The Liberal Art of Diplomacy

28 February 2023
By Jon Spayde
US Ambassador to the UN Adlai E. Stevenson conferring with Secy. Gen. U Thant during special session of Security Council to discuss the Panama Canal
Diplomats in action, January 1964

Carleton prepares students for foreign service by teaching empathetic communication, limber problem solving, and creative thinking.

Cynthia Kierscht ’87 worked out of a hotel room in Tripoli as part of a newly re-established, under-construction American Interests Section in post-Gaddafi Libya, connecting with local NGOs and reporting on human rights issues. Elizabeth Davenport McKune ’70 became ambassador to Qatar right before it was a linchpin of post-9/11 antiterrorism policy—the first female envoy from any country to the conservative Islamic mini-state.

Jimmy Kolker ’70 kicked off George W. Bush’s ambitious anti-AIDS initiative in the program’s showcase nation, Uganda. Michael Armacost ’58 represented America in the Philippines during a crucial period near the end of the Marcos dictatorship. And at an emergency confab in Georgia, Thomas Hughes ’47 warned Hubert Humphrey, prophetically, that Lyndon Johnson’s planned escalation of the Vietnam war would divide the nation and the Democratic party [see “Soft Power and Hard Truths,” in this issue].

These men and women of the moment are a sampling of current or retired American diplomats with Carleton degrees, and these adventures represent only a fraction of their achievements in postings around the world and on what Kierscht calls the “mother ship” in Washington. Their careers throw into relief traits a diplomat needs, including the ability to adapt to changing circumstances; an openness to issues, values, and viewpoints different from their own; adeptness at digesting information and acting on it; and more.

Carleton prides itself on cultivating those liberal-arts-linked skills, and on the contributions its graduates have made to American diplomacy. And as the international situation mutates, sometimes overnight, the college’s teaching mission about international relations and the political dimensions of diplomacy evolves too. Recent changes in the Department of Political Science and International Relations, including a name change, reflect new realities in world politics and American diplomacy.

Signing of Paris Peace Accords
National security advisor Henry Kissinger (lower center) and North Vietnamese negotiator Le Duc Tho sign the Paris Peace Accords, 1973

Greg Marfleet, Dorothy H. and Edward C. Congdon Professor of Political Science with a specialty in the relationship between American politics and foreign policy, sums up the liberal-arts case: “To be a good diplomat, you have to be a generalist, right? You’ve got to be aware of the political, to have some understanding of the economic, to understand how different cultures might interpret things differently—and those are the kinds of skills that you get in a liberal arts environment.”

Jimmy Kolker agrees. “I think of the Foreign Service as a liberal arts education, extended,” he says. “Every day is different. Every subject is different. You need to be familiar with how people in different disciplines think, while, at the same time, figuring out how to connect a whole bunch of dots in real time.”

The challenges diplomats face aren’t limited to the shifting economic, political, and social conditions at their posts, either. As the careers of Carl diplomats show, the State Department moves them around regularly from region to region and from function to function. (“You’re posted where you’re needed,” says McKune.) Before becoming ambassador to the West African nation of Mauritania in 2021, for example, Kierscht was trained in Arabic and served as a political officer in Cairo, keeping an eye on Egyptian politics and their potential effect on U.S. interests; then as a consular officer in France, assisting American citizens there with visa issues and other problems. Later she worked at that Libya post and in Washington handling management issues for 20 embassies in the Caribbean. She served as a counterterrorism advisor covering the same region before becoming director of the Office of Canadian Affairs and then Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs. (And that’s just a sample of her postings and positions.)

While the professors in Carleton’s Department of Political Science and International Relations don’t think of their curriculum as a preprofessional track preparing diplomats, they are keenly aware that representing international relations and American foreign policy to students is a complex and multidisciplinary mission.

A man in military fatigues speaks to an audience of men wearing suits
A lecture at the Army War College

This has become even clearer in recent years as the very nature of relationships between nation-states has changed, says department chair Tun Myint, a specialist in Myanmar, Southeast Asia, and international environmental issues. “From the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 in Europe, when nation-states were emerging and defining themselves, until 1945 and the end of the Second World War, states dealt with each other mainly in terms of two issues—peace and war,” he says.

