World Views
6:57 pm
Fri August 9, 2013

Diplomat Yoder On The Challenges And Rewards Of Working In The U.S. Foreign Service

The Harry S. Truman Building in Washington D.C. Headquarters of the U.S. Department of State
Credit Loren / Wikimedia Commons
Listen to Suzette Grillot's interview with Michael Yoder.

Last week U.S. embassies and consulates across the Middle East and North Africa closed in response to an intercepted message among senior al-Qaeda operatives.

This threat highlights the important, and precarious, position of U.S. diplomatic missions overseas.

Veteran diplomat Michael Yoder has spent more than 20 years as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer. During this time, he has served in eight countries including Mexico, Poland, India, and Uzbekistan.

Working in the U.S. Foreign Service is way of life for him.

“It is a career; it's not a job,” Yoder says.  “The real thrill of it is to have this sort of constant change in your life where there's always a new challenge and a new person to be met.”

Yoder says that attacks and threats against U.S. diplomatic missions overseas are sad, but not unexpected.

“It's a fairly dangerous world out there,” Yoder says. “We know that this is what we're being asked to accomplish. And, as was pointed out in the [Benghazi] testimony on Capitol Hill, sometimes we don't have the resources really available to us to allow us to do that in a safe and secure environment.”

Even when there are the resources to bolster security measures, Yoder says a balance needs to be struck.

“As diplomats we have to get out and meet people,” Yoder says. “If we sit behind the walls and wait for people to figure out how to navigate their way through to us, we can't really do our job. So there is a constant tension between what we're being asked to do, what we ourselves want to accomplish in our responsibilities, and safety and security.”

And accessibility, Yoder says, is vital to the role of U.S. Foreign Service Officers.

“It really does matter that we meet people along the way that we can help,” Yoder says. “Whether they're American citizens who have been robbed and left bereft somewhere on someone's doorstep or whether it's an NGO operating in a political environment that could be dangerous to them. There are just so many possibilities out there.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On host county nationals who work in U.S. embassies and consulates around the world

They're kind of our secret weapon in some ways. If you visit an embassy or a consulate, you'll see that most of the people that work there are not Americans. They're people who live and work and are from the country where we're located. In my last post, for example, in Hyderabad, India, we had about two dozen Americans working there and a little over 100 Indian nationals who were working there. And I called them our secret weapon in part because they really are the people who teach us about the culture and the country where we've been assigned. It helps us get up the steep learning curve at the beginning of our tour very rapidly. And they have a vested interest in wanting us to enjoy and be successful in our work there, so it's a little bit like going to a foreign country as a student and living with a host family in some ways. They want you to see the best of their country and they also want you to really understand them and appreciate what they have to offer.

On working at the U.S. consulate in Poznan, Poland immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall

So our mission turned out to be, “Let's figure out what's going on here and how we can help it along, try to make it as permanent as possible as quickly as possible, and at the same time without appearing too aggressive to make the people back in Moscow take notice and be angry with us.” So that was one side of it. Then we're looking at the other side and we're seeing this whole unification process taking place between western Germany and eastern Germany and all the debate that's taking place there in terms of how people would be brought in under the umbrella of Western Germany. And it was interesting to have a lot of things to work out regarding values of currency and property and so on. So my boss imposed and said "Well, I want you to figure out what's going on in the economy in this part of Poland." And what I did was I took 10 different state-owned enterprises, a wide variety from different sectors, and I went back and visited them every two or three months over a two-year period. Some of them failed, some of them thrived, some of them just sort of puttered along, and I was trying to help figure out why it was that some would succeed and some wouldn't and if that would help us choose where we wanted to put what aid we had available in order to make it as effective as possible.

On using the International Space Station Treaty as a form of diplomacy

Now while I was in Poland, the other shoe fell and that was the actual breakup of the Soviet Union. We hadn't really anticipated that. And so now Russia had gone from being our potential enemy into becoming someone we were trying to regard as a friend and trying to encourage to sort of open up in some ways. Well, they had a great space program in place. The original International Space Station Treaty had been written without including the Soviet Space Program and some people in the State Department had the great idea of reexamining the treaty and bringing Russia into the fold. And that's what we did.

