Profile | Jennifer Davis
“It’s not a race up the mountain; it’s the climb around the mountain that’s the beautiful part.”
This piece is part of ISD’s blog series, “A better diplomacy,” which highlights innovators and their ideas for how to make diplomacy more effective, resilient, and adaptive in the 21st century.
Jennifer Davis is a 2021–22 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a career Foreign Service Officer. Before her time at Georgetown, she served most recently as the director of orientation and a senior advisor at the Foreign Service Institute’s Leadership and Management school, during which she assisted U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield in her transition to her new position. Previously, she has served as the Consul General in Istanbul, Executive Assistant to U.S. Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Special Assistant to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with overseas tours in Colombia, Brussels, and Mexico.
In January, she sat down with The Diplomatic Pouch’s editor, Alistair Somerville, for a conversation about basketball, disinformation, and why the “service” component of the Foreign Service means so much to her.
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself and maybe some of the things that we couldn’t find from reading the State Department bio.
A: The first thing that comes to mind is that I am a native North Carolinian and so have a passion for basketball. As you may know, people from North Carolina practically emerge from the womb clutching a basketball, so it’s in our blood. Both my sons are avid basketball players, and I coached them when they were younger. I have become a big believer in sports diplomacy because of my love of basketball. When I was in Turkey, for example, I saw the power of sports diplomacy through this great program called “The Basketball Embassy” that brought young people together from different cultures, in our case children from Turkey and Syria. It was beautiful to watch.
I am also fascinated by American history, particularly the period of our Founding. I grew up in a military family. My dad was an Army officer and my sister was an Air Force doctor. I think that really affected me and how I felt about my country, about service … my punctuality (laughs).
I would add that I had never really traveled very much outside the United States until I went overseas to England to study in a graduate program in international law in my 20s. It was the first time my patriotism “made first contact” with contrary views about the United States. It was a powerful experience for me, of meeting very smart people from around the world and being challenged by them about the ways in which we have struggled in our own experiment with democracy. I found it probably the most useful experience before becoming a diplomat, because it helped me see that others might view the United States differently, and how important it is for our diplomats to understand those perspectives when they serve abroad and when they start important conversations with different assumptions or understandings.
Q: What have been a few times in your career when you feel like you have truly made a difference in people’s lives?
A: For many of the people who join the Foreign Service, it’s that second word — “service” — that’s so meaningful to them — the idea of being impactful and helpful to people in need and trying to bridge differences. Those are the things that draw people to the Foreign Service; they certainly drew me.
One of my favorite experiences as a diplomat was during my first overseas tour, in Mexico City. I met this extraordinary woman who had lost a child to cancer. She started an NGO in her child’s honor that provided housing and assistance to low-income families who had a child battling cancer. The other entry-level officers at Post and I helped organize an auction to raise money for the organization, which enabled them to buy industrial washing machines and dryers for all the linens they used. We even had American companies donate detergents. The whole experience was so moving to me, to meet the children, to meet their families, and to feel like we had done some small thing to make their lives easier.
And then, I would say the second aspect of my work that I love is when, as a leader, I’ve been able to serve the people with whom I work. I have most admired the leaders in my career who believe in “service leadership” — the idea that a leader’s role is to provide the strategic guidance, the resources, and the support that her team needs to do its job. They are the leaders who always make themselves available to their teams and have their backs.
In that way, working in Turkey recently was powerful for me. I was there during a very difficult period. There had just been an attempted coup, there were several horrific terrorist attacks in Istanbul and the assasination of a diplomat, the war in Syria was raging, and our locally employed staff at the Mission were struggling enormously. In the face of so many challenges, as a team in Istanbul, we were able to come together and support one another and do all that we could to protect one another. That stands out to me. When I left that tour, our staff created a garden on the grounds of the Consulate to honor what we had gone through together. Nothing in my career thus far and nothing moving forward will mean to me what that garden meant, because it represented how we took care of each other.
Q: As we all know, the State Department has plenty of challenges ahead of it in 2022, both internally, as an institution, and externally, as it seeks to manage America’s role in the world. For you, what do you think some of those main challenges are and what do you expect to see from U.S. diplomacy and the State Department in the year ahead?
A: I would say that to understand the challenges, it’s helpful to think about American diplomacy writ large over the past few decades. In the 1990s, we experienced a unipolar moment, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the United States emerged from the Cold War as the leading global power. Then, after 9/11, we entered into a period, with the war on terror, when the emphasis of American foreign policy was on counterterrorism. A lot of our foreign policy was driven by the Pentagon or the NSC, and many books have been written about the State Department’s inter-agency struggles during that period.
