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Interview with Marc Grossman

Marc Grossman

April 9, 2017

On October 13th 2015, numerous experts in the field of global affairs visited the Jackson School of International Studies as part of the “New Frontiers in International Affairs: A Conversation on the Arctic, Space and Cybersecurity,” the inaugural conference of the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute. This conference involved panels discussing some of the most pressing issues facing the United States today, and the Jackson School Journal was fortunate enough to sit down with several of the conference’s distinguished delegates. This is the third of three interviews conducted with visiting experts for the Jackson School’s conference.

Marc Grossman is the Vice Chairman of the Cohen Group, the former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Ambassador to Turkey. In this interview, Mr. Grossman discusses some of the most important challenges facing the Middle East and South Asia, and offers practical advice for young students interested in pursuing a diplomatic career. This interview first appeared in the Autumn 2015 issue.

Jackson School Journal: Having worked extensively in Turkey and the region, how do you view the current crisis in Syria?

Grossman: First of all, thank you so much for this opportunity to speak with you. There is, as you say, an enormous crisis in Syria that is unfolding on several levels. I think the first and most important thing that everyone can do is to just start getting focused on this question of refugees and not just people who are leaving Syria but people who are fleeing Syria for a variety of reasons. You can see it’s come to increasing public attention because people are now reaching Europe, but Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, have for years now been hosting an enormous number of refugees and I don’t think the international community has done nearly enough to support those countries as they take on this burden. The first issue for Syria is a humanitarian one. Secondly, there is an enormous humanitarian crisis inside Syria itself, with regards to internally displaced people. I happen to think there is also a place where perhaps more countries rather than fewer can come together and start considering how to aid the internally displaced in Syria. The third issue is how to bring this war to an end, which I think will take a lot more diplomacy. I don’t think recent Russian actions are going to increase the capacity of people to reach peace anytime soon. I think there has to be an effort, I do hope it can be led or forcefully supported by the United States of America to try and bring this conflict to an end because it is tearing not only Syria apart but surrounding countries. There is ISIS (Daesh) and all these terror groups, so the sooner this can be brought to an end, the better.

Jackson School Journal: I was reading your bio and saw that you were the United States Ambassador to Turkey. In your role as the American envoy to Turkey from 1994-1997, did you think that there was a refugee crisis prior to that?

Grossman: Well from my perspective, and the reason why I feel strongly about what is going on in Syria, is the fact that I had the good fortune and honor to serve in Turkey previously as the Deputy Chief of Mission from 1989-1992. At the end of the Gulf War there was an enormous flow of refugees out of Iraq and into the mountains between Iraq and Turkey. 500,000 people, mostly Kurds, fled Saddam at that time, pushed their way into the mountains of Turkey, and were dying in the thousands every day. Turkey and the United States as well as other countries led one of the most successful refugee returns since the Second World War: 500,000 people were coaxed out of those mountains and brought back down. That led to the first no-fly zone in Iraq in order to get those people home because we realized they were from Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and other cities along the border. So we decided that the right thing for the United States and our allies and friends (very much supported by Turkey) to do was to set up this no-fly zone so that Saddam had to stay below a certain geography, allowing all those people to return. I recognize my bias here. Just because it worked once doesn’t mean it will work again. But when people talk about setting up some kind of protected zone in Syria, I think it’s something that needs consideration.

Jackson School Journal: In your role as Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, how did you navigate these complex political landscapes with actors from both government and non-government entities?

Grossman: It was very difficult. It was a real challenge, but it was an honor to have been recalled to the government as the special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. My view was simple, really. We were given our instructions very clearly from the President and the Secretary of State, who said that our number one priority at that time was to support the military surge that was going on from 2010-2011. We also needed to support the civilian surge which was happening at that time. We had around 1,200 people from the State Department and other government agencies out there in Afghanistan, working on sustainable development and different projects, and rule of law, all of the different things that would be good in the long term for Afghanistan. We were called on in those years to complete a diplomatic surge so that the region supported a secure, stable, prosperous Afghanistan inside a secure, stable, prosperous region. We were also asked to see if we might talk to the Taliban, not about the future of Afghanistan, but whether they would be willing to talk to the [Afghan] government. So we developed a series of confidence building measures. It failed in the end, but we tried to get a direct contact with the Taliban. My view was that the key was to focus on the diplomatic work that had to allow us to fight the Taliban and try to talk to them at the same time. At the same time, we had to get the region to take responsibility for Afghanistan. The other piece of it was of course Pakistan, where we were also trying to bring US-Pakistan relations back to some useful level. You recall that 2011 was a horrible year for US-Pakistan relations. We tried to normalize that relationship between the two countries by the end of 2012. Now you can see that there is a more normal relationship between the two countries.