Then, he explains, from 1945 to 1993 or so, even though war and peace were still front and center in the Cold War, nations began moving toward “soft power,” as they tried to recover and develop via productive exchange—trade and commerce. The World Trade Organization was established along with other similar bodies. “Then,” says Myint, “with the Cold War ending and the internet arriving around 1993-94, globalization deepened and climate change, species loss, social media, and the power of multinationals have come to the forefront. Now, given these huge global realities—including pandemics—we can no longer think of my country versus your country. International relations and diplomacy have gone beyond the nation-state.”

Reflecting this trend away from state-versus-state questions toward more all-encompassing problems, the department’s faculty in 2008–2009 reorganized the curriculum around four notably multidisciplinary “thematic pathways”—Leadership, Peace, and Security; Globalization, Development, and Sustainability; Democracy, Society, and the State; and Philosophical and Legal Inquiries.

Eugenie Anderson, U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, looks over a pig pen on a typical Danish farm during a tour of various Danish cooperative plants in North Zealand
Eugenie Moore Anderson ’31, U.S. ambassador to Denmark, visits a Danish farm in 1950

Recognizing the intimate relationship between foreign policy and domestic political questions both at home and abroad, in 2021 the department shifted from offering a choice of two majors—poli sci proper and international relations—to a single major that encompasses both, with differing emphases depending on students’ interests. At the same time, “International Relations” was added to the department’s official title.

The thematic pathways, which began as formal divisions of the curriculum, now are offered only as guides to content as students put together their class schedules. “Some students want breadth,” says Carleton political science professor Dev Gupta, “and that’s fine. Some students want to specialize a bit more in a particular thematic area. The different pathways allow for people who want broad training versus people who want to go really deep into, say, sustainability after doing their intro courses.”

For students who want to take a first step onto the Kolker, Davenport, or Kierscht tracks and get a taste of what diplomacy is like, the department is planning a spring course that will offer them a real-world look at global power politics—plus a simulation of international crisis management courtesy of the Army War College.

POSC 201: Statecraft and the Tools of National Power will be team-taught by three professionals: Jon Olson, a retired naval intelligence officer who is Bigelow Teacher-in-Residence in the department; Ross Wilson, a veteran diplomat who was called out of retirement in Wisconsin to be chargé d’affaires (temporary ambassador) to, of all problematical places, Afghanistan during the 2020–2021 U.S. withdrawal; and Tom Hanson, another Minnesota-born Foreign Service officer who is now chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota and Diplomat-in-Residence at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

The trio will guide students as they examine three important “tools of national power.” These, as the course defines them, are the power of diplomacy, including embassies’ informational and cultural outreach to the public in foreign lands; military power; and economic power.

American Ambassador to Jordan, David Hale shakes hands with Abdelwahab Jeme, the World Food Program representative
American ambassador to Jordan David Hale and World Food Program representative Abdelwahab Jeme, 2006

“All nations have those tools, and how they apply them is the art and science of statecraft,” Olson explains. “I will teach the military power component. Ross teaches the economic components, because about 40 percent of his career was spent in economy-related positions at embassies around the world. And Tom teaches the diplomacy side.”

Capping off the course will be a remarkable opportunity for students to take part in an International Strategic Crisis Negotiation Exercise (ISCNE). This crisis simulation is a program of the Army War College, which provides graduate-level instruction to senior military officers and civilians in diplomatic and defense roles. “They take the ISCNE program all around the country, mostly to graduate schools, free of charge,” Olson says. “They look at it as an important way to connect with the civilian universities, to highlight for them some of the things that people have to think about when it comes to an international crisis.”

Olson was originally brought to Carleton in 2013 to teach national security studies, filling in for the retired professor Roy Grow. Subsequently, he’s taught on the intelligence establishment, the role of weapons of mass destruction in the contemporary world, and related topics as, he says, “a practitioner, not a theoretician.” Olson participated in an ISCNE at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, and he teamed up with Grow’s widow, Mary Lewis, to ask the War College if they would consider bringing the exercise to the undergrads on the Carleton campus.

