Q & A

Jackson Senior Fellows bring a fresh and on-the-ground perspective to their teaching and assist our students with networking opportunities.

Bisa Williams

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Senior Fellow

Ambassador Bisa Williams (ret) is co-Founder and Managing Director of Williams Strategy Advisors, LLC (WSA), a problem-solving, business and foreign affairs advisory consulting firm. For the last 2 years, she has also led The Carter Center’s effort as Independent Observer of implementation of the Peace Agreement in Mali. Before forming WSA, Ambassador Williams was a career member of the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. During her 30+ years in the Foreign Service, she served tours in Guinea (Conakry), Panama, Mauritius, France, the US Mission to the UN (NY), Washington, DC, including two years at the National Security Council of The White House, and Niger. As Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Ambassador Williams led the US delegation to talks in Havana, Cuba, breaking a seven-year hiatus of high-level direct discussions. Her accomplishments were recognized in LeoGrande/Kornbluh book Back Channel to Cuba.

She joined us (virtually) for a Q&A in August 2020.

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You completed your BA during the early years of coeducation at Yale. What lessons can our undergraduates learn from the trail-blazing women of that time, thinking about the many challenges our country is facing today?
I didn't think of myself as a trailblazer by going to Yale. We women entering Yale had already been good students in our high schools, valedictorians or president of Student Council or whatever. It was not as if we were doing something totally new or doing something we didn't we knew how to do by going to Yale. We were simply going into a previously all-male environment—and we had already been around those same young men in our high school environment. It might seem odd now, but attending the university in itself didn’t feel like trailblazing to me.

But, when I got to Yale, the friction really came not so much from the university as a learning establishment - but from the social environment. And, I wasn’t prepared for that. So, one of the lessons that I learned is that, as women, we need allies. It's nice if the allies look just like you. But that's not what an ally is. An ally is someone who has your back. So, it doesn't matter if they look like you or not. And that's really important to understand.

I also learned that you need plan A, B, and C in whatever you're doing. I think the greatest lesson from that period in time was that you will encounter obstacles and you will encounter adversaries, people who are trying to thwart you. So, you need to know how to care for yourself, know what you require to be fortified.
Did you always envision a career with the State Department or did you first pursue other career ambitions after college?
I went to graduate school in comparative literature and then taught at Rice University. It was while I was in Houston that I stumbled upon the Foreign Service. I was always interested in comparative cultures, comparative literature, and I started reading about the foreign service. I read George Kennan's books and I was intrigued. I saw an ad in Black Enterprise Magazine and I pursued it, so it was really kind of serendipitous that I ended up in the Foreign Service.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to our graduate students who are considering careers in diplomacy and the Foreign Service?
This is a very challenging time; however, the United States of America needs diplomats. We need people in the FS, we need relationships in the world. And the big challenge going forward for our next administration is going to be how to rebuild relationships. When considering diplomacy, some people think about the lofty things: it's adventure, for some, it’s exotic for others. The psychological rewards are great because you're an eyewitness to history. The experience can be very thrilling. There's a great deal of nourishment your soul, your intellect is challenged, inspired. The Foreign Service can also be a very lonely career. It can be difficult to build or stay connected with a “home community.” One needs to be aware of that. There are things you can do to counterbalance the sense of not being connected, but the lifestyle can be a challenge for families or for some young people.

My big message would be that we need good diplomats and diplomats represent the country. Career Foreign Service officers work regardless of the administration. We are building relationships for the good of the American people, for the security of our nation. The diplomats in the latter part of this century are going to have the arduous task of restoring U.S. credibility abroad. But, that's what diplomacy is for. It's definitely a rewarding career and important career and one that never stays boring very long.
What’s the biggest foreign policy challenge for the next U.S. president?
The biggest challenge is going to be restoring American credibility and that's American credibility writ large. We have severely damaged our traditional alliances. Our traditional friends tell us they don’t know how reliable we will be in the future. We have to rebuild that network — and we have to re-think it, expand our alliances. We also have to rebuild our credibility internally.