Jackson School Journal: From your perspective, how has the role of diplomacy changed since you began your career with the State Department?

Grossman: I think a big shift occurred before 9/11, which was when the Berlin Wall fell. Before the Berlin Wall went down, basically the United States and the Soviet Union were in this competition around the world, and wherever you were, be it Pakistan or Chile, things that were important locally were also important as they connected to this larger struggle. But what happened to many diplomats, not all, was that they came to see the job as one of reporting and observing and then sending back information to Washington so that other people could make decisions about what to do next. And once the wall fell, there was a really big change in our diplomacy, I think mostly for the positive, where people were doing programs, and they were more active, and they were involved in communities and really connecting to people. And I think that makes the job more fun, more interesting, and more attractive. After 9/11, there was also a big change because people were so focused on protecting the United States and defeating extremism. But I think that these things come together – the lines intersect, if you’ll allow me – we’re never going to defeat extremism if we don’t go into communities and do projects and programs that counter this narrative of violent extremism. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to fight them – believe me we do – and the military aspect of this is extremely important. But long term, the diplomatic piece of countering violent extremism is important as well.

“The relationship with Canada is about individuals – it’s not just about big thinking or grand strategy – it’s also about salmon fishing and water and land and pollution and indigenous peoples.”

Jackson School Journal: What advice can you offer to future diplomats or young professionals pursuing a career in international affairs?

Grossman: Well, I first I think that pursuing a career in international affairs at the moment has to be one of the most exciting prospects around, because everything that we do today in all of our lives is more and more connected to international affairs. I think a Canadian diplomat coined this phrase, saying that it’s really not international affairs or domestic affairs anymore, it’s “intermestic” and I think that there’s a lot to that. Everything is all connected, so being well versed in international affairs and languages and cross-cultural communication and how to do business with other people is all so important. The other thing is that the opportunities are all so enormous – when I joined the Foreign Service, basically if you wanted to live abroad, serve overseas, or serve your country, you joined the military or the foreign service. But now, people have opportunities in international business or NGOs, which hardly existed when I started in the foreign service 40 years ago. I mean, think how education has transformed. Universities now have campuses in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and all over the world. And I think that people starting today are so lucky that they have all of these opportunities. I hope that people will still hope to be foreign service officers, who also have special opportunities. I think that people who are starting their careers today are going to be pioneers in something really new. Whoever is sitting here 40 years from now giving an interview to a UW student will have had such a different career than I had, which is such an exciting prospect. I had a great career and loved every minute of it.

But will it be the same 40 years from now? No, it will be different because of social media, because of communities, and because foreign policy more and more impacts individuals. You can see this particularly in the Pacific Northwest: Think of the relationship with Canada: The relationship with Canada is about individuals – it’s just not about big thinking or grand strategy – it’s also about salmon fishing and water and land and pollution and indigenous peoples. For example, you can say that the Trans Pacific Partnership is a theoretical trade agreement but Washington state is the single largest benificiary. Who’s going to benefit here? Agriculture: cherries, apples – those are going to be among the biggest beneficiaries of the TPP. So I think what’s really exciting now about international affairs, whether you’re doing it in the private sector or the public sector, is the impact that policy has on individual human beings.

Jackson School Journal: Finally, what is the role that you think diplomacy can play in today’s world?

Grossman: Well, I’m biased. I think that diplomacy is really important, because there are fewer and fewer problems that can be solved militarily. I am absolutely in favor of a strong military, because without a strong military diplomacy is weak, and I am in favor of using military force. But many of today’s problems need a diplomatic solution, and people need to try to solve them diplomatically. Many of your readers may have a different view or may agree with me, but I think what President Obama did and our negotiators and allies did in this agreement with Iran, really shows what diplomacy can do. But that diplomacy was backed by sanctions, and force, and by unity