Profile | Ambassador Elizabeth Richard, Senior State Department Fellow
From admiralty lawyer to ambassador to Lebanon
Alistair: Tell us about your path to the Foreign Service. What led you to become a diplomat?
Elizabeth: I was always interested in seeing the world. I certainly got that from my mother, who, notwithstanding all my foreign service travels, has still been to countries I’ve never seen. My first trip outside the U.S. was to Italy to visit my uncle, a Jesuit who was living in Rome and teaching at the Pontifical Biblical Institute and the Gregorian University. I was 11 years old, and I was hooked. I did a few summer trips in high school, including to Egypt and Turkey, spent a year of university in Rome, and then specialized in international law during law school. And on day one of law school, professors asked me why I was doing admiralty law when I could join the Foreign Service. And I said, “What’s the Foreign Service?”
Alistair: Where has your diplomatic career taken you so far, and what have been the most rewarding and challenging postings?
Elizabeth: I’ve had the honor to serve in every State Department regional bureau except for Africa: Ecuador in Latin America; Bangkok and Singapore in Asia; Rome in Europe; Pakistan and Afghanistan in South Asia; and Yemen and Lebanon in the Middle East. They’ve all been rewarding and challenging in different ways.
If I had to pick the most challenging, I’d say it was Afghanistan. It’s called the graveyard of empires for a reason. There are so many idealistic and dedicated people there who aspire to a different kind of government and economy and connection with the rest of the world. But there are also strong ties to a traditional way of life and governance that has ancient roots. I don’t think we ever fully appreciated that. And so we continued to have some unrealistic expectations about what we could or should try to accomplish and how much time it would take.
As for the most rewarding assignment? Strangely enough, I would name Yemen. I know that’s hard to believe, seeing the tragic situation in which the country finds itself today. But for a brief couple of years, Yemen led the way in moving through the protests and violence of the Arab Spring to a peaceful transfer of power and an inclusive national dialogue process that saw young people and tribal sheiks — women and men sitting together — discussing a new constitution and rights for all. There are many reasons things eventually collapsed, but for an inspiring moment, I saw the good that could happen when the international community joined together to support home grown efforts to make real change.
Alistair: When you are given a new country or thematic assignment, how do you prepare? How has that process changed, if at all, as you have gone up the ranks in the Foreign Service?
Elizabeth: I’ve generally thought about new assignments as requiring three areas of focus. First, learning the language, culture, and history of the new country is key, of course. There lies the true value added of the diplomat. We can blast away from Washington with our messages all day long. But if we don’t understand how they land on the other side, what will make others see things our way, or when they don’t, it is difficult for us to find common ground, and then we are lost. Creating relationships of trust — which requires a deep understanding of the other — allows us to make progress on the hardest issues. And, by the way, we might actually learn something from them too.
Second, newly assigned officers have to understand U.S. policy on both the bilateral issues with that country, as well as on the cross-cutting issues like trade, terrorism, climate, etc. Today more than ever, that means leaving the confines of the State Department and getting educated on what all the other U.S. government agencies are trying to accomplish with one’s new country of assignment. Keep in mind that there are many agencies with equities in what our foreign policy looks like, and plenty that have a presence in our Embassies around the world.
And third, newly-assigned officers have to understand the positions, equities, and interests of constituencies outside the executive branch. Time spent up front with Congress, both members and staff, with business groups and with interest groups invested in your country of assignment will save a lot of heartache later on.
Alistair: You have been team-teaching ISD’s Diplomatic and Military Statecraft graduate course this semester. What has been most rewarding, interesting, or surprising about this experience so far?
Elizabeth: In many ways, this has been a very dark year. We are still living with the challenges and the tragedy of the Covid pandemic, including the very significant stresses of trying to educate students from kindergarten to university by video conference. We have seen racial tension erupt across the nation, exposing deep inequalities that are shocking to see still exist in 2020. And we have had one of the most acrimonious election periods I can remember, with much shouting by all sides and not much real political discourse.
Yet in the face of all of that, I have found the students I’ve interacted with so incredibly positive, energetic, optimistic, and engaged. Their ability to be flexible, to find the good in a pretty negative environment, and to maintain a respect for and commitment to public service in some form or another has been truly inspiring and makes me optimistic about the future.
Alistair: Next semester, you are teaching a new ISD capstone course on The Rise of Militias. I’ve heard on the grapevine that students are very excited about it. Give us a little flavor of what the course will be about and what students will get out of it.
Elizabeth: I’m being quite selfish in choosing this topic for the course, because as a practitioner, I have found that we don’t really have a good framework for dealing with the kinds of militias that have emerged as significant actors in multiple parts of the globe. It’s not that militias are a new phenomenon. But in a more globalized world, and against a backdrop of increasingly weak states, militias often straddle the line between illegal armed groups that must be defeated and armed actors who represent significant portions of the population and legitimate grievances. Having really shifted our focus to counter-terrorism doctrine, tools, and resources since 9/11, we tend to apply those same tools and analysis to militias. And that’s not working. If the capstone course is intended to give the students a real world challenge that is timely, complex, and important, I think finding a better way to deal with militias is a great challenge. I’m looking forward to learning a lot from the students.
Alistair: Post-ISD, what does life look like for an FSO? What do you want to get out of the next stage of your career?
Elizabeth: I’ve been in the foreign service for 34 years. I think in any career, one’s job at that point is no longer to be the smartest subject matter expert, but rather to set the conditions for the next generations of officers to succeed. The State Department has been chronically under-funded and under-staffed for many years, and both foreign and civil service officers have done heroic work to advance U.S. interests nonetheless. But the complexity and the range of issues that impact our national security and foreign policy has increased exponentially. Just think about the entire world of cyber challenges we face today — many coming from state actors — or the unbelievable advances in technology across the globe — like 5G. We need to do a lot more to ensure our workforce is educated and resourced to meet these new challenges as well.
The views expressed by Ambassador Richard are her own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the State Department or the U.S. Government.
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