On the American consulate in Nuevo Laredo and Mexican cartel violence

It became fairly apparent that the Mexican central government really was not in the mood to try to address this directly in the way that we felt they should be doing. This was under the Vicente Fox administration. And so I asked for permission from my ambassador to close my consulate for a day or two to review our security posture. And this is diplomatic speak for "things are falling apart here, and somebody needs to take notice and manage it." And the ambassador, to his credit, called me back and said, "Well, close it down, but not for a day or two. Close it for a week and let's see what happens." Well, he certainly angered the Mexican government in some ways, but by the end of that week there were about 1,200 troops in Nuevo Laredo attempting to restore some sort of order. In hindsight, I don't know whether the final result of all that is positive or negative. There are a lot of positive aspects that happened under the attempt by Fox and then Calderon to restore some order using the Mexican army. There have also been a lot of people and incidents indicating that this has caused as many problems as it has solved for people.

On the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya

When something happens like Benghazi or, you know, I was in the Foreign Service when our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up as well, when things like that happen, we're really sad. But we're not always terribly surprised. It's a fairly dangerous world out there, and sometimes I think we tend to be very mission driven. We know that this is what we're being asked to accomplish. And, as was pointed out in the testimony on Capitol Hill, sometimes we don't have the resources really available to us to allow us to do that in a safe and secure environment. I'm not sure what kind of security situation in Benghazi would have made it possible to operate there easily, but it's also true that as diplomats we have to get out and meet people.

On consulate and embassy security

If we sit behind the walls and wait for people to figure out how to navigate their way through to us, we can't really do our job. So there is a constant tension between what we're being asked to do, what we ourselves want to accomplish in our responsibilities, and safety and security. And that's something that we have to deal with all the time.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Michael Yoder, welcome to World Views.

YODER: Hi Suzette, thanks for invite.

GRILLOT: So you've spent the last more than 20 years now in the Foreign Service. You've traveled to many countries, served overseas in nearly every continent. What is it that you can tell us about as a diplomat, as a Foreign Service Officer, as someone who's spending a lot of time overseas? What's the common denominator? What is the experience like from one place to the next? You know, is it pretty much the same as opposed to different?

YODER: Well, there are different sets of challenges and certainly different circumstances in each place. I could say that one common denominator is that you never know what's going to happen next. Sometimes you show up in a place and you expect it to be very difficult for one reason or another, because of events that have occurred before you arrived, and then when you get there, things have settled down and it's actually very nice. Or the opposite can happen as well. I'd say the one common denominator that stands out for me are the host county nationals who work for us in the embassies and consulates around the world. They're kind of our secret weapon in some ways. If you visit an embassy or a consulate, you'll see that most of the people that work there are not Americans. They're people who live and work and are from the country where we're located. In my last post, for example, in Hyderabad, India, we had about two dozen Americans working there and a little over 100 Indian nationals who were working there. And I called them our secret weapon in part because they really are the people who teach us about the culture and the country where we've been assigned. It helps us get up the steep learning curve at the beginning of our tour very rapidly. And they have a vested interest in wanting us to enjoy and be successful in our work there, so it's a little bit like going to a foreign country as a student and living with a host family in some ways. They want you to see the best of their country and they also want you to really understand them and appreciate what they have to offer.

GRILLOT: Well, you started your career in a very interesting place in a very interesting time. Your first assignment overseas was in Poland: you were in Polish language training when the Berlin Wall fell and Poland declared independence. What was that like being there at that, some might say volatile, but certainly very interesting, time?

