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Interview with MAAIS Instructor John Koenig

November 15, 2018

Ambassador John Koenig, who is teaching in the MAAIS program this fall, has witnessed extraordinary changes – in the world and in the Foreign Service – over the course of his diplomatic career. We asked him to share his reflections on those changes and what they mean for students charting an international studies career today.

How has the international affairs landscape evolved since you started your career with the Foreign Service?

The Cold War was still underway when I entered the Foreign Service in 1984 and it influenced my work profoundly. The post-Cold War decade that followed was marked by unexpected challenges but also tremendous optimism. Renewal and expansion of the liberal international order was our goal, and we achieved lasting results, for example, with the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, and the enlargement of NATO and the European Union.

At the same time, however, more diverse players emerged and began to influence the course of world developments. These players included states – the BRICs for instance – but also non-state actors. Al Qaida delivered a blow in 2001 that transformed American policy and led, through a series of deceptions and blunders, to the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. In a world of more diffuse opportunities and challenges, American foreign policy has lost focus, and neither the United States nor any other actor has stepped up to deal meaningfully with the epochal challenges facing the planet, such as climate change, mass migration, and the renewed risk of major power conflict

Globalization and the rapid evolution of technology have also transformed international affairs. The results, on the whole, have been overwhelmingly positive, lifting global living standards dramatically, reducing absolute poverty, and increasing life expectancy. Unfortunately, there has been no parallel evolution of international systems of decision making and accountability. Initiatives such as UN Security Council reform and the enhancement of the G-20 or some other forum for addressing global challenges have failed. We face a crisis of legitimacy, both within states and internationally, with no solutions in sight.

Bringing the focus down to the Foreign Service itself, the changes of the past three decades have again been profound. Communication technology revolutionized parts of our work, though the most fundamental task of diplomats remains what it has always been: persuading others to support our aims. The Foreign Service has also become much more diverse. Progress for women and ethnic and religious minorities has been fairly steady since I came in, and conditions for LGBT personnel have improved dramatically in recent years. The Trump Administration has slowed and even reversed several of these positive trends, but I remain hopeful that we will achieve a more diverse and representative – and therefore better – Foreign Service in the coming years.

What specific skills and knowledge do you think are critical for international studies graduate students to be successful in today’s job market?

Highly developed communication skills are critical in diplomacy and, more broadly, in international affairs. The ability to deliver clear, concise and persuasive messages – and to listen perceptively to the responses – are the most valuable tools in the foreign affairs professional toolkit. Everything is a conversation. Graduate students should aim to communicate comfortably under pressure, and to engage respectfully with a wide range of audiences and interlocutors. On the analytical side, the ability to sift through vast quantities of information and identify what is most important to ones’ objective in order to dig down more deeply is a critical skill.

What do you hope students take away from your class?

I hope students will come away with a solid understanding of how U.S. foreign policy works – and how it sometimes fails. My focus is on process, which is critical to getting policy right, and also on what I call “the interface”, where initial plans and programs meet the outside world, and where lessons are learned or disregarded. Listening and the feedback loop are fundamental. I know how easily disasters can happen – I was involved in more than one – but I have also seen what it takes to have success. With this in mind, I hope students will take away the message that there is a crying need for dedicated, creative individuals to engage actively in the foreign policy process, to bring new perspectives and ideas at a time of stasis and confusion. I hope some students will consider public service, including the Foreign Service, as their career path.