The U.S. has signaled weird affinities to some very odd and worrisome despots. We have demonstrated a rather cavalier attitude toward the rule of law and toward the notion of equal justice. The apparent assault on human rights and civil liberties through which our country has convulsed the last few years has called into question our own bona fides as a fully democratic nation. We have to get our house in order internally before an American diplomat can effectively propose governing solutions and partnerships abroad. I do think that our biggest challenge will be re-building credibility and it will take aggressive, bold actions to do so.
Tell us more about what students can expect from your Spring 2021 class?
The course is called “Turning Points in Peacebuilding.” As you know, I am involved with the Jimmy Carter Center in a very unique experience. The Carter Center is serving as the Independent Observer of the implementation of the Agreement for Peace and national Reconciliation emanating from the Algiers process, (a peace agreement signed in 2015). This is the very first time in Africa that the idea of having an independent observer to monitor implementation was written into a peace agreement. It is an important affirmation of the importance of accountability. Also unique is the fact that the Carter Center, rather than an African former government official, was asked to take the role. I lead the Carter Center’s efforts as Independent Observer and we have been able impartially to chronicle the Agreement’s successes as well as the impediments to successful fulfillment of the agreement. In June, Mali marked the fifth anniversary of having signed the peace agreement; Fighting between the Government and rebels has ceased but the rebels are not yet disarmed, a new reconstituted army has not been created, and none of the fundamental political and economic grievances which gave rise to the rebellion has been addressed.

I wanted to take a real-life, it’s-happening-now example and walk through the kinds of issues that have to be considered when the bullets stop and you are faced with the opportunity—and challenge—of building peace. I hope to take the class along through the various things that have to be considered. What are the priorities? How do you do it? Who’s involved?

I will use the ongoing experience in Mali as one anchor and take as another anchor one of my early diplomatic experiences, which was in Panama right after Operation Just Cause. There were still a lot of pieces that needed to be picked up once the dust settled from that experience as well. These are events and complications which you can't necessarily anticipate but, for the foreign affairs practitioner, examining these types of situations can be an important exercise.

Students will study the choices made in the early stages of peace-building and the consequences of those choices. I want the students to start thinking about strategies to use. I think it can be a fun course. I hope it will give a flavor of the future that many of these students are going to be walking into.

Anne Patterson

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Kissinger Senior Fellow

Ambassador Anne Patterson joined the Jackson Institute as a Kissinger Senior Fellow in 2017. She is the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs (2013-2017) and Ambassador to Egypt (2011-2013), Pakistan (2007-2010), Colombia (2000-2003), and El Salvador (1997-2000). She recently retired with the rank of Career Ambassador after more than four decades in the Foreign Service. Amb. Patterson also served as Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, as well as Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, among other important assignments.

Amb. Patterson sat down for a Q&A with us in October 2017:

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You’ve been a representative of the U.S. to countries in several very different regions of the world. Can you speak a bit to those experiences?
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to serve in a broad array of assignments in my 43-year career. I became ambassador to Pakistan largely by accident because I had experience in managing large organizations. But I didn't know much about South Asia. I was very fortunate to have deputies who had a lot of relevant experience since they could explain the culture to me. What I learned from those experiences is that local knowledge is really important, knowing the country and its people, particularly if it is a non-western country, and understanding its history. I have always been a big proponent of longer foreign service tours for just that reason. It is very hard to influence foreign leaders and ordinary citizens if you don't understand where they are coming from.  
How did your education shape your interests and lead you to your career path?
I majored in economics at Wellesley and had a strong interest in American history.  I hadn't planned to go into the foreign service.  One day, my mother saw an advertisement in a magazine saying that the foreign service needed women. She handed the ad to me and said "you're not doing anything; go take this test." So I did. I entered as an economic officer. I have loved the foreign service, a career of infinite variety and challenge and to use a cliché, the ability to make a difference representing the United States. I had a broad general education in high school and college, and the old foreign service test focused a lot on American studies.  
You’ve held a diverse range of positions within the U.S. government. How has seeing government processes through such different lenses influenced the way you approach your work?
Each job taught me something new, that was often useful in subsequent jobs. For instance, I was the acting Inspector General for a year, and learned a lot about the management side of the Department, issues like the vagaries of government contracting. When I became Assistant Secretary of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, that knowledge of contracting was invaluable. But large organizations in the USG are fairly similar from a bureaucratic standpoint, even if the substantive role is very different: lots of engagement with Congress, developing longer term strategies, managing the budget, and handling personnel issues. As an ambassador, your job is to bring your foreign counterparts over to the American point of view and to explain the situation in the country to your colleagues in Washington. Unfortunately, senior people in our government are more and more caught up in crisis management and have little opportunity for long-term planning for their bureaucratic organizations.     
What do you see as the greatest issue or obstacle in U.S.-international relations today?
There is a strong perception in the rest of the world that the U.S. has stepped back, that our country isn't willing to defend the liberal world order that has benefited us to much. This leads to challenges to American interests by other countries and confusion among our allies.  Foreigners are shocked at the seeming fragility of the United States right now. This perception is certainly reversible, with our military might, our $20 trillion economy and our values that are generally admired around the world.  
What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing careers in foreign affairs?
I would advise students to pursue a broad general education and then specialize in graduate school. History is important. If you understand the history of the Gulf, you have a far better understanding, for instance, of the current spat among Gulf countries. Foreign language is increasingly important, if only because so many educated people in the world now speak English.  We have less and less contact with ordinary citizens, who can only be reached in their native language. An understanding of your own country is critically important. I will never forget something John Negroponte told me about discussing policy issues with foreign leaders: "Don't spend a lot of time telling them about their own country. They will always know their own country better than you do. Your value added is what you can tell them about your country."

