long border with Russia, and if it feels somehow pressured by the presence of the very large country next door with which it has a complicated and tragic history, it knows that the United States is going to be an unwavering partner in defending the security of Estonia. [In turn], we know that we can count on our Estonian friends, in their own small way, in our common security anywhere in the world where we feel that our common interests are threatened, Afghanistan being the example which I mentioned before.
I do have to admit that the assessment of the potential threat from the current Russia toward Estonia is not always equally shared between the United States and our Estonian friends. I think that the Estonian concerns are legitimate. They have to be taken seriously, and they should be discussed, not only with us and in the NATO context but also with Russia, to make sure that the actions taken across the border to the east do not lend additional weight to the concerns that Estonia would have. Clearly, Russia has nothing to fear from Estonia. Estonia should not have anything to fear from Russia, and it is the responsibility of our Russian friends to go ahead and reassure the Estonians that there is no reason to relive a negative part of history.
The Politic: Besides foreign relations between Estonia and Russia, there are number of Russians living within Estonia, and they have wide-ranging political rights depending on whether they are citizens of Estonia, citizens of Russia, or of unidentified citizenry. How is Estonia dealing with this issue? Does it plan to make Russian an official language, as Russia has pushed for in the past? And how does it plan to deal with people that speak Russian who are not full Estonian citizens?
The relationships between the large Russian minority in Estonia and Estonians are complicated, but trending in the right direction. First of all, Estonia is a fully democratic, liberal society, which affords political, social, and economic benefits equally to all of the people living inside its borders, be they citizens or not. I applaud the Estonian government and people for the way that they are handling their relationship with what is, in large measure but not completely, a grafted-on minority that was brought in by an occupying power, and one has to be honest about this. It is not as if Russians and ethnic Estonians have been living in Estonia for a thousand years and they could never get along. That is not true. During the darkest days of the Soviet Union, Estonians were deported and killed in Siberia and Russians were imported into Estonia to ‘Russify’ Estonia. Well, that is not good. And I think that the way that Estonia is approaching the current reality is actually very positive, constructive, and liberal.
Now, there is a question about the language. I do not believe that Estonia intends to make Russian an official language. It accepts Russian as being spoken; it allows Russian to be taught in schools and, for that matter, to be part of the language in the school environment overall, except it has now imposed a language law that says, if you are going to live in Estonia, you do have to learn the Estonian language. Look at us in the United States. We are an immigrant country, myself included, coming from every part of the world, and we don’t have a law that says you have to speak English. I think that that is a good thing, but you and I know that the reality is that it is the sort of standard, and you come to realize yourself that that’s what you need to do. You can speak Spanish, you can speech French, you can speak Swahili, you can speak any language you wish to in this country and use it in any way you would like to, but you also have to be able to speak English.
What Estonians most object to is if an ethnic Russian living in Estonia says, “I want to live here, I want to have all the rights of living here, but I refuse to learn your language.” I think that is where some of the real friction points happen between ethnic Russian communities and the Estonian population. That said, I think the Estonians argue, and I think their argumentation is rational, that a generational change will basically eliminate these issues. First of all, there is intermarriage. Ethnic Russians and ethnic Estonians marry and have children, and they are raised with both languages and it is totally natural. I think in the immediate to longer term, these things are going to go away.
Lastly — because you asked — as far as the treatment of the so-called ‘gray passholders’ (the citizens of neither Russia nor of Estonia but [those who have] permission to live in Estonia), I think the Estonians are really quite generous. There is a group of people who do not want to take Estonian citizenship, do not intend to take Russian citizenship, but want to stay in Estonia and enjoy the rights of living and working in Estonia. And the Estonians say, “Okay.” I think that that is a pretty positive attitude.
The Politic: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your experience at the McCain Institute. You mentioned earlier [in our pre-interview conversation] that it is a ‘decision institute.’ With that, how do you feel that your leadership roles at the State Department prepared you to work at this type of institute, and what do you bring from the State Department to your work in the private sector?