YODER: Well, I had wanted to go the Soviet Union. Yes, that is how old I am and how long I have been in the Foreign Service. It was still the Soviet Union at the time. There weren't positions available for my incoming orientation class, so I did the best I could and I ended up in a small consulate in a city called Poznan, Poland, which is about equidistant between Warsaw and Berlin. And I was aware that because of Glasnost and Perestroika there were a lot of changes going on in that part of the world, and I wanted to observe that and help in any way I could. But yes, I'm in Polish training and then one evening I'm watching on TV and the Berlin Wall is coming down and I'm thinking "Hmm, things are going to be a little different from here on in." So the tiny little consulate where I was located was in a perfect position to observe how the changes would go forward in Poland during this time. You have to remember, we weren't sure at the time that any of this would take.

GRILLOT: Yeah, you weren't sure it was going to last.

YODER: Exactly right. We had grown up in the Cold War. We thought the world was a bi-polar world and would always be a bi-polar world and this just seemed too good to be true.

GRILLOT: The Soviets might just respond like they had done before.

YODER: Exactly. Like in Prague, or in Hungary before that. So our mission turned out to be, “Let's figure out what's going on here and how we can help it along, try to make it as permanent as possible as quickly as possible, and at the same time without appearing too aggressive to make the people back in Moscow take notice and be angry with us.” So that was one side of it. Then we're looking at the other side and we're seeing this whole unification process taking place between western Germany and eastern Germany and all the debate that's taking place there in terms of how people would be brought in under the umbrella of Western Germany. And it was interesting to have a lot of things to work out regarding values of currency and property and so on. So my boss imposed and said "Well, I want you to figure out what's going on in the economy in this part of Poland." And what I did was I took 10 different state-owned enterprises, a wide variety from different sectors, and I went back and visited them every two or three months over a two-year period. Some of them failed, some of them thrived, some of them just sort of puttered along, and I was trying to help figure out why it was that some would succeed and some wouldn't and if that would help us choose where we wanted to put what aid we had available in order to make it as effective as possible.

GRILLOT: Well, one of the other things that you did do in the region is that you were instrumental in redrafting the treaty about the International Space Station. So there you brought Russia into the fold, too, to incorporate them.

YODER: Oh, right.

GRILLOT: So how and why did that happen?

YODER: Oh, that was a lot of fun. Every once in a while we take an assignment back in Washington, D.C. and I was always really fond of the space program both in the U.S. and in the Soviet Union growing up. Now while I was in Poland, the other shoe fell and that was the actual breakup of the Soviet Union. We hadn't really anticipated that. And so now Russia had gone from being our potential enemy into becoming someone we were trying to regard as a friend and trying to encourage to sort of open up in some ways. Well, they had a great space program in place. The original International Space Station Treaty had been written without including the Soviet Space Program and some people in the State Department had the great idea of reexamining the treaty and bringing Russia into the fold. And that's what we did. Now later when we had one of the shuttle disasters, it turned out to be really fortuitous for us that Russia was part of the Space Treaty because it was the Soyuz program that kept the space station actually going for a while. That was the actual treaty signing ceremony that I like the best because I was standing there, I was really nervous, I was trying to get everybody situated and there were some senators sitting over in one side of the auditorium and there were some astronauts wearing astronaut gear on the other side of the auditorium. And I look up and I see John Glenn walking down the center aisle and he's looking left and looking right. And I don't know what possessed me, but I just walked over to him and I said, "Senator Glenn, I think you'll probably be comfortable sitting over here." And I sat him down with the astronauts. And he was, in fact, pleased at that. And at the same time, this was an interesting time in his life, because he was actually getting ready to go back into space again at his advanced age on a return trip aboard one of the space shuttles. So it was a really great experience.

GRILLOT: Absolutely. Well, one of your later assignments was a little closer to the United States. You spent some time in Mexico, a couple of assignments there. Clearly Mexico is a challenging country for us in many ways. Very close neighbor, ally, but we have these border issues with Mexico. We have a lot of Mexican immigrants that are coming illegally and otherwise to this country. We have a lot of violence on the border. So what is it about Mexico, and the U.S.-Mexican relationship, that we need to know?

