On April 14, UC Hastings Law School hosted the 7th annual Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens Lecture honoring the memory, life, and work of UC Hastings graduate Chris Stevens, who was killed when the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked in September 2012. This year’s lecture featured former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Doug Wilson, in conversation with Ambassadors Mike McFaul and Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley. This year’s lecture was inspired by a Just Security piece Wilson wrote with Angelic Young and Alex Pascal in December 2020. Those who were unable to attend the virtual event live can view it online here.
Ambassador Stevens’ colleagues and admirers referred to him as the “quintessential diplomat.” He began his career in the Foreign Service in 1991, and he was sworn in as U.S. ambassador to Libya in 2011, shortly after the Arab Spring began. Reflecting on Stevens’ eagerness to help the Libyan people in Benghazi, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted when he died that “[h]e risked his own life to lend the Libyan people a helping hand to build the foundation for a new, free nation.” Those who worked with him admired his dedication to his mission of building a partnership between the United States and the Libyan people in order to rebuild the country.
Wilson focused his remarks on the importance of building human relationships in U.S. diplomacy, and on the need to ask what constitutes an “acceptable risk” in order to carry out this diplomatic mission. He observed that the deaths of Ambassador Stevens in Libya and Anne Smedinghoff in Afghanistan “revealed longstanding shortcomings in adapting U.S. engagement abroad to the more dynamic and dangerous environments” set against rising global tensions. He lamented that the politicization of Stevens’ death significantly reduced the government’s already low level of risk tolerance, which has negatively impacted the ability to recruit a new generation of Foreign Service Officers who want to be able to engage with the populations in the countries where they work. He quoted a letter from Jan Stevens, the ambassador’s father, in which he insisted that his son “would not have wanted to be remembered as a victim,” and that he “would have wanted the critical work he was doing to build bridges of mutual understanding and respect … to continue” without undue restrictions.
Wilson identified three issues that require attention in order to recruit and retain a new generation of Foreign Service Officers: (1) the new communications environment, which includes social media and digital communications, but which must also continue to emphasize in-person relationships and interactions (2) the conduct of public diplomacy, which includes representing America’s values and interests abroad, and also doing a better job of explaining the importance of diplomacy and foreign policy to the American public, and (3) an understanding and implementation of acceptable risk for diplomatic missions. On the question of acceptable risk, he quoted former Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who said that “[i]n this world, you cannot do effective American diplomacy where it is most needed, unless you take some risks.” Simply put, as a recent American Academy of Diplomacy report also emphasizes, one cannot conduct diplomacy effectively if eliminating risk is the top priority. Potential Foreign Service recruits recognize this, and they do not want to be put in the position of making a zero-sum choice between these risks and their mission.
In Wilson’s experience, diplomats and other civilian officials are willing to accept risk if they are fully informed about the risk environment, and professionals in the field should be more empowered to take informed risk and makes decisions on the ground. Foreign Service Officers have a crucial role to play in countering cynicism about the United States’ role in the world, and the U.S. government should provide more support for diplomats with resolve and courage—diplomats like Chris Stevens.
McFaul began his comments by agreeing with the importance of engaging with the society in which diplomats are working. He recalled how Secretary of State Clinton had explained to him that he was not being sent to Moscow as U.S. ambassador only to deal with the Russian government, but also to represent the United States to the Russian people. In order to do so, he articulated the need to engage in digital and physical interactions with local communities. He recognized that the increased interest from the public stemming from social interaction often leads to an increase in threats, but he maintained that this should not lead to fortresses and higher walls around embassies. In his view, engaging directly with foreign publics and introducing U.S. values are among an ambassador’s most important duties. Moreover, public diplomacy is the United States’ greatest strength in dealing with countries like Russia and China; to forego engaging in these contacts because of risk would be a grave mistake.
Abercrombie-Winstanley, who was sworn in as the State Department’s first chief diversity officer earlier this month, also offered reflections on risk. She recounted how her personal experience of surviving a terrorist attack while serving in Saudi Arabia had showed her the importance of thinking through strategies to reopen and get back to work while keeping civilians in the Foreign Service safe. She recalled being told that her primary responsibility was to keep people safe, but she agreed that focusing only on safety can hinder the important mission of engaging with people. She also noted that the Foreign Service cannot attract the best people who seek to understand foreign cultures and politics to better perform their duties on behalf of the United States, because these types of people do not want to be restrained behind walls. She highlighted her involvement in the preparation of a Truman Center task force’s report on Transforming the State Department. She recalled that, when State Department employees were asked to list issues that made them feel constrained, undervalued, or unsupported, they never mentioned risk.
Wilson added that, in his view, some of the most effective representation of the United States abroad in interacting with “swing publics” who shape mainstream public opinion is done by NGOs. He argued that these organizations often succeed in building the kinds of relationships that the Foreign Service strives for, but that they cannot be expected to conduct foreign policy on the United States’ behalf.
McFaul added that, in the struggle to promote democracy, every U.S. official overseas should view him or herself as a public affairs officer. Each member of the diplomatic community should be consistently thinking about what they are communicating—especially since those who oppose American ideals have long poured resources into telling their version of the story.
The discussion concluded with Abercrombie-Winstanley underscoring the need for diversity and inclusion in the Foreign Service and in diplomatic spaces, both at home and abroad. America’s representatives need to look like America, she said. Changing diversity from a trope to something meaningful will require recruiting and training individuals who have not traditionally filled the ranks of the Foreign Service. Pathways for promotions must also be open and transparent for women and minorities, who need mentors to guide them around the “invisible furniture” in every room.
In the Q&A, Angelic Young asked whether there “could be an intersection or opportunity at the nexus of attracting a more diverse slate of national security professionals and […] adopting a more risk management-oriented approach to development and diplomacy.” The panel used this opportunity to expand on their collective message that a broader variety of perspectives and opportunities for advancement will enable U.S. diplomats to make the case for America overseas, and to better persuade the American public about the importance of foreign policy and global engagement to promoting U.S. interests.
The day after the event, President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate nine career members of the Senior Foreign Service as ambassadors. About half of all U.S. ambassadorial posts around the world remain unfilled.