Over the past several years, we’ve had a number of challenges as an institution, for example, a lengthy hiring freeze and COVID-19, that have hampered the smooth functioning of our personnel systems. All of those challenges have affected morale, and now the institution is in need of reform to make it better fit for modern diplomacy, something that Secretary Blinken and his team have been emphasizing and that our new under secretary for management will lead with vision and creativity.
The second challenge is that we are entering into — have already entered into — a period of strategic competition with other nations, and so the mindset of American diplomats needs to shift to that competitive framework. I think we had become accustomed to the unipolar period, but now we need to reinvigorate our foreign policy, our engagement with other countries through public diplomacy, and our leadership in international organizations to better align with the competitive moment.
Q: Another challenge you’ve identified and about which you are teaching this semester at Georgetown is disinformation. Can you tell us a bit about why this topic is so important to you and how it overlaps with diplomacy?
A: My interest in disinformation solidified when I was serving in Turkey, but that tour followed a tour serving as Secretary Kerry’s executive assistant. In both roles, I saw how detrimental disinformation was to U.S. foreign policy goals and that we were struggling to articulate a coherent strategy to combat it or to conduct the kind of effective public diplomacy that would have preempted or contested it. I think, at times, we operated with pre-social media norms about how to deal with disinformation. The years since those tours have only furthered my concern that the United States needs a whole-of-government approach to disinformation and to work closely with our democratic allies to combat it, because it threatens democracy in a rather existential way. Accurate information is the oxygen that democracies need to survive.
At the same time, we’ve seen a reversal of significant progress that had been made toward democratic reforms in most nations around the world in the second half of the last century. Freedom House called its annual report last year “Democracy Under Siege.” I think one of the major threats to democracy is that we lack healthy information ecosystems. Foreign malign actors are interfering in those information ecosystems, and we could do a better job sharing America’s story or explaining the power of democracy and the freedoms we value. I think we must empower our diplomats overseas to be more proactive in their engagement and ensure our institutional culture supports them when they undertake public diplomacy in complex environments through social media or media interviews. We should also invest in media literacy programs overseas to help information consumers detect false information and learn where they can get accurate information.
Q: What do you hope students will get out of your class, in particular?
A: Something I’ve learned in one semester at Georgetown is that I learn as much as I teach. The students are brilliant and bring so much to the classroom. I think the problem of disinformation is more likely to be solved by digital natives. One of the reasons my generation of diplomats struggled to respond effectively to modern disinformation is that, to some extent, we didn’t fully understand how. I can already tell from my experience with students at Georgetown that this generation will be innovative in their solutions, and they’re far more comfortable engaging online. They’ll be able to provide the very powerful messages that democracies have to offer and to share our culture — our art, our sports, our music — which has drawn so many people to the United States. Better engagement will also allow us to share how freedom of speech inspires innovation, because societies that protect freedom of speech are the ones in which leaders and thinkers open themselves up to critique and improve their thinking and their systems because of those critiques. So, I hope to share with my students the urgency of the moment and how badly disinformation is harming our information ecosystem, and I would like to consider with them new technological approaches we can use to combat it.
Q: If you could offer some advice to aspiring and up-and-coming Foreign Service Officers, what would it be?
A: My tour before this fellowship was as the director of orientation, so I spoke to our incoming diplomats quite a bit and my advice to them about their first tour would be the same as my advice to anyone about life: it’s not a race. It’s not a race up the mountain; it’s the climb around the mountain that’s the beautiful part. So, in a first tour, I would encourage officers to take advantage of the opportunities to travel, to experience the food, the art, the people, to make local friends, to really immerse themselves in the culture. And to enjoy life in addition to their work. I think Mary Oliver reminds us that “joy is not made to be a crumb.”
And my second piece of advice is that it’s quite intimidating sometimes to communicate in a foreign language, but that putting themselves out there and speaking, even when they feel some discomfort, is so important. The fluency will come. The first time I spoke with a Mexican taxi driver I worried I didn’t actually speak Spanish (laughs). And achieving fluency in Turkish was quite a challenge. But understanding a local language is so important to understanding and connecting with the people. It’s the foundation of any diplomacy that will follow.
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Alistair Somerville is the publications editor at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University and editor of The Diplomatic Pouch. Follow him on Twitter @apsomerville
While Jennifer Davis is a career U.S. diplomat, the views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.