YODER: Well, it was an example of an assignment where I really didn't know what to expect when I was first asked to go there. The consulate in Nuevo Laredo had been closed for three months due to a visa selling scandal. A number of people had been arrested. And so I got a call asking me if I would volunteer to go out and run this consulate down at the end of I-35. If you drive through Norman and head down through Dallas and Austin and San Antonio, you end up in Laredo, Texas, and cross over the border into Nuevo Laredo. Unbeknownst to me at the time, and unbeknownst to a lot of people, the Gulf Cartel had decided to change the basic way that their cartels were operating in northern Mexico by hiring a group of Mexican army deserters who had been trained in Special Forces operations as kind of a hit squad, an assassination squad. They called themselves the Zetas and they really took violence and the “narco-guerra” to a new level. Unfortunately for me, they also decided to make Nuevo Laredo their center of operations. And so for three years I ended up running this consulate in the midst of the battle between the Sinaloa Alliance on one side and the Gulf Cartel headed by the Zetas on the other side. And it was a pretty difficult time. There were lots of kidnappings and murders. It was very difficult for Mexican officials as well, because many of them were assassinated. I had a really sad situation with several police chiefs in Nuevo Laredo who were killed. At the same time, it became fairly apparent that the Mexican central government really was not in the mood to try to address this directly in the way that we felt they should be doing. This was under the Vicente Fox administration. And so I asked for permission from my ambassador to close my consulate for a day or two to review our security posture. And this is diplomatic speak for "things are falling apart here, and somebody needs to take notice and manage it." And the ambassador, to his credit, called me back and said, "Well, close it down, but not for a day or two. Close it for a week and let's see what happens." Well, he certainly angered the Mexican government in some ways, but by the end of that week there were about 1,200 troops in Nuevo Laredo attempting to restore some sort of order. In hindsight, I don't know whether the final result of all that is positive or negative. There are a lot of positive aspects that happened under the attempt by Fox and then Calderon to restore some order using the Mexican army. There have also been a lot of people and incidents indicating that this has caused as many problems as it has solved for people. There's no doubt that at the end of the day it's connected to, you know, using illegal drugs in the United States. I just taught a course here at OU about U.S.-Mexico border issues and I asked my students to come up with good ideas, creative ideas, for what to do about this dilemma and one of the students said something that I thought was really smart. She said, "Why don't the U.S. and Mexico get together and do some public service announcements showing the direct connection between using drugs in the U.S. and what happens to people and all the violence that's spilled over in Mexico?"

GRILLOT: Well, what's the answer to that question? Why don't we?

YODER: Well, I think that's a good idea. And I actually am going to ask a few people when I get back to Washington about why we're not doing some more of these kinds of things. There are lots of complicating factors, and, you know, Mexico objects strenuously to the flow of illegal arms across the border into Mexico.

GRILLOT: Right, they're sending us their drugs and their immigrants, but we're sending them our weapons, right?

YODER: That seems to be certainly the Mexican government's view of all this. And, you know, I think it's a much more complicated and interesting relationship than we sometimes realize. And that's what we were attempting to explore over the last semester in this class. There's also a lot of history involved between the U.S. and Mexico, not all of it positive. And so it can be a very difficult relationship in unexpected ways. At the same time, you know, we're tied together not only because of politics and location, but also because we have such strong family ties across the border. And I have found in my own educational background, for example, growing up in Austin and my wife is Mexican-American, that those sorts of ties tend to overcome a lot of the difficulties that we have between the two countries.

GRILLOT: Speaking of challenging times, we have a recent incident where the ambassador at our consulate in Benghazi, in Libya, was attacked and we lost four Americans including the ambassador. This is still, you know, causing all kinds of upheavals. We still have a tremendous amount of questions about the extent to which the government of Libya is cooperating or helping us figure out what to do in this case. Can you give us a little insight here and as a Foreign Service Officer, as a diplomat, how did this incident make you feel in terms of knowing that you're going to go back out there again to another post someday?

