Joseph Wilson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Diplomat's Odyssey: Conversation with Ambassador Joseph Wilson, IV; May
    27, 2004, by Harry Kreisler

Page 2 of 5

Being a Diplomat

Help us understand what a diplomat does. It's a pretty complex undertaking once you're placed in countries such as the ones you were sent to -- Gabon, Niger, and so on.

One of the things I tried to do with the book is to open a window into what is a little-understood profession, those of us who go overseas and represents the interests of our country in foreign environments. I started at the very bottom, and I ended up in one of the most remote places in the world, the West African country of Niger, in a job that had no glamour associated with it whatsoever. I was not dealing with presidents and chiefs of state and prime ministers. I was dealing with administrative problems, logistical support for the diplomatic mission. We would go to cocktail parties and others would talk about affairs of state; people would come up to me and talk about their plumbing problems, or about how their car had broken down, and things like that.

But you say at one point " ... considerable time is required to develop good intelligence, with the obligatory cultivation of contacts, relationships, and networks all being part of the equation." So this interaction with the populace as you moved up in the diplomatic hierarchy was key to getting a sense of the place, but also doing, as you call it, the work of democratization. At one point you say, "I've been working in the field of democratization for twenty-five years." One gets the sense from your book that in the various roles you held in these embassies, that's exactly what you were doing.

That's exactly right. U.S. policy since the time of Jimmy Carter has been predicated on the desire to promote systems of government that empower people, and that support the notion of the rule of law and respect for the human rights of the citizenry, and treatment of citizens as something more than just the subjects of an imperial or tyrannical master. Irrespective of where I was, even in administrative positions early in my career, I came into contact with the landlord class and with the moneyed classes of a particular society. Much like moving into any other new town, it takes a while to know your way around. In the Foreign Service it's a little bit more complicated, because you have to know your way around in a different language and in a different culture.

I've long believed that in terms of democratization, we're better off if we talk about democratization in terms that everybody can understand, and not about democratization in terms of our own specific experience.

Knowing the history and culture of the places where you're working becomes very important, because the widget that fits here in a slot isn't necessarily going to work there.

We're all products of our culture, products of our history, products even of our bureaucracy. I believe perhaps the best education for a diplomat is cultural anthropology. A lot of the societies that I've worked in still have very deep ties to extended family structures, patrilineal and matrilineal, and patriarchical and matriarchical social structures.

What then are the skills required to do the job? If you were advising a student, what would you tell them are the things that you've got to be able to do?

First of all, understanding that we promote the United States, and we defend our own national interests. It's important to understand what we are as a society. What makes us tick? What is the social contract that has produced, arguably, the greatest democracy in the history of mankind? Second, it's important to understand international economics and world history so that you have a sense of what other cultures are thinking and how they're shaped by their experiences.

Iraq is a great example. Iraq had been conquered by the Mongols in 1258. It was subjected to Ottoman occupation for 400 years, and British occupation shortly thereafter. There was no reason in this current war to expect that Iraqis would react other than they have reacted historically to foreign occupation.

The other side of what you have to do is to understand what makes America tick. I'm curious as to what you see in our history and culture that makes us so na•ve many times about what we can accomplish in the world. Is it over-reading our sense of our own importance and what we've accomplished?

In all societies, there's a tendency to assume that the world rotates around your particular problems. I've been in places as far flung as Kigali, Rwanda, and Luanda, Angola, and had the chiefs of state in these society assume that because the problems in their country are important to them, they're important to the rest of the world. We probably have a tendency in all societies to see it that way.

With respect to the United States, I think that we are, to a certain extent, subject to our own geographic isolation. For all intents and purposes, we're not surrounded by people with whom we've had historical enmity. In fact, we're surrounded only by one country that even speaks a different language than ours, and has a somewhat different culture. So I think that's part of it.

Secondly, we have gained so much power and so much wealth so rapidly, without ever having suffered in the same way that some of these other societies have suffered. We've been attacked on the homeland only twice in our history -- one submarine torpedo shell that hit the West Coast in the Second World War, and then, of course, 9/11. Other than that, we've been pretty much immune from attack from foreign countries. That is not the case of all the European countries, and most of the Asian and Latin American countries, which have been in little wars with each other periodically over time.

Next page: Acting Ambassador in Iraq

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