It is the private, non-profit sector, because it is part of an academic institution at Arizona State University. I think it is an excellent question. I have talked to many of my colleagues about this since I left the Department last year who have asked me, “How was your transition, after 25 years, into the non-governmental world?” And I answered that question as I will answer yours now. I think I am doing here many of the things that I did in government, but now doing it outside of government. In other words, I am dealing with foreign policy issues in terms of analyzing and proposing solutions — I did that in government.
I run the leadership program the McCain Institute sponsors every year, what we call ‘Next Generation Leaders’ from around the world. We bring them to the United States for a year of professional capacity building and leadership training. When I was in government, I used to recruit, sponsor, and find people to go to the United States for professional capacity building and leadership training. I do it from a different side now, but I am doing similar things.
I teach a class to ASU students on foreign policy. I used to mentor, teach, and bring along Foreign Service Officers to be the next senior leaders of U.S. foreign diplomacy — not terribly different from what I am doing now with undergraduates and some graduate students of ASU So I think a lot of what I did in government applies to here.
Some of the new things I am still learning here are fundraising, working in a less structured environment, and working with less staff. When I was ambassador, I was with a whole retinue of folks who worked together with me to make things happen. Here, we also have a team, and we all work very closely. But it’s a much smaller and much more hands-on team, so I have to put much more head to the task myself, rather than just simply asking someone else to do it. But I think that it is a lot of fun. The one thing that I got to do here that I did not get to do in a huge U.S. government organization is be in on the ground floor of basically a start-up and get to build it, hopefully constructively and well, up into something even better. In that sense, I think that it is a wonderful opportunity that I have to go ahead and do this, and I really jumped at it as soon as it was offered last year.
The Politic: Also about your time at the McCain Institute, you work a lot in foreign policy. Do you find that with structure of a non-profit organization and the kind of freedom that goes along with it, you all are able to advocate smart and sensible policies that the State Department wouldn’t necessarily implement?
Let’s put it this way: I do not want to say that we [are] smart and sensible and the State Department is narrow — that does not quite get it. What we can do is provide a range of options that we think are smart and sensible, whereas while I was in government, I was implementing government policy. To be very frank and honest, as a diplomat, no matter how senior I was, I was not making policy; I was mostly implementing policy. I had a small slice of contribution, but the ultimate instruction came from the President through the entire structure of our government, saying, “This is our policy and you will implement it.” Here, I get to lay it out myself and put it forward together with my colleagues. We can advocate a number of different policies on a non-partisan basis, but across the board, we can agree with the U.S. government or we can disagree with the U.S. government. It was much more structured and much more confined in my previous life than it is now.
The Politic: I also work for a think-tank, and sometimes we feel like we are putting these policy memos out there, and it’s kind of like shouting into the void; nothing necessarily gets done. What kind of things does the McCain Institute do in order to make sure that its policies get implemented?
This is an excellent question, and it is the sort of thing that we are still working on, because we say that we are a decision tank, not a think tank, and we talk about the policies that we are going to be advocating. But how are we going to do that? How are we going to make these things count? You made the very good point that you work at a think tank, and they put out a very good product, but what happens with the product? Some people read it; some people will not read it; maybe thousands of people read it; but what impact does it actually have? We are still trying to make that linkage between what we do and advocate to what actually gets implemented through the various actors that formulate U.S. foreign policy.
One of the tools that we have planned to use, and I will show it to you in just a moment, is called a ‘Decision Theater.’ You may have heard about this, and it is not really revolutionary, but it actually has never been applied in the foreign policy realm, as far as I know. We use large, HD screens in a circular room right outside [the room where we are] with lots of computing power behind it to create visualizations of decisions in foreign policy.