YODER: Sure, it's a good question. It's really true that we do rely on local forces, local guard forces and police and so on for a lot of our security and protection wherever we are. I'll give you one quick example. In Nuevo Laredo I had a female police sergeant who was in charge of the police guard who looked after us at the consulate. And, as you can imagine, she was just one tough woman because if you can imagine growing up in Nuevo Laredo and being a female sergeant in their police force. We got to know her, we visited her on occasions, had her family over to visit us, we went to her daughter's quinceañera celebration. When one of the police chiefs was being eulogized at a funeral mass, she asked to come with me. I thought she was coming in order to pay her respects to the police chief, but it was pretty clear to me once I got there that she was the only person in a police uniform in the whole church. And I looked over and said, "Juana, you're not here really to pay your respects, you're here to keep me out of trouble." And she said, "Yes, sir. That's right." It wasn't in her job description. She didn't have to come. And we have these sorts of relationships with the people who help protect us around the world. When something happens like Benghazi or, you know, I was in the Foreign Service when our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up as well, when things like that happen, we're really sad. But we're not always terribly surprised. It's a fairly dangerous world out there, and sometimes I think we tend to be very mission driven. We know that this is what we're being asked to accomplish. And, as was pointed out in the testimony on Capitol Hill, sometimes we don't have the resources really available to us to allow us to do that in a safe and secure environment. I'm not sure what kind of security situation in Benghazi would have made it possible to operate there easily, but it's also true that as diplomats we have to get out and meet people. And there's been a lot of talk about building these fortress embassies around the world, and there are a lot of new buildings that have gone up that look very imposing and maybe a little scary to people who want to come and visit us.

GRILLOT: Not terribly friendly, that's for sure. Or welcoming.

YODER: That's right. And if we sit behind the walls and wait for people to figure out how to navigate their way through to us, we can't really do our job. So there is a constant tension between what we're being asked to do, what we ourselves want to accomplish in our responsibilities, and safety and security. And that's something that we have to deal with all the time.

GRILLOT:  Well, clearly, this is a challenging field that you've gone into. Anyone who's working in the field of foreign service or working on behalf of their government in an overseas setting is challenged. But I would imagine that it's also very rewarding. And so tell us a little bit about the rewards of this type of position and how and why one should go into the Foreign Service. Now, you yourself, you've got an undergraduate degree in political science, a graduate degree as a playwright, and a graduate degree in fine arts. And then you find your way into the Foreign Service. I mean, how did that happen?

YODER: I'm living proof that the State Department will take anybody.

GRILLOT:  Well, I don't know if that's true or not, but maybe an acting background maybe would be helpful, right?

YODER: Yes, sure, I think theater helps a lot. I always said that play writing was the study of human nature, so maybe that's a little bit of it as well. You know, I think there are a lot of really positive aspects about this. It is a career; it's not a job. It allows you to reinvent yourself every two or three years. You know, you're going someplace new. You may get a new language before you go there. I've been paid two years in my career so far to learn three foreign languages. I'm about to be sent to Rio de Janeiro, where I'll be there during the FIFA World Cup and the Summer Olympics. But first they're going to teach me to speak Portuguese. Even at my advanced age, they say that I should be able to learn it. And there's a great school called the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in Arlington where we go to study languages and other kinds of aspects of professionalism that we need to do our job well. I think it's the idea, the real thrill of it, is being able to do these things constantly and to have this sort of constant change in your life where there's always a new challenge and a new person to be met, unexpected circumstances that arise, and to test yourself against it all the time. And at the same time it really does matter that we meet people along the way that we can help. I mean, whether they're American citizens who have been robbed and left bereft somewhere on someone's doorstep, whether it's an NGO operating in a political environment that could be dangerous to them so we sort of extend our goodwill and an implied amount of interest, protection for them, if you will. There are just so many possibilities out there for people that we have not met, but who it would benefit us to get to know them and perhaps it could even benefit them to get to know us as well.

GRILLOT: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Michael Yoder, for joining us.

YODER: And thanks for hosting me at OU.

GRILLOT: Absolutely. Thank you, Michael.

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