An Interview with Peter Bodde, U.S. Ambassador to Nepal
A career member of the Senior Foreign Service, Peter W. Bodde was confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal on June 29, 2012. Immediately prior to his current post, Bodde served as the Assistant Chief of Mission for Assistance Transition in Iraq and Coordinator for Minority Issues at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Previously, he was U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Malawi from 2008 to 2010, and Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan from 2006 to 2008. From 2002 to 2006, he was Consul General at the U.S. Consulate in Frankfurt, Germany. Bodde has also served in Guyana, Bulgaria, Denmark and India, as well as previously in Nepal. He has also served in various State Department positions in Washington, most recently as the Director of the Office of Management Policy. A graduate of the University of Maryland, Bodde speaks German, Bulgarian, and Nepali.
The Politic: Why did you initially choose to join the Foreign Service and what were your years before your Ambassadorship like?
I had a very easy choice to make. I grew up in the Foreign Service, as what they call an FSBR — a Foreign Service brat retired. My father is a retired ambassador, and because I grew up in the Foreign Service, I knew what it was about. Growing up, I travelled in Europe quite a bit. I valued the challenges and I also wanted to make a difference in my professional career in the federal service and knew the Foreign Service would allow me to do that.
This the third time I’ve served as an ambassador. I was Ambassador in Malawi, I was one of the Ambassadors in Baghdad (as the Assistant Chief of Mission for Assistance Transition), and now I’m ambassador here. I have had a variety of other positions. I came up in what we call the management cone – I’ve had a lot of management positions and I was also Counsel General in Frankfurt, DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission] here in Nepal fifteen years ago, and DCM in Pakistan just prior to going to Malawi. I feel very fortunate for my wide variety of experiences in a lot of interesting places.
The Politic: What are some of the best reasons you feel one should consider joining the Foreign Service?
In the Foreign Service, like in the civil service, when you become a public servant, you dedicate yourself to a lifetime of service to your nation. That is a responsibility that I, along with my colleagues, take very seriously. I think that is a very important first reason to join. The second reason is that it’s a fascinating lifestyle. I have gotten to live in some incredible places. I have gotten to live through some incredible experiences, and I’ve seen a great part of the world. I have had a chance to see where things work and where things do not work quite as well. Another reason is that I know I make a difference every day in the work that I do. That’s not just true of me as ambassador, but that’s true of all of my colleagues serving on the country team here in Nepal. Finally, it’s patriotic! When you serve your nation for 33 years, as I have, you realize just how important being American is, and just how important representing the United States is.
The Politic: In what ways is a career in the Foreign Service different from the 9-5 job? Obviously, the work is done in many different parts of the world, but how does the day-to-day work differ from a traditional 9-5 job?
First of all, a career in the Foreign Service is the most rewarding career I know. As I said earlier, every day I make a difference. Usually the link to helping individuals is fairly clear — you know what you’ve done and you know the impact you’ve made. The second thing that people don’t realize about the Foreign Service is the tremendous variety of our work. Every day is something different, and as you come up through the Foreign Service, you get to do a lot of different things. You also switch stops and switch locations every few years. You also switch bosses, which is one of the attractions.
You are constantly learning and applying skills that you pick up every day. During my last job in Iraq, I was responsible for the energy sector — the whole economic function fell under the [purview of the] embassy in Baghdad. I learned so much more about oil, gas, and electricity production. You are just constantly being forced to learn new things and become an expert in different areas. Another aspect is that, when you join the Foreign Service, you are going to be spending a majority of your adult life outside of your home nation. That is the choice we all make, but it’s something people should consider. We are also exposed to new and different cultures, and I think this makes you a better leader and a better problem solver. And finally, the best part is that you get to represent the United States and all that it stands for.
The Politic: What roles do you fulfill currently as Ambassador to Nepal? How does the president choose who becomes an ambassador?
The best way to describe my role is to talk about ambassadors and what we do on a daily basis. First of all, any good ambassador is very proactive. We meet the needs of our post. To give you a good sense of what we actually do, let me talk about my schedule for the past two weeks. In the last ten working days, I’ve had thirty internal meetings, two overnight road trips to different regions of Nepal to promote free, fair, credible, and civil elections, fifteen public speaking engagements, and fifteen interactions with our local diplomatic partners. I’ve had interactions with local NGOs on issues ranging from helping the disabled to helping trafficked persons and climate change, health and food security; meetings on predicting American citizens resident visiting Nepal; a similar number of meetings considering the meeting of our own staff; I hosted six representational social events, including two dinners for Nepal’s resident minority religious Muslim leaders; I engaged with the Christian religious community’s resident in Nepal; I hosted numerous visitors from the United States here to engage on a wide variety of issues. This is the scheduled stuff, not including the day-to-day work of my other operations.
