Episode 46: Ambassadors

What happens at a U.S. Embassy?  What does it take to become a diplomat?  And how do you celebrate the 4th of July in Africa? In this episode, we get a taste of how ambassadors represent U.S. interests in foreign countries.  Our guest is Johnnie Carson, a former U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.

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[Virginia Prescott] Johnnie Carson was U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Zimbabwe, and most recently to Kenya. He then went on to serve as U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs.

Ambassador Carson, what is the role of an ambassador?

[Johnnie Carson] Virginia, a U.S. Ambassador abroad is the most senior representative of the United States government in a foreign country. The ambassador typically is in charge of a U.S. Embassy and that embassy serves as an advocate for all U.S. government interests abroad and in that country. And those relationships will vary from country to country, but in many of them it involves working on trade and commercial and economic issues. It may involve working on security and military issues and it can in some countries be focused heavily on working with a country to deal with a medical or health pandemic like the Ebola virus that consumed the attention of the U.S. embassies in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea some two and a half years ago.

[VP] So tell me what that means on a day to day basis. What is an ambassador doing from day to day?

[JC] Ambassadors on a day to day basis [are] consulting with the country team. He may or she may go into the Foreign Ministry to talk about an issue related to the U.N. or some international issue, gaining that country's support for the U.S. position and learning what that country's position is. It may be meeting with local businessmen and bankers and financier's to get a better understanding of the economic concerns of the country.

[VP] So a lot of meetings, a lot of face time, that sounds like?

[JC] A lot of face time. I would describe a U.S. Ambassador abroad in a medium and large sized post as being equivalent to a mayor in a very dynamic and engaged city across the United States. One is doing substantive work, one is doing representational work and one is doing ceremonial work. The substance may involve a political, economic, or security problem. The representational work may in fact be attending a government event that requires the presence of a high level U.S. official. A ceremonial event may in fact be hosting the July 4th picnic and celebration abroad.

 [VP] So you did that in Africa? You were hosting July 4th parties when you were in Uganda, Kenya?

[JC] Absolutely. Not only for the embassy staff but for Americans who may be there. In the case of Kenya there is a large American business community, there is a large missionary community that attends, all of these individuals as well as senior officials from the government, all of these individuals would be invited to a July 4th celebration.

[VP] Does every country have an ambassador?

[JC] All countries with which we have diplomatic relations generally have an ambassador. But in places like Iran and North Korea, no, but there are places in the world where we have diplomatic relations but have not elevated the relationship to the point where we have a sitting ambassador. Sudan for example, Khartoum, where we have an embassy, where we have a chargé d'affaires who is a senior officer, but we do not have a Senate confirmed Ambassador and have not had one there since 1998.

[VP] You mentioned the Senate confirmation. Ambassadors are nominated by the president. Then they need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, but tell us, there are a couple of different kinds of appointments here. There is sort of political appointments and then there are people who are career foreign service officers who make their way up through the Department of State. You are the latter.

[JC] Correct.

[VP] What is the difference in those kind of appointments?

[JC] The difference is one of professional career. The other is the result of a political appointment and political favoritism which is certainly permissible and acceptable under the U.S. Constitution. Career diplomats generally enter the foreign service through a written and oral examination process. They will serve typically 15 to 20 years before they receive their first ambassadorial appointment. That appointment is made on the basis of merit, accomplishment, experience. A non-career ambassador, a political appointee, is generally someone who is favorably known to the president. They are people who have generally donated large amounts of money and or time or prestige to a president's or a party's political success. Those are seen to be political rewards not professional rewards.

[VP] And we've seen more of these in recent years, the rise of political appointments to ambassadorships over career foreign service officers. What does that mean in terms of how you're serving a country?

[JC] I think a professional officer brings a great deal more international experience, understanding and knowledge to the job. They are people who are fully aware of the operations of the State Department or conversant with the policies in the country where they are serving, the region where they're serving. They not only in large measure have regional expertise, they have linguistic expertise, they have cultural awareness. Political appointees, and we have had some outstanding political ambassadors, but we also have had political appointees, sadly, who have not met any of the basic criteria of knowing the country, the history, the policies of the United States and those individuals tend to diminish the record of outstanding political appointees by the lack of understanding and knowledge that they bring to the table in both Republican and Democratic administrations. There have been some political failures, political ringers.

[VP] Is there a moment, Ambassador Carson,  in your foreign service career were you saw very clearly that diplomacy was working, you know soft power, was paying off as compared to military power or hard power threats even?

[JC] In Malawi in 2012, the State Department, our ambassador on the ground, and our officials in Washington, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, convinced military leaders and opposition politicians not to intervene to prevent a sitting Vice President from assuming the presidency after the President had died of a stroke. There were individuals in government who did not want the Vice President, who happened to be a woman, to succeed to the presidency. But it was through a great deal of discussion that they and we prevailed to ensure that there would be a peaceful transition of power. So there are many instances out there where quiet diplomacy, negotiation, and engagement do in fact help to stop what could turn out to be violence and ongoing conflict.

[VP] Who do Ambassadors report to?

[JC] Generally because there are a large number, they generally are reporting back to regional assistant secretaries and on to the Secretary of State. As you can imagine with issues related to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, the senior officials overseas generally have a direct or near direct line to the Secretary of State and to the White House given the centrality and importance of those issues.

[VP] After the impact of major international events like 9/11 and Benghazi for example, how have you seen diplomacy change over the years in your career alone?

[JC] I think the two or three most startling changes have to do with the introduction of the Internet. Telephone conferencing, both unclassified and secure, have speeded up the level of communication and have speeded up the decision making process. Secondly security. We live in a much more insecure world, and so security has been substantially increased. We have lots of high walls, we have lots of security personnel, we have Marine security guards at virtually all of our facilities abroad. We have fewer and fewer United States information libraries that were the mainstay of the U.S. face in many countries in many capitals. And we've seen, thirdly, an expansion of U.S. government personnel outside of the State Department in larger embassies, whether it be the Department of Defense with its defense attachés, whether it be the Department of Agriculture with its agricultural attachés, all of these organizations are now looking to have their representatives in major embassies. I might also add that the Department of State does an enormous service for the American people in representing and advocating for America but it is still one of the smallest Cabinet departments and it still remains significantly under resourced for the kind of serious and hard work that it does in some hundred and seventy plus nations.

[VP] So with possible cuts to the Foreign Service budget announced by this administration what would be lost?

[JC] Our leadership ability, our ability to project programs that support our policies and our principles.

[VP] Ambassador Johnnie Carson thank you very much for speaking with us.

[JC] Thank you very much Virginia.

[VP] Johnnie Carson, he was U.S. ambassador to Uganda, Zimbabwe, and most recently to Kenya. He's now senior adviser at the U.S. Institute of Peace.


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