Former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter knows conflict. He served as a diplomat under 5 different Presidents, and he’s worked in some of the most contentious regions across the globe.
In 2010-2012, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, where he guided U.S.-Pakistani relations through a period of severe crisis, including the Osama bin Laden raid. Previously he served as Ambassador to Serbia, where he negotiated Serbian domestic consensus for European integration, managed the Kosovo independence crisis, and handled the physical attack on the embassy in 2008. Now, Cameron serves as the CEO of EastWest Institute, an international not-for-profit, non-partisan “think and do” tank.
Cameron sat down with IVY Magazine before his recent IVY Ideas Night to talk about the art of diplomacy — how to handle the toughest situations and how to make the biggest impact.
IVY Co-Founder Beri Meric with Cameron Munter.
People have a whole history of feeling.
You have to learn to listen. You’re trained as an academic or in foreign policy institutes to be articulate, to write, to spell, and to express things very clearly. But if you don’t pick up the other end of it — if you don’t listen — you’re not going to pitch it the right way.
So, this involves: the study of foreign languages, but more than that, the study of foreign cultures. You have to spend a fair amount of time learning, for example, that people in Pakistan have a history of feeling — whether it’s justified or not — terribly humiliated by what’s happened to them: humiliated by what they perceive as the wrongs of colonialism and humiliated by the relationship they have with America, where we give money and they take the money. It creates an imbalance. It makes them angry when they take the money that we give. This then reflects on the U.S.-Pakistani relationship. We thinking giving money is a generous act, so it’s very difficult to deal with people who totally disagree with that notion.
There’s a lot of “Kabuki” that goes on.
Foreign policy is something other than diplomacy. Most people take a course in International Relations and think that a set of historical events is what diplomacy is about. But diplomacy is not the policy. It’s not whether or not you have more or less global warming or whether or not you have disarmament issues or border disputes. Diplomacy is the craft of dealing with other people. It’s the craft of representing your country honestly and representing the other countries’ view honestly to your capital.
That means you have to stay calm and maybe even learn how to be an actor — you need to learn that when you throw a tantrum, you’re doing it not because you’re angry, but because you’re demonstrating a certain thing. So, there’s a lot of “Kabuki” that goes on, and this is why a lot of people think that diplomats are false. I resent that; I think it’s wrong. They’re not false; they’re people who actually take on a role and play a role. They’re representing a country, but they’re also understanding the other roles of the players in the play.
It’s key to stand for your country — but see the bigger picture.
All foreign policy is basically based on domestic policy. No country has a foreign policy that’s separate from its interests. What makes America unusual is that we profess to make our foreign policy balance interests and values. Very few countries do that. So we go out and have a universal notion of what we think — equality for women, no child labor, democracy—and not only say that this is what we stand for, but also that we believe these things to be universal human rights. A lot of other countries don’t do that.
What that means is that when we get it right, people admire the fact that we stand for values. When we get it wrong, people call us enormous hypocrites because we stand for values, but then back a dictator in the name of stability. So it’s a very difficult and risky problem that you always have to balance when you’re a diplomat. Are you being honest to yourself about what you stand for? And are you being loyal to your country and the interests that your country has?
Diplomat should speak to the locals (not the Washington Post).
There was a time when a very famous leader came to visit when I was U.S. Ambassador to Serbia, and he wanted to talk about the jigsaw puzzle in the Balkans. His audience of course was Serbian people. The problem is when you translate the word “jigsaw” into Serbian it’s like an actual saw, the kind that cuts things to pieces. In other words, the notion of the jigsaw puzzle that he wanted to get across would come across as slicing things up.
I went to his aide — to the woman who was writing his talking points — and said, this isn’t really going to work. She said that it was the proper metaphor. I said, in English, it’s the proper metaphor, but it doesn’t matter what the English speakers think. It took enormous effort to get this advisor to realize that it wasn’t about what would be in the speech when it appeared in The Washington Post, but what people who were there would hear.
There’s always a need to give a little.
You have to be able to learn to give a little without compromising yourself or your country. There are cultural traditions and customs that aren’t going to make sense to you, but you have to acknowledge them as totally valid.
There was an incident when I was in Middle East, where we were told by the governor of the Ninawa province — I was in Mosul, which is now under ISIS — that there was an incident with a bus. U.S. Marines came and got on the bus with schoolgirls, made them all show their breasts, and left. And I said, really? He said, well, one of the village elders told us that. So I asked him if there was any evidence because there were no Marines there. (The Army was there, but there were no Marines there.) The governor said, the point is that it was the village elder who told us this, and he is an honorable man. And you don’t doubt what a village elder says. I said, with all due respect, if we’re going to pursue this, then we need evidence.
What we crashed up against was the notion of an honorable man saying something; our friend, the governor, representing that honorable man; and our insistence on having justice. There was an investigation. We didn’t find any Marines. We didn’t find any proof that this happened, but we created incredible ill-will because we didn’t respect the village elder who said this.
So, what do you do in a situation like that? You realize that people have different notions of what they’re dealing with. The only way to deal with that is to figure out how to mollify people. Can you find a way to convince people of your good will without compromising the fact that we can’t invent Marines and punish them? If this person feels humiliated, you can’t change that, but can you modify it? Can you go in another direction? That means, at its worst, what you’re doing is becoming so totally sensitive to people that you lose your center of gravity. That’s the hard thing about being a diplomat. You can’t become someone else. You don’t know want to—you’re representing your country. But, one of the tenants of your country is tolerance and understanding. So you have to try to see it from their point of view.
We should all be as broad as possible.
If you’re a scientist, study poetry. If you’re a historian, study biology. That is to say — try to keep yourself as broad as possible. One of the things that the Foreign Service Exam tests for is breadth, not depth. It’s a very long and very difficult exam. Thousands of people take it; very few pass. But it doesn’t matter how much you know in terms of depth; are you able through curiosity and through breadth and through contact to be able to deal with lots of different situations? Are you able to switch gears, keeping your sense of what American policy is, but apply it in these different places?
You need to be able to put yourself in different situations and like it. The only way I think you can do that is by not over-specializing too soon. My sense when I was teaching over the last few years was that students are under much more pressure than when I was in college. There’s much more pressure to have a very strong resume, have it look good, and have internships. You’re not allowed to flip burgers anymore during the summer. You have to be on your way to something. The problem with that is that it makes people specialize because they want to be deep. What rewards you in foreign affairs is when you’re broad rather than deep.
Don’t — at the risk of finding yourself — lose your sense of other people.
Students are encouraged to find themselves. Don’t — at the risk of finding yourself — lose your sense of other people. It’s very easy to find yourself by only paying attention to yourself.
Because of the specialization and the achievement people are expected to have, I can see that as being a real problem, especially at a high-flying school, especially when you come to Goldman Sachs for your first job and you’re working really hard. You can become very solipsistic. So the hard part is keeping things broad and thinking about the ways that other people think.
There’s no immediate reward for that. I don’t know of a job that you can get at the age of 22-23-24 where you get a whole bunch of money for understanding other people. You do get a lot of money if you’re very, very hard-working, self-centered, and working in finance. You have to make that choice, and it’s very difficult. But if you want to understand foreign policy, then that’s the road you have to follow.