Robert Ford

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Senior Fellow

Ambassador Robert Ford joined the Jackson Institute as a Senior Fellow in 2016. After a 30-year career with the Peace Corps and the U.S. Department of State, Ford is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he writes and speaks about Syria, Iraq and North Africa. He was the U.S. Ambassador to Syria 2011-2014, receiving wide recognition for his work defending Syrians’ human rights in the face of the Bashar Asad regime’s repression.

Ford sat down for a Q&A with us in January 2016.

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What’s one piece of advice you would give to our MA students who are considering careers in diplomacy and the Foreign Service?
The work can be absolutely fascinating and important, and the travel can be fun.  However, these are jobs dedicated to public service, they will sometimes require personal and family sacrifice, and they involve working as part of teams in a bureaucracy which requires compromise and patience. The Foreign Service is also very competitive, so it can't be a student's only job game plan - there has to be at least one plan B. 
Did you always envision a career with the State Department or did you first pursue other career ambitions after college?
I thought about trying to get into the Foreign Service, but I wasn't sure I would like living overseas.  I therefore did the Peace Corps in Morocco to try living overseas and to learn Arabic well.  The Peace Corps was a fabulous experience on all counts - the challenges were energizing, Morocco was fascinating, and it was possible to learn to speak Arabic well.  (Some Moroccans would ask me if I was a Berber - they couldn't quite place my accent.)  When I went back to finish my MA at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies I knew I wanted to get into the Foreign Service.
Tell us more about what students can expect from your Spring 2016 class, GLBL 685 “Arab Spring and New Revolution?”
I want class participants to get a better sense of underlying factors that drive Arab politics, such as the role of the countries' military/security apparatus, political Islam, the development of jihadi movements which is not the same thing as political Islam, the Sunni-Shia competition and even how climate change will affect the Arab World's politics.  By watching videos, I want to stimulate discussions about the interactions among people that we see and the responses political and religious figures try to generate when they speak.  If you think FDR, John Kennedy or Ronald Reagan were good speakers, let's take a look at Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt or Ali Benhadj in Algeria.
There is a massive refugee & humanitarian crisis resulting from the situation in Syria and other conflict zones in the Middle East. How do you see this crisis impacting future policy on immigration & open borders [for example, the Schengen Agreement] in Europe?
The crisis will bring long-lasting change. The president of the European Council said at the end of last year that the rush of refugees and migrants threatens to bring down the Schengen agreement, and Sweden just imposed border controls for the first time in many years.  The fighting in Syria is not diminishing and there will be more refugees from there.  Limited opportunities in Africa will drive more people to boats from countries like Algeria and Libya.  The crush of people is more likely to get worse rather than better even as Europeans worry more about security.  As a result, the EU will face pressure from within to close its internal open borders, and will confront an ever growing demand for resources to help countries like Greece and Italy even when Scandinavian countries and Germany themselves feel tightly pressed.  The EU will be challenged as never before.  Even here in the U.S. there is a sharp, new debate about immigration that touches directly on our core values as a nation.  Think about the meaning and the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty.
We know you’re a big Baltimore Orioles fan. What other personal interests/hobbies do you have?
After the rush of working in Washington and foreign capitals, living in a small town now gives my wife and me time to enjoy smaller things and to reflect.  We don't own a television.  Instead, I love to read, especially books about current events, history, economics, and fiction by authors like Richard Russo and Richard Ford.  I was delighted to be asked to join the Board of Directors of the library of our hometown in upstate Vermont, and I volunteer a few nights weekly at the homeless persons' shelter there. My wife and I love to hike in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine, and in the Green Mountains of Vermont.