Forum on African American Leadership in Foreign Affairs
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Organization Affairs
Thank you John (Robinson). It’s a great pleasure to be with you all this morning, and welcome to the State Department. I know you have a very busy, very engaging day in front of you, and I encourage you to take every opportunity while you’re here to ask questions and explore some of the opportunities you’ll be hearing about.
You know from your agenda that I’m the Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs. That’s a hard title to fit on a business card, and it’s also a tricky title to explain. Here’s my best shot. I oversee a bureau that works with the United Nations and dozens of international organizations.
Many of these you’ve heard of – UNICEF, the World Food Program, the World Health Organization. Others, perhaps not – the World Intellectual Property Organization, or the World Meteorological Organization? The fact is, the United States has an incredibly broad and deep diplomatic strategy with these international bodies, and my bureau plays a key role in defining and implementing that strategy.
When President Obama assumed office, he made it very clear that the United States would engage robustly across all these organizations and agencies in order to protect and advance our nation’s interests. That’s the job I do every day, together with a growing community of American diplomats.
Today I wanted to take just a very few minutes to talk about what it means to be a diplomat in the 21st Century, and maybe more importantly, what it means to be an American diplomatic at this time.
If there’s one thing I would like you to remember from my comments today, it is this: our nation’s diversity is not just unique, it is also a powerful symbol and a tremendous asset to our global diplomacy.
OK, let’s backtrack for a moment. Our modern diplomatic service has its origins in the nation’s earliest days, and was for much of our history reserved for a small cadre of our nation’s leading citizens. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were among our first and most notable diplomats.
For well over 100 years, our diplomatic service was the private domain of the white male, and it wasn’t until the Foreign Service was created in 1924 that the exclusive nature of U.S. diplomacy began to erode.
That erosion was exceedingly gradual. The first African American to join the Foreign Service through its competitive examination was Clifton Wharton in 1925. Wharton would go on to have a long and illustrious diplomatic career, but for the first twenty years of that career, he was the only African American in the Foreign Service!
Obviously, we hold Clifton Wharton in very high regard for his accomplishments, his courage, and his example. Similarly, we here at the State Department make frequent reference to the example set by a man named Ralph J. Bunche.
Bunche was not a career member of the Foreign Service, but he was a lifelong diplomat. He worked here in the State Department in the 1940s, where he was acknowledged as an expert on Africa and European colonialism, but it was his career outside this building that cemented his reputation.
He was deeply involved in the drafting of the UN Charter, and worked for many years to define and strengthen the institution of the United Nations. He also played a crucial role in early efforts to foster peace between the new state of Israel and its Arab neighbors, and in 1950 was recognized for that effort with the Nobel Peace Prize.
I note these two important figures, Clifton Wharton and Ralph Bunche, because of the difficult trail they blazed – a trail that leads all the way to us here today. It’s been a rocky path, to be sure. Not always a straight path, and too often uphill. American diplomacy was slow to embrace the full diversity of our great nation. Slow to embrace the contribution of women, of peoples of color. It mirrored, in other words, the gradual evolution of American culture, of American society.
We shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge these truths, nor should we hesitate to acknowledge that we stand on the shoulders of those who came before – that’s kind of the idea behind African American History Month! In the context of this building, I’m talking about those trailblazers who saw the possibilities of a nation that would send diplomats around the world to represent all of America, and reflect the faces of Americans.
Recall that I made a point of saying that our diversity is a symbol and a source of strength. So it is. Today, American diplomats – civil service, foreign service, political appointees, interns, fellows, and delegates, increasingly represent the diversity of America. That, in turn, ensures that around the globe, from Bangkok to Banjul, we present a more accurate face of America. That face has no single color, or gender, or heritage – and that alone is a powerful diplomatic message.
So, as I’m speaking with you today, there are thousands of American diplomats of all stripes working around the globe. In the context of international organizations, that means working in places such as New York or Geneva to ensure that U.S. interests are advanced at the United Nations and in other international organizations whenever and wherever possible.
Here too, our diversity is a source of strength. Consider, for example, our efforts to promote human rights and human dignity around the world. We work diligently, tirelessly in bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, the UN General Assembly, UN Women, and elsewhere , to advance universal human rights and liberties.
We do so not because we are perfect, not because we have all the answers, but precisely because we recall our own history. We celebrate the distance we have traveled as a nation. And we recognize the role we can and must play in supporting the same aspirations around the world. Consider the aspirations of the Syrian people, or what we have seen on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, and elsewhere in recent months.
Of course, we ourselves have not yet completed the journey. We must continue the effort to embrace our diversity at home and employ it as an asset abroad. I look to you in that regard, and encourage you to give serious thought to following the path of Clifton Wharton, of Ralph Bunche, of the many who came after.
I’d be pleased to take a few of your questions about careers in diplomacy, working with international organizations, or the life of a diplomat.