Despite living in a “more fractious” world, students looking for a career in diplomacy should continue to pursue their dreams, said Ambassador Nancy McEldowney, the new director for the Masters in Foreign Service program, in an exclusive interview with The Hoya.
Before beginning her term at Georgetown this fall, McEldowney served as director of the Foreign Service Institute at the Department of State, where she oversaw the government’s diplomatic training program. She was one of several officials who left the State Department following policy and leadership decisions she said would “make America weaker.”
The Hoya interviewed McEldowney about the state of the foreign service, her goals for the MSFS program, and the future of diplomacy.
Let’s start with a question that a lot of students get asked at the start of the year: Why SFS?
For me, the answer to that question is two parts: I am in SFS because I believe in international service. People of conscience need to act to help the world and the people in it. I have spent many years trying to support the next generation of global leaders as part of my public service, so this is a continuation of that personal passion.
But I also want to ask a question that you didn’t ask which is, “Why Georgetown?” I wanted to be in SFS but I also wanted to be at Georgetown because I believe that this is a place with values, a place with conscience. This isn’t just a place where you get an education, it’s where you develop your own worldview. Now more than ever do we need institutions like this one that are going to stand for truth, integrity and compassion, and that was the combination that was irresistible.
What do you think is the role of a program like MSFS in today’s political environment?
There are some enduring qualities about this program: to give people the grounding they need in both theory and practice of international relations [and] to give them specific skills sets in one of our concentration areas — whether it’s business and finance or development or national security.
But there’s an added element now. We are seeing a resurgence of certain things that have been present always in this country and elsewhere, but they are coming out in unexpected ways: racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia. We need to position our students to navigate through a world of nationalism and populism where the institutions that governed the post-World War II era are eroding away. Our students need the intellectual agility and the personal confidence to cope and navigate through with some clarity.
What are some of the most significant developments or changes in the foreign service that you have seen in your career?
I was in graduate school in the late ‘80s and entered the U.S. government when the Cold War was coming to an end … There was great optimism about the fact that we had successfully managed this momentous competition. Few expected the period of chaos and conflict that ensued, and there is a great line that I think is apt here, which is: “fewer dragons, a lot more snakes.” We didn’t have the kind of potential for nuclear cataclysm between the United States and the Soviet Union, but we had asymmetrical conflicts that caused people to go, “Wait a minute. We misunderstood.”
What you see is that actually the world has become more fractious and more fragmented. Many people thought globalization would lead to a sense of global identity, but those who feel disenfranchised and dispossessed as a result of globalization — whether that’s economic social or religious — they’ve actually become more provincial, more parochial, more vested in their localized identity. The institutions have lost credibility and when you see traditional leaders like the United States undergoing their own internal upheaval, people from the German leader to the Canadian leader are all saying, “we need to chart our own path.”
What are some aspects of your experience with diplomacy training that you hope to bring to MSFS?
I start with a sense of humility and an honor to be here. I am so humbled by the great things that are happening here. I’ve met students and faculty and staff who are truly world class. I have no negative judgments at all, only positive ones to share about the program.
I will share with you a couple of thoughts that I bring with me in terms of general orientation. We are getting people ready to take on not just a job but a lifetime of jobs in global service. We have to think both about the academics but also the skill sets.
I’ll start with the capacity to undertake critical analysis — to understand the biases, both the cognitive biases [and] the unconscious interpersonal biases that each individual inevitably brings to something; but then to be able to look at a problem a phenomenon, and understand the unintended consequences to any action or decision, to recognize history [and] theory applied.
Also, [we have] to make sure that we’re interdisciplinary. It’s one thing to talk about global warming from a scientific perspective, but what about from an anthropological one? How do social relations affect people’s interpretation of or behavior toward a particular issue? What are the narratives, the unwritten social narratives that drive an entire society to make decisions, to act in a certain way?
We also need to look harder at our methodology. The old style of “sage on a stage,” where a learned professor gives a lecture is great for some things, but we need experiential learning, peer-to-peer learning that gets at [students’] needs.
We are training global leaders and they need to have been exposed to leadership theory, but also practice, so that they are able to articulate and to act in the world. I was talking just this morning about creating a module on leadership, incorporating it into the orientation on the very first days of the class and having clinics each semester so that people are able to explore different aspects from communication to problem-solving to building cohesive teams.