For instance, I taught a class last semester called Designing Solutions to Complex International Relations’ Challenges — a long title. What we created in that class was a visualization of democratization in the Middle East, a very current topic and also one of the most complex topics you could possibly imagine. And in a very rudimentary, basic way, the class created a visualization of decision points of what would happen if the U.S. did this, what would likely happen in Libya on this. If the U.S. did that, what would likely happen in Egypt. If U.S. increased aid to Jordan, what would likely happen to Jordan’s role in the Middle East and therefore the overall complex of democratization in the region. So what we are trying to do is use a dynamic visualization modeling system to bring a sharper focus to decision makers and hopefully gather decision makers together at this institute and let them see the consequences of those decisions. That way, we can influence how they make rational decisions.
For instance, since we are the McCain Institute, [we could hypothetically] invite Senator McCain — who is very strictly, legally separated from the Institute in terms of the management by law, and that is very strictly observed — his colleagues from the Hill, and friends from the administration to come in here on a subject of their choosing where we would create the visualization in the Decision Theater. Hopefully, [we could] allow them to have an informed discussion on that issue with some policy recommendations that actually would get to the ear of the people who can affect policy being made. That is our hope. We are barely a year young, so we are in the process of now developing this model and this process to see if this is how we can possibly have some influence on policymaking.
The Politic: Finally, how do you feel that America is represented abroad, and do you feel that there are any elements of foreign policy that you would want to change?
Maybe somewhat arrogantly, I would argue to you that the United States probably has the best diplomatic service in the world today. It is self-serving and arrogant because I was and still consider myself to be part of it. We are well-trained, we are motivated, there are a good number of us (although our diplomatic service is amazingly small, given the size of our country and the reach of our foreign policy interests), and we are adaptable and amazingly capable of using new technologies (you mentioned social media before) despite the strict confines of government bureaucracy and security concerns. I now have an iPhone, because outside of government I can use it. For my entire years in the Foreign Service I was never allowed to use the latest technology because it did not yet meet the security requirements of the State Department, and by the time it did, you were already on iPhone 7 and we were on iPhone 1. So in that sense we do extremely well, given the constraints.
We have a diverse group of diplomats coming from all walks of life, from all different types of schools, from the prestigious ones that you come from to the land-grant university that I came from, the University of Tennessee, from all parts of the country, from people who were born here and people who came here as immigrants. We all get to be part of a diverse Foreign Service. So I think we do very well.
What would I change about foreign policy? I think that the United States has not had for a long time and will never have into the future the luxury of sitting back and watching world events unfold. The U.S., whether you like it or not, must be in and must stay in a leadership role around the world. So the continuous question that this country must ask itself — ever since we basically took over the role of Britain, of being a world leader (or some would say the Roman Empire, though we are not an empire) — is: “So why is it that we always have to be out there to mix into Syria? Why do we have to intervene in Iraq? Why do we have to fix Afghanistan?” The answer is, “If not us, who?” And it is acceptable to say, “Well then, no one will do it, or some people will do some things in a very self-serving way, and is that in the best interest of our country?”
I believe in the exceptional status of the United States. I believe in American exceptionalism. I am not arrogant enough to say that we have all of the answers, because we make plenty of mistakes. But we are strong enough, powerful enough, big enough, ideologically suited in the sense that we have a broad, liberal, democratic vision of ourselves and of the world, that we owe it to the world to go ahead and lend our influence to the betterment of society. Do we always succeed? No. Do we sometimes do things exactly the opposite direction? Yes, sometimes we do. But that does not mean that we should not do it.
I am a little bit concerned that right now that our reticence to exercise our leadership role is allowing a certain drift to occur in the world, because we are not there; we do not want to be there. We would prefer to worry about our bridges and our highways — which is a totally legitimate goal — fixing our economy, fixing our debt; I am totally with that program. But the United States must be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. It is impossible for us to say we are only walking or we are only chewing. It is not acceptable to me. That is what I would say we need to work on right now.
Embassy of the United States to Estonia: http://estonia.usembassy.gov