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Sitting down with Marc Grossman

Marc Grossman

An eminent U.S. diplomat and new Kissinger Fellow at Yale, Ambassador Marc Grossman has served in a range of positions since 1977, including U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and, most recently, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He currently teaches a course entitled “Creating a 21st Century Diplomacy” here at Yale.

YH: Could you tell me a little about your career trajectory? At what point, if any, did it become apparent that this was what your life would be like?

MG: Sure. I went to the University of California, Santa Barbara. Luckily for me, in my junior year there, I had a wonderful professor, a real mentor, say, “You know, it would really be to your advantage if you went out and saw some of the world.” The University of California had a wonderful education abroad program at that time, and I was lucky enough to be selected for it. I spent my senior year of college in the University of Birmingham in England. I loved it. I thought being abroad was great. I turned out to have a curiosity about how other people live their lives, a curiosity about how other people organize themselves. I was then lucky enough to be accepted to do a master’s degree in international relations at the London School of Economics the very following year, and by then, really, I had the bug. I wanted to find some way to live abroad and follow this curiosity about how others live. I returned to California for a couple of years and worked at a business and on some political campaigns. And then one day, at the UC Santa Barbara career center, I saw a poster that said, “Take the Foreign Service Exam!” I peeled off the card and sent it in. I had really never thought of it much before. It hadn’t been a goal. But I took the test, and I passed. In the spring of 1976, I moved to Washington DC and joined the Foreign Service. And being from California that was a big deal. I had never been to the east coast of the United States before.

For me, it just turned out to be a perfect career. It allowed me to pursue my curiosity, represent and serve the United States. The people I worked with my whole career were fantastic. The issues I got to work on were great. And though maybe I didn’t know it at the time, it turned out to be kind of an act of patriotism as well.

My first post was to Pakistan, 1977 to 1979. Then I had a wonderful, lucky series of jobs that took me 29 years, and I retired in 2005 as Under Secretary of Political Affairs after serving as Ambassador to Turkey and Assistant Secretary for European Affairs. And then I worked in a business in Washington DC from 2005 to 2011. In 2011, after Richard Holbrooke died, I was called to service, and I spent 2011 and 2012 back at the State Department as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

YH: Could you explain a bit about what your job is as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP)?

MG: This was a job that was created by President Obama and Secretary Clinton for two really important reasons. One was obviously to get the policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan coordinated throughout the government. But secondly, Secretary Clinton believed that the SRAP organization could function as a real proof of concept for her idea of the “whole of government approach” to foreign policy. She believed, as did I, that this was a fantastic chance to show that this new approach to diplomacy was the right way to go about it. Richard Holbrooke had set up and I continued this office with people from USAID, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Department of Defense, Justice, Treasury, Agriculture, all sitting in the same place, all working on Afghanistan and Pakistan. We were really lucky.

YH: As a diplomat, how did you try to balance a coherent, continuous foreign policy with an atmosphere of partisanship and changes of administration at home?

MG: Nonpartisanship is important all through your career as a diplomat. You have to remember that the oath you took on becoming a Foreign Service officer was to the Constitution. Presidents change. Secretaries of State change. Policies change. But we’ve signed up to be that continuity as a professional foreign service. One thing I’ve found through my career is that, the foreign policy of the United States goes down a basic broad avenue. There are some changes, but the broad policies are really the same. The second thing is that, lucky for us as citizens, our leadership is also very careful to make sure that career officers are not put in a compromising position. For example, as Undersecretary for Political Affairs, I spent a lot of time at the White House, and I will say that not once did anyone ever cross a line that said, “Let’s talk about what this would mean politically,”  or “Let’s talk about how this would be in the election.”  People were really careful to make sure that there was never a discussion of those kinds of issues in front of military officers, Foreign Service officers, or civil servants. I think, by and large, citizens would be really proud of that distinction. It’s a matter of professionalism. It’s a matter of continuity.

YH: Over the course of your career, what would you say was the biggest change you witnessed in the way the US has carried out diplomacy?

MG: When I joined the foreign service, the basic job of the diplomats was to go out, observe and report on what they saw, send back that reporting to Washington, and then have Washington decide what to do next. Of course, this was under the overview of the Cold War and the Soviet Union. Everything was observing and reporting and connected somehow to that great struggle. After the Cold War ended, two things happened. One is that the job of diplomats shifted to more frontline, programmatic activity because the challenges to the United States have changed so much. Today, we ask them to promote sustainable development, to stop the trafficking of women and children, to fight drugs, to promote pluralism around the world. We ask them to work on nuclear nonproliferation questions. You name it.

And second, we ask them to do so multilaterally as well, because these are the types of problems that one country on its own can’t fix. So what we’ve asked our diplomats to do is to become much more front line exponents of American policy, and we’ve given them these larger issues to solve. It’s not that reporting is not important; it is. But there has been this added dimension to diplomacy, which is so important. These changes are reflected in the job of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

YH: Do you have any thoughts on Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s criticism of the U.S. approach to Syria?

MG: Prime Minister Erdogan can speak for himself about Syria. I think there has been more of a convergence of views between Turkey and the United States over the past few weeks, as President Obama has come to the conclusion that we should support the rebels militarily. However remarkably it got there, this arrangement with the Russians to get chemical weapons out of Syria ought to be a positive thing for Turkey. Where I think the Turks and the Jordanians and the Lebanese have a point, though, is that there is really not enough international focus on the refugees. There are hundreds of thousands of Syrians in those three countries. Turkey does a fantastic job with refugees, but even for them it’s a strain. For Jordan and Lebanon, this is really tough. I would hope that the next phase of this for the international community would be a more systematic focus on the refugee questions because those people are stuck out there for years and years. One of the things I learned as a Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan is that there are still a couple of million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran. Who pays attention to them anymore? Hardly anybody.

YH: Do you have any thoughts on the future of the Gezi Park protest movement that occurred over the summer in Istanbul and around Turkey?

MG: You have to hope that Turkey is going to continue on the path to being a more pluralistic, more tolerant society. I think what you saw in the protests this summer was people, especially young people, who said, “Hey look, we’re connected to the rest of the world. The economic opportunities that we’ve had over the last 15 years in Turkey have opened us up to all different ways of thinking and looking at the world. So we want to make decisions about our own lives.” I think that was a good and positive thing. I was very interested to see Turkish President Gül say in New York the other day that he was proud of the people who had demonstrated. What I hope is that it is a long-term trend that you can see in Turkey since the 1980s, which is, little by little, progress towards a more open, more pluralistic society.

YH: Do you have any specific advice for someone interested in pursuing a career in diplomacy?

MG: First of all, I hope people will. It has been a great life and a great career and an honor to represent the United States. By and large, there’s no specific course of study. You have to be really a generalist, interested in our society, interested in how people abroad live. I always recommend certainly taking the Foreign Service Exam. It’s now given free, a few times a year, online. And it’s no great disaster if you don’t pass it the first time. Many, many Foreign Service people took it once, went back and did it again, and then did fine. My advice to people is that, if you’re interested, does it. Take the test. It’s a great career.

            —This interview was condensed by the author