How do you hope to allocate limited resources for different student populations with distinct career tracks?
I am very passionate about and deeply committed to advancing diversity through my leadership. I want to have as many international students as well as people of different races, different sexual orientations [in] students, staff, and faculty so that we are truly representing the totality of what humanity. [We should create] an environment that doesn’t just say, “we’ve let you in the door,” but says “we want you here and we are committed to your success and we are going to cultivate you.”
I have seen over and over again that the best substantive results, programmatic results, academic results come about from creating that kind of environment. As events like [the protests in] Charlottesville[, Va.] happen, as we hear statements coming from senior leaders that convey disrespect for women and ethnic minorities, I redouble my efforts to make sure that this place is a role model for others.
But the other part of your question was about career choices and what we do with the curriculum to set our students up for success. This program gives people [a] foundation, and then it gives them the beginning of a specialization. On the foundational part, I’ve started asking myself the question, are there gaps in what we’re doing? Are there areas that we should be thinking about, like strategic forecasting? Must well educated people with a graduate degree today know about design thinking and systems thinking and big data and how to analyze big data?
We don’t have the concentration on science and technology. It strikes me that if you want to be a global leader you’re going to have to know about issues like global warming, global health, pandemics from avian influenza to Ebola. You’re going to have to know about … technological advances in transportation to manufacturing and agriculture. We want to prepare people for an immediate job, but we want to give them that breadth and depth that will allow them to move in multiple directions and still weave into a coherent journey.
In a July 28 New York Times column, you were quoted calling the State Department a “toxic, troubled environment.” When and why did that opinion continue begin to change?
Let me begin by saying: Public service is an incredibly noble profession. I want as many people as possible to go into public service … It is hugely important for the world. It has a tremendous positive impact on the individual lives of the people who are doing the public service and those who are benefiting from it.
I made the decision to leave the Department of State, because I was troubled by what I feared was a negative and divisive approach by the new president. I had many colleagues express concern about the rhetoric during the campaign, initial policy decisions, the role that America had traditionally played in the world as a force for good. If it’s zero sum, and I’m going to deny everything from you, you’re going to walk away resentful. I might be able to dominate you in the debate for one day, but you won’t trust me or be my friend unless I am also acknowledging the legitimacy of your concerns.
On top of my concern about the policy line, we had a combination of management decisions — about a one-third budget cut, hiring freezes, transfer freezes, the cutoff of recruitment programs designed to enhance diversity inside the State Department — that we knew, over time, wasn’t a bureaucratic or turf protection issue. The decisions that are going to be taken today are going to undermine America’s capacity to operate effectively. Ultimately it was going to make America weaker and make the world more dangerous.
Finally, there was an issue which is so so important. That’s trust. Trust makes the difference in everything. If you trust your leader, you will follow your leader into incredibly difficult circumstances, you will make sacrifices for your leader, you will take risks because you know your leader has your back. The trust inside the State Department was diminished and damaged, and without that it’s very hard to go on.
What would you say to a student who is debating committing to a career track and working for the State Department?
I would say ‘go for it,’ and here’s why: No one can predict the future. The future is always uncertain. Everything changes, including administrations. In that context, the decision that people have to make for themselves is: What is the job pathway that will be most rewarding?
Even though I chose public service, I have enormous respect for those who make other choices. Civil society and large corporations that now have major philanthropic arms are effecting positive change in the world. It’s not one and done. If you choose to go into government in three years, then you can make another choice and go into the private sector and go back and forth. So I would urge people to be optimistic always because they hold the power of choice in their hands. We have our own agency to determine the path that we want to take and we can make things come out right.
Where do you see the future of diplomacy going?
Diplomacy is enormously important. It is a profession that has been built over many years with a lot of tradition and orthodoxy associated with it and in some respects has been resistant to change. It must change and adapt and modernize if it’s going to help us solve the world’s problems. I think is the very large challenge for diplomats, … to be open to completely unorthodox solutions, because they’re going to come at us anyway.
It’s easy, when looking around the world right now, to be daunted by the challenges. And there are challenges, to be sure. But there are also tremendous opportunities. Poverty is down, the middle class is growing, more people have access to education and health care and the internet. We could end many diseases, we can significantly eliminate poverty, if we do it right. So what I would say to the students all across Georgetown, is they should be excited about what lies ahead and optimistic about the fact that they can shape the future. We need them to.
This interview has been edited and condensed.