Education is the surest antidote to misconception, so it should come as little surprise that many ambassadors to the United States try to inform people about their countries via many avenues, especially the media and politicians. But beyond the usual outlets — and the confines of the Beltway — lies a vast community that’s home to an eager audience and the future generation of leaders: American students, hundreds of thousands of them all the way from Washington, D.C., to Washington state.
“I reach audiences that I otherwise would not reach,” said Iraqi Ambassador Samir Sumaida’ie, who has spoken at universities including Eastern Illinois and Duke. “Of course, I appear in the media, I occasionally write articles in the media, but these don’t reach everyone, and the United States is not just Washington. I do my job in Washington, but part of my duty is to reach out and make sure that public opinion is well informed, and I’m using universities and schools as a kind of multiplier because these people are connected to their communities, they are leaders and thinkers.”
Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Christian Strommen kicked off his diplomatic tour of duty with a string of college visits in 2008, namely those with strong Norwegian ties, including St. Olaf College and Augsburg College in Minnesota and the universities of North Dakota and Minnesota. “I went to see the president and delivered my credentials and the next day flew out to the Midwest because that is where the heartland is,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “There are seven, eight, nine colleges or universities that have strong Norwegian roots.”
Visits to U.S. colleges and universities usually involve a meeting with school officials, a formal speech by the ambassador followed by a question-and-answer session, and a less formal reception where attendees can get personal face time with the guest of honor. The speech topic is usually tied to the politics and current affairs of the envoy’s nation.
The University of Virginia has long welcomed ambassadors, and in 2008, it established the Ambassadors’ Speakers Forum as a way for students to hear about the world firsthand without leaving Charlottesville.
For instance, on Sept. 29, Kenyan Ambassador Elkanah Odembo spoke about his optimism for Africa at UVA (the year before he also talked about that topic at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School). In April, former Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mekouar discussed the civil unrest that has been shaking his country, and last year, former Ambassador of Iceland Hjálmar W. Hannesson spoke about the collapse of his island nation’s banking sector, while Pakistani Ambassador Husain Haqqani addressed his country’s role in the U.S. fight against terrorism.
Understandably, conversations about Iraq are in high demand. At the University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy in March, Sumaida’ie — who has also visited with wounded soldiers around the country — spoke about why Iraq is still important to the United States despite the pending pullout of troops, a theme he has addressed often, especially as the country still relies on U.S. assistance in progressing toward a stable democracy. (The Baker Center is named after a former U.S. ambassador to Japan.)
“I usually give an illustration of that and put it in the regional context of the Middle East, the whole region, being in transition,” said Sumaida’ie, who is leaving his post after more than five years in Washington. “The way it goes is going to be important for the United States. The Middle East is an important part of the world. A lot of the energy for the whole planet comes from that region. Of course, a lot of the headache for the whole world comes from that region. I try to put Iraq in the regional context and international context.”
“Of great value to all who met with the ambassador was the opportunity to hear an Iraqi perspective about the current state of affairs in Iraq and the role of the United States in helping the Iraqi government and people realize their aspirations for a secure, stable, independent and democratic nation,” said Carl A. Pierce, director of the Baker Center. “They also valued the ambassador’s insights about the Iraqi aspiration for democracy, tempered as they were by his concern that a ‘rush’ for democracy had created problems with which the Iraqis were still struggling.”
Most recently, Sumaida’ie spoke in his own backyard at the George Washington University. Indeed, with the plethora of top-notch, internationally focused universities in the nation’s capital, from GW to Georgetown, many local diplomats don’t have to travel far to talk shop with American students. In mid-October for instance, newly appointed Indian Ambassador Nirupama Rao — India’s former foreign secretary and one-time press minister here in Washington — joined U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Georgetown University for the 2011 U.S.-India Higher Education Summit.
Both Iraq and India figure prominently on the Washington agenda, but foreign issues and relations run the gamut in various pockets of the country. Tackling vastly different terrain, Strommen’s approach depends on where he’s headed. There are almost 6 million Norwegian Americans, compared to Norway’s population of 5 million, the ambassador pointed out — a large and important audience for him to reach. “We are the second largest immigrant country to the United States after Ireland,” he said. “They built some very, very good educational institutions, so the first thing you do when you’re the ambassador of Norway to the United States you go to these colleges or universities and you present yourself, because this is my base, these are my people.”
