Elizabeth Jones Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy: Continuity and Change after 9/11: Conversation with A. Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, October 22, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Assistant Secretary Jones, or should I call you Beth or Elizabeth?

Beth is good.

Beth, welcome to Berkeley. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Munich, Germany. My father and mother started out in the Foreign Service. My father stayed in the Foreign Service. So I was raised overseas, in a Foreign Service family.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped both your character and your thinking?

I know they did in very specific ways. They felt very strongly that we should understand and really live in the community in which we were living. So when we were posted to Moscow, I went to a Russian school. I was one of the first Americans to do that. That was, of course, at the height of the Cold War. It was almost unheard of. But the Russians were very welcoming, and I learned Russian.

Did you talk shop at home over the dinner table?

Not as much when I was growing up. A bit. We talked about current events and what was happening, and why, for example, when we moved to Berlin, there was, as my father always called it, "a rat race on the Autobahn" -- because the Russians had shut down the Autobahn from Berlin, so that we couldn't get in or out of the city. So I got an appreciation for the importance of what is going on around us in international relations, and really wanted to participate.

Over the years you picked up a number of languages, right? You speak German, Russian ...

German and Russian. I learned both of those in high school, because my parents did the same thing when we moved to Berlin: I went right into a German school, and learned German that way. And then in the Foreign Service, I studied Arabic.

How do you think this being involved in the communities that your parents were stationed in contributed to your understanding as a diplomat?

Well, for instance, talking with the Russians that I was in school with, it was clear to me that they had no idea what we were about. As far as they were concerned, I represented the United States, which was an interesting concept for me, because I just thought I was Beth. But I represented the United States, and I represented the enemy. I represented something really dangerous. Of course, I knew I wasn't dangerous. I knew the United States wasn't dangerous -- I didn't think it was. I thought, "Well, there's a way to communicate this kind of thing, there's a way to deal with people on a personal level that can overcome these false stereotypes."

And you wound up doing that as a young person, as you related to these kids?

I did. I did to a degree. I mean, mostly, because I was a teenager, I wanted to fit in. That didn't change very much at all. But I was very conscious of being an American throughout, and wanting to make sure people understood that America was a good place to live and grow up and be a citizen of.

Did this make you want to study your own country, or were you doing that even as you studied in international schools?

I was doing it even when I was in the school. I was particularly concerned that I really didn't know American literature and American history. So after the German school every day, when I would have been a senior, I went to the American high school for American literature and American history courses.

Then to get your undergraduate degree, you came back to the United States?

Then I came back to the United States for that, to be sure I was grounded in the liberal arts education that I thought was very important.

Where did you get your degree?

At Swarthmore College.

What did you major in?

I majored in history.

Has that proved to be useful?

The thing that proved to be the most useful was understanding how to read history, how to understand the motivations of people, and to learn from history -- what happened in this particular situation, how should we do it differently? I was particularly impressed with the force of personalities throughout history, and how important a particular person can be or a group of people can be in changing thinking.

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