The Art of Bridge-Building: A Conversation with Dr. Joshua Walker
Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and VP at APCO Worldwide
Born into international affairs
As a foreigner in one of the most homogenous societies in the world, the childhood of Dr. Joshua Walker quickly became a personalized case-study of international affairs. He was born into it.
Dr. Walker was only a year old when his parents — both southern Baptist missionaries — moved him to the small, northernmost island of Hokkaido, Japan. His parents were diplomats of a different kind as “ambassadors of their faith.” He assimilated well in his new home as a baby, learning Japanese as a second language and embracing the culture of his peers. Nevertheless, he quickly earned the nickname “The American.” Proud of his familial ties that date back to Virginia’s earliest days, he often found himself explaining his country to his classmates. “When you have to defend and talk about your country very clearly, you begin to realize where you’re actually from,” said Dr. Walker.
Because of his upbringing, Dr. Walker came to understand the value of building bridges between different cultures. He brought that understanding with him when he returned to the United States to attend the University of Richmond for his undergraduate degree.
“I chose Turkey.”
After only four years in Richmond and having spent the majority of his young life overseas, Dr. Walker decided to embark on another journey abroad. He applied for and was granted a Fulbright Scholarship in Ankara, Turkey upon the completion of his Bachelor’s degree. To him, the country paralleled his upbringing as “strattling” both the European and Asian continents and cultures. It represented an “adopted homeland” where he was able to discover himself. “I grew up a European American in Asia and I was searching for an identity,” said Dr. Walker, “I didn’t choose Japan. I chose Turkey because my own personal journey and my own personal narrative fit so well with that country.”
He quickly immersed himself in Turkish culture and language while working at the United States Embassy in Ankara. The experience was eye-opening. He learned how far the power of one individual “who could have empathy and learn a language and figure out the way of bridging a world” could go in improving international affairs.
“Who can I take with me?”
After once again returning to the United States, Dr. Walker worked towards his Ph.D. in Politics and Public Policy at Princeton University. Following his time there, he continued to actively pursue bridge-building opportunities as a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and in his roles at the State Department under both Secretary John Kerry and Secretary Hillary Clinton. Working directly with countries in the Middle East, Asia and Northern Africa, he helped shape foreign policy that aimed to bond the regions together.
But bridge-building initiatives are not always limited to relations between countries. Dr. Walker has also worked to narrow the experiential gap between generations. Younger age groups have unprecedented access to vast sources of knowledge compared to the habits of memorization and manual labor of older generations. To him, it boils down to a mutual respect for the human element in all of us.
“We’ve all been gifted the most incredible gift and that’s knowledge,” said Dr. Walker, “and there are things that you can’t put into an algorithm. That’s human connection. No matter how great my app is, it’s never going to substitute for your mom’s intuition when she meets your girlfriend for the first time and is like ‘yeah, no that’s not going to work out.’”
It’s this belief that Dr. Walker has employed to connect himself with older diplomats as one of the younger practitioners in his field. To maximize the scope of these connections, he brings his colleagues with him at any opportunity he gets. “It’s really about giving back,” said Dr. Walker, “when I get an opportunity to go into one of these ‘old-boy’ networks, I ask myself, ‘who can I take with me?’”
Most recently, at the 2017 World Exposition held in Astana, Kazakhstan where countries from around the world met to showcase achievements in the future energy, Dr. Walker brought two young student-ambassadors — bilingual American students with an interest in foreign affairs — to the opening of the Turkish pavilion in place of high-level executives. “Those guys stayed the entire night,” said Dr. Walker, “By the time they came back, they’d had a transformative experience.”
“It’s like driving a car.”
At the risk of straining the metaphor, Dr. Walker also manages to build bridges between the practitioner’s world with the world of academia. As a “pracademic” — an academic who is also a practitioner in their respective field — he uses his experience in each domain to complement the other. “The most powerful ability is to be trained as an academic and to be able to have the skillset just like any other academic has, and at the same time to be in the practitioner’s world, having a plethora of opportunities in the international space,” said Dr. Walker.
Since 2006, Dr. Walker has taught courses at several universities, including Princeton, Yale, and Tokyo University. He currently teaches at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. In these positions, he strives to inspire his students to take their education one step further. “If I can’t come up with the answer to that question — the ‘so-what?’ question — then I’m not doing my job well,” he said. Just as he considers the past when trying to better international relations, he reflects upon his lectures to improve his ability to educate his students.
“It’s like driving in a car — you need to focus most of your attention on what’s coming ahead of you but if you can’t see what’s coming behind you and can’t look in your rear-view mirror, if you don’t check your side mirrors every once in a while, you’re going to have an accident,” said Dr. Walker, “We have to have an appreciation of that past, that culture, that heritage.”
In all of his work, Dr. Walker has faced the recent challenges of globalization. At a time where bridges of the past are being left behind — Brexit, populist movements in Europe and the United States, and the recent referendum in Turkey — Dr. Walker has learned what is necessary to maintain global connections and to construct bridges of the future. Such instances of populist backlash may threaten a legacy of international order and question global relations, but Dr. Walker emphasizes the importance of education and human connection in combating this uncertainty and understanding cultural differences.
One more question for Dr. Walker…
How has fatherhood changed your perspective and outlook on your role in the global network that you serve?
Having a son — he’s now one year old — is the most humbling and the most awesome experience in the world. It’s humbling because you realize your life is no longer your own; you are now responsible for another creation. But it’s this feeling of “wow” — everything else I’ve done in life, if I messed up on it, I got a do-over. It can be really hard in the field that I’m in because in international affairs you have to travel and you’ve got to be overseas. I think my son humanizes things for me so it makes it a lot easier to connect with people. Even if you’re not a father yourself, if you appreciate young children, if you appreciate your father or if you have that fatherly instinct of wanting to mentor others — fatherhood just makes it that much easier and makes life that much sweeter.
by J.R. Anderson, Summer 2017 Intern, US Association of Former Members of Congress