“St. Olaf’s ties with Norway are long-standing, broad and deep,” said St. Olaf College President David R. Anderson. “They originated in the experience of Norwegian immigrants to America, who founded St. Olaf. But the world has changed since then, and Norway and the college have changed with it. Ambassador Strommen’s visits to campus help us to keep our understanding of Norway current and to preserve the personal bond that keeps our ties so strong.”
At schools with less Norwegian heritage, the envoy talks climate, and he’s done it in at least 10 states. Strommen invites scientists to speak about how the ice is melting in Norway, for example, and what that means for weather patterns and sea levels around the world. Then a local expert on climate issues, usually affiliated with the school, discusses local impact. In New Mexico, for instance, the topic was dwindling water supplies.
The Embassy of France’s presence on American campuses comes in several forms, including financial contributions to academic centers to promote research on French matters and events that showcase the country, such as film festivals like Tournées, which has been screened at 350 schools.
Since arriving in D.C. in February, French Ambassador François Delattre has visited New York and Columbia universities and the Georgia and California institutes of technology. “I myself do not miss an opportunity to meet students and scholars. Tapping into college life is one of the best ways, in my view, of capturing the pulse of the country,” Delattre told us. “University and research cooperation between France and the United States is one of the very first priorities of my action as ambassador, and I observe it is one of the most dynamic fields of cooperation between the two countries.”
Ambassadors agree that the best part of visiting U.S. universities is interacting with the students via the Q&A.
“That’s the most interesting part because then I get to know what the students are thinking about,” said Sumaida’ie. “I have to respond to all different ideas. They do follow a pattern. There was a time when there was opposition to military intervention, for example, and many students were coming from that angle.”
No questions surprise him anymore. “But they do reveal a good knowledge. Some of these students are quite interested in being well informed. They have followed events and issues, they highlight very often humanitarian concerns, issues relating to casualties,” Sumaida’ie said.
Strommen, however, still catches the occasional curveball. “This is one of the great things about America: If you give a lecture in Europe, very often the audience is very quiet and they don’t say much. If you give a lecture in America, you bet there is someone who wants to try out something. This is a great thing,” he said.
Sometimes though, the open discourse can become heated, especially when it deals with contentious debates like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, the Irvine 11, as they have come to be known, are a group of Muslim students who were recently found guilty of disrupting a speech by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California-Irvine back in February 2010 (also see “Legal Battle over Campus Protest Raises Questions of Free Speech, Islamophobia” in the August 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat). The students called Oren an accomplice to genocide and a war criminal to protest his speech. In September, 10 of them were sentenced to three years’ probation for the disruption. (Charges against the 11th defendant were tentatively dismissed pending completion of 40 hours of community service.) The case generated a local uproar and nationwide headlines, although Oren has quietly continued to make the rounds giving periodic university speeches across the nation.
Indeed, most speeches are far less dramatic, though no less consequential. For Delattre, the visits are a chance to gauge the cultural temperature. “I value the occasions of exchange with students, where I can measure what they think of France, or how they perceive their own futures in the context of a swiftly changing world,” he said.
The ambassadors’ messages may differ, but the goal is the same: to get students thinking.
“The most important thing with young people is to get them curious so that they get interested,” said Strommen, who has an 18- and 21-year-old attending British universities. “I’m not sure how much they learn of facts or directly what I’m saying, but they get curious about issues that I raise. That is what I really hope — that they play on their own curiosity.”
Sumaida’ie said students often thank him for clarifying issues for them. “I go and explain the background in a human sense and people begin to understand,” he said. “When they understand, they empathize and when they empathize, they support. It gets people closer to the issue and much more appreciative that these issues are complex.”
The students are not the only ones learning from these exchanges.
“Not only do you learn other people’s perception of the country you represent, but you might also pick up on good ideas,” Strommen said. “We are a large energy producer, and many places, particularly out West where they are very concerned about energy use, I found a lot of very good questions about how you diversify your energy supply.”
The ambassadors also learn about America. “This is very, very important,” Strommen said. “You travel around America, you talk to people, you give these lectures, you meet a lot of people and you understand America, because for all I like being in Washington — and I do — you’ve got to get out of here every now and then as well to understand America.”
Sumaida’ie’s term ended in October, but his travels helped him understand the American psyche. “I learned that the American people, despite the fact that they have very different opinions and different orientations, are very open minded,” he said. “Wherever I went, I found that people are ready to give me a fair hearing. They listen. They ask questions and they listen to the answers. Americans are incredibly open minded; there’s a considerable amount of goodwill that I feel that the American people have toward the rest of the world. This is underappreciated outside the United States.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.