Peter Tarnoff Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Making Foreign Policy in a Democracy: Conversation with Peter Tarnoff, former Undersecretary of State and former president of the Council on Foreign Relations; 10/13/99 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Lessons Learned

I heard you say earlier that the idealism of the young Peter Tarnoff, fresh from his major in philosophy, was channeled into government service by the call of a president. How can we channel the idealism today? Where will students find an outlet for their idealism as they grapple with international issues? When they want to make a difference, as you said you wanted to make a difference? Will they be doing that more in nongovernmental organizations, environmental groups, and so on?

I think the opportunities are much greater now than they were thirty-five years ago when I came into government, because not only do you no longer have the overarching threat to the destruction of the planet, you have, as you were suggesting, Harry, other opportunities. You have nongovernmental organizations, you have businesses doing exceptionally creative and inventive work. You have the media. You have university people who are traveling overseas and spending time as Fulbrighters or exchange professors or students overseas. And you also have people in the arts and culture who can live and work overseas and invite their counterparts to this country a lot more easily than was the case before, when you had essentially blocs of countries that were identified on one side or another of the great divide. Now, there are still problems and enormous dangers, but I think the terrain is much more open to the kind of idealism and creativity that these young people might have than was the case when you had a rather rigid ideological and military division between those who were on one side and those who were on the other.

We know that you prepared for your service though philosophy. Looking to the future, how would you suggest that students prepare themselves? What sort of skills do they need to acquire? What sort of training should they have?

The only lesson that I learned which might still apply many years later is that unless they are interested in area studies, which is a very legitimate discipline, so that they really know that they want to be acquainted with the language and the culture and the governments and the history of a certain area or certain peoples in a certain area, in which case they should do just that; or [unless] they want to become academic theoreticians to a certain degree on international affairs, which is also a legitimate undertaking of course, especially in a university setting like we are now; I think that if they still want to be internationalists, they should follow their professional interests first. Because, as I indicated before, whatever they do, wherever their professional interests and training takes them, they will have an opportunity to become international, and the international extension of their professional life should take place after they have gotten the education, the training, and the position in the economy or wherever it is to branch out afterwards. And as I say, it's very difficult for me to imagine a profession where they would not have this opportunity.

Looking back, any lessons that you would like us to draw from this distinguished service in government and the nongovernmental sector?

Well, taking a bit of exception to your characterization of it as distinguished, I guess that maybe [my story is] an example of luck, which I referred to before, at least as far as I was concerned; and that [luck] was being in a place where I was quite motivated to have an international career in the State Department simply because I was in Europe at the time. Not to underestimate the effect of opportunity and luck and chance of traveling is very important.

The other thing that we have uniquely in the United States, which I have relished during my international service in the public and private sector, is the ability to come in and out of government. As you know, in virtually all of the foreign bureaucracies, if you go into the diplomatic service as a young person you are there for life, and then if you leave it you never come back, and few leave it because it's stimulating and there are all sorts of career incentives to remain there. I have now had two incarnations in government and two incarnations out of government, and whether or not I have a third assignment in government is something that I can't predict. But I think it's quite stimulating and mutually reinforcing for us, given the diversity of opportunities we have in our country and culture, to move in and out of government, so that ideally (and I can't say I've done it perfectly in every respect), you can draw strength from the government service and the mission that you're involved in, but have a better understanding while you're in government of what is available outside, and what, as we were saying a moment ago, the real growing strengths are in terms of the international connections that can only be done in the private sector under our system.

So this shuttling back and forth, not opportunistically but on a fairly regular basis, is quite an opportunity that we have in this country, and that I would recommend to anyone who will try it. Take a bit of a risk, because you can't always be as sure-footed when you're hopping back and forth every five or ten years as would be if you followed a more straight-line career.

Peter, thank you very much for joining us today and sharing these insights with us about U.S. foreign policy. And thank you very much for joining for this Conversation with History.

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