US Embassy building in Mauritania
The U.S. embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania

The “yes” they received means that students will form teams representing different nations and work as crisis negotiators. “We’re probably going to focus on some crisis issue in the South China Sea,” Olson says. “Each country team will have a leader running their team of diplomats. We will bring in career Foreign Service officers or retired military officers as country team mentors, to advise the teams when they go into negotiating rounds with the other countries. And they all have assignments from their foreign minister or secretary of state about what they’re supposed to achieve in this negotiation process. It will be a wild, fun two-day exercise.”

It will be a chance for Carls to sample a little of the complexity of real-world international relations and to use what they’re learning to, in Ambassador Kolker’s words, “figure out how to connect a whole bunch of dots in real time.”

Elizabeth McKune

Elizabeth Davenport McKune ’70

In the world of diplomacy, Carleton can claim at least four female “firsts.”

Eugenie Moore Anderson ’31 was the first woman to serve as a U.S. ambassador, appointed to Denmark in 1949.

The other three firsts are all held by the same woman.

Elizabeth Davenport McKune ’70 was the first female African American ambassador in the Middle East; the first female ambassador from any nation to Qatar, where she served from 1998 through June 2001; and the first woman to be a deputy executive secretary in the State Department.

Born in Detroit, McKune majored in history at Carleton and took her first international relations course pass/fail because of a lack of confidence. The professor, Hartley Clark ’52, told her she would have earned an A. (“I was flabbergasted,” McKune recalls.) Confidence intact, she went on to an MA in international relations from Johns Hopkins, a stint as a management intern in the Commerce Department, then her first State Department posting, to Tel Aviv as a consular and commercial officer.

It was the beginning of a long relationship with the Middle East for McKune, a keen student of cultures. “I learned that there was a wide variety of political views among the Israeli public,” she says. “In Gaza I saw very crowded living conditions and poverty. In Tunisia, I saw the effects of French colonialism. In Egypt, the generosity of a great people with a great sense of humor.”

Her appointment to Qatar came at a time when the State Department was forging a security alliance with the Gulf state while also working to support the rights of women there. In Washington, besides her pathbreaking appointment as a deputy executive secretary, she was Country Director for Northern Arabian Affairs, a political analyst for Caribbean affairs in the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and office director for Pacific Island Affairs.

In 17 years representing the U.S. in the Middle East, she never felt that her gender was a barrier. “When you’re representing the most powerful nation on earth,” she says with a smile, “they don’t care if you’ve got three heads, as long as you conduct yourself properly and are competent.”

Jeanne Briggs ’96

Jeanne Briggs ’96

Not all Foreign Service officers join the diplomatic corps. The Service also staffs the overseas bureaus of the commerce and agriculture departments and United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the independent agency administering foreign aid and development assistance. Within USAID, the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) works in unsettled and conflict-prone areas of the world to promote reconciliation, economic development, and independent media, with the goal of fostering peace and democracy.

Jeanne Briggs has worked in this sphere for more than 20 years. While the typical USAID officer is a technical specialist—in agriculture, economics, public health, etc.—Briggs, who majored in political science at Carleton, focused on the intricacies of the socioeconomic circumstances in the troubled nations to which she was assigned.

“OTI’s work is not long-term development and it’s not pure diplomacy,” she says. “It’s about trying to shape moments of political transition in a country that’s a high U.S. foreign-policy priority.” To these ends, she’s served in some of the world’s most unstable places—a year and a half in Darfur, nearly two years in Sudan, and two years each in war-torn northern Uganda and post-junta Myanmar—supervising and administering projects that support local governments, NGOs, peace initiatives, and other initiatives aimed at bringing stability.

“The classic cases for my work might be when a peace agreement has been signed, or when a new government has come to power. The theory is that there’s a window of opportunity. And if you can help things continue in a positive direction while that window is open, that will make longer-term development possible.”