In answer to the other part, the way it normally works is that about 60 to 70 percent of our ambassadors tend to be what we call career Foreign Service Officers. These are candidates put forth through the State Department, through the Secretary of State, and appointed by the president. They are generally senior diplomats with years of experience. In addition to those, the president appoints another 30 to 40 percent of our ambassadors who are political appointees. These tend to be leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and successful Americans who represent what America is all about. They tend to be very accomplished people in life and they bring the balance. What I’ve found over my career is having that mixture is something that makes our representation overseas so strong. Of course, all ambassadors serve as the president’s personal representatives to the countries of which we are credited, and we serve at the pleasure of the president.
The Politic: I want to switch gears and talk about Nepal, specifically. How does the political climate in Nepal today compare to some of the other nations you’ve served in, such as Pakistan?
It differs in several different ways. I’ve been very lucky; I’ve served in several nascent democracies. New democracies all have the same challenges: people are getting used to the whole new democratic process, and they have very high expectations. Nascent democracies have young institutions. They have governments that are new to this system of government. It is very, very hard to meet expectations sometimes. We have all those challenges facing us in Nepal, which emerged from a decade-long insurgency a few years ago. Nepal is still healing from that. One of the things that makes my work rewarding and easy to do is that I, along with my Nepali counterparts, find a strong focus on, and desire for, democracy. The Nepalese have an election coming up on November 19. They are going to elect a constituent assembly, and then they have to finish drafting a constitution. After that, they have to start casting new laws to institutionalize accountability and transparency, and pave the way for economic development. The bottom line is that the citizens here want a better life and they generally understand that only a democratic form of government will allow real development to occur.
The Politic: How does the American embassy in Nepal promote American interests? Are there specific American interests that are prioritized?
In order to promote the United States’ interests, it’s important to engage in a lot of outreach. It starts with taking a very hands-on approach, and it includes and entails my entire Mission. We engage in a number of different activities. One of the things we are very engaged in here is public speaking. I mentioned earlier that I made a few trips last Tuesday, the purpose of which was to promote free, fair, credible and inclusive elections in Nepal. We went out and talked with a number of different audiences. We want to solidify our goal that democratic values take root here in Nepal.
We also have a number of other programs. We have a very active outreach program for youths. We have a youth council under my sponsorship, and over 800 young Nepalese applied to be a part of our youth council. We have a very active visitor program and the Fulbright program here. We are engaged in the IVLP [International Visitor Leadership Program], through which we send young future leaders to the United States to meet with specialists in their own fields, familiarize themselves with political institutions, and learn about with the United States. We also do a lot of commercial outreach. Although there are not many United States exports to Nepal, there is strong interest. These things entail a major portion of what we do. What it takes is a very hands-on approach. We also make it part of everybody’s work requirement here.
I also want to mention that we have a very robust assistance program — we have an $88 million aid program. We focus on President Obama’s Feed the Future Program, Climate Change Program, and Food Security Program. We also do a lot in terms of our democracy programs with groups like NDI [National Democratic Institute], the Carter Center, in order to help train local political units and parties on how to conduct elections. We also have a very robust health program here in order to improve the health conditions here specifically for women and children.
The Politic: What type of relationship does the Embassy have with the Nepali government?
We have had a very highly productive relationship with the government of Nepal for almost 60 years. It is a relationship built on trust and praxis. Our long history makes my job much easier. This is also my third time in Nepal, which is another advantage. I met many of the people I deal with for the first time in the 1980s or 1990s. Most of the work of the Foreign Service is about building relationships, and in turn, using those relationships to advance our national interests. Because of our longstanding relationship with Nepal — we’ve donated over $1.3 billion over the past 60 years — we are seen as a very critical partner to Nepal’s political, democratic, and economic development. In nascent democracies like Nepal, people constantly look to the United States for reassurance of the democratic nature.
The Political: What is one of the major ways you feel American foreign policy has shifted during your career.
I joined the Foreign Service 33 years ago, during the height of the Cold War. I had grown up studying in Germany and later worked in Germany during the Cold War. I served in Bulgaria from 1988 to 1990 and I feel incredibly lucky to have served there as the world watched the fall of communism, the end of the Cold War, and democracy take root throughout Eastern Europe. I saw this on a firsthand basis. Working in the embassies, I felt I was part of it.
Since that time, I have seen a much greater American emphasis on economic statecraft. We also spend a lot of time promoting human rights issues, particularly the role of women and minorities in society. One of the things we’ve learned in the developing world is that the education of women, especially young women, leads to quicker development of countries, and leads to more confident democracy. This has been a part of our official policy.
One thing that has not changed in 33 years is that much of the world — probably most of the world — still looks to us every day for support and reaffirmation because of all of what the United States stands for. I have one of the world’s best jobs because I get to represent our great nation every day.
Embassy of the United States to Nepal: http://nepal.usembassy.gov/index.html