Since 2019, Briggs has worked with USAID as an independent contractor, advising on a range of topics, from personnel issues to program implementation. As she looks back on a career representing the United States at the grassroots level, she sees reasons for her fellow citizens to take pride in its international presence. “Even in the worst moments of our administrations,” she says, “people never lose their faith in the U.S. and in the power that they believe we have. It gives you the feeling that, well, if they believe this much in us, maybe we should too. Even though we don’t always feel that way.”

Cynthia Kierscht ’87

Cynthia Kierscht ’87

Cynthia Kierscht’s résumé—she’s served in some 20 positions and postings in three decades of service—reveals just how diverse and fascinating a career in diplomacy can be in the 21st century. Appointed to be the United States’ ambassador to the West African nation of Mauritania in 2021, she’s also served as a consular officer in Marseille (where she aided and made friends with the late, legendary soul singer and longtime French resident Nina Simone). She’s worked in the State Department’s 24-hour Operations Center in Washington and as an advance officer for Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, helped set U.S. counterterrorism strategy for South Asia, served as a political officer in our embassies in Libya and Morocco, overseen embassy preparations for President Barack Obama and his entourage at the Summit of the Americas in Colombia, and directed State’s Office of Canadian Affairs.

Growing up in Fargo, North Dakota, Kierscht became an international explorer early. When she was six, her family of four toured all of Western Europe in a Volvo they bought in Sweden, then ended up in Greece, where they spent the summer. She lived in a tiny French village as a high school exchange student and, as an international relations major at Carleton, joined the late Hartley Clark ’52, professor of government and international relations, on a summer-term tour in Geneva. “It was so great,” Kierscht remembers, “to arm a whole bunch of kids with Eurail passes and just send them out to explore and learn. Then, in my senior year, I ended up taking the foreign service exam. Now, 32 years later, here I am.”

Out of all her responsibilities, including helping to set up a reconstituted U.S. mission in Libya following 25 years of sanctions and dealing with Canadian border issues during COVID, she singles out one as particularly rewarding: cultural affairs officer in the Bogota embassy. In that role (2013–2016) she oversaw academic and cultural exchanges between Colombia and the U.S. “It’s probably the best job I’ll ever have in the Foreign Service, because you really get to see the impact you’re having on people’s lives,” she says. “One program, for example, teaches English to kids 13 to 18 from some of the poorest places in Colombia, giving them a wealth of opportunity for good jobs in the future. It’s just incredible to see what these programs can do for these kids.”

Jimmy Kolker

Jimmy J. Kolker ’70

When Jimmy J. Kolker was tasked by the George W. Bush administration with launching the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in Uganda in 2003, health diplomacy as such didn’t exist. So Kolker, ambassador to the West African nation and then deputy coordinator in the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, called upon three decades of experience in the Foreign Service to make the concept real.

“We were trying not just to have a proof of concept, but to reach everyone in Uganda who needed help,” he says. “I discovered that diplomatic skills were very valuable in achieving a public health goal. You needed knowledge of the politics, economics, and sociology of the situation, as well as the science, to scale up a program where the challenges were partly medical, but even more logistical. How do you get a program to be accepted, to get onto people’s agendas, and to work?”

St. Louis-born Kolker had honed those diplomatic skills in postings that included Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Sweden, the U.K., Botswana, Denmark, and Burkina Faso. Over the years his challenges included the detention of a Greenpeace ship in Mozambique, the unpredictability of Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe, war in northern Uganda, and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni altering the nation’s constitution to remain in power.

The work on PEPFAR was particularly pivotal. “The program changed thousands of lives, and mine was one of them,” he says. “I realized that there was a calling there.” The health diplomat became chief of the HIV/AIDS Section at UNICEF for four years, then returned to government, becoming Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs in the Department of Health and Human Services, representing HHS at meetings of the World Health Organization.

Now retired, Kolker is grateful to Carleton, because the school’s emphasis on developing thinking skills helped him meet the unforeseen. “Diplomats,” he says, “have to take on issues for which they are not directly prepared. With PEPFAR, I took a job that didn’t yet exist, and one of the gifts of a Carleton education was that I was well positioned to move into a responsibility for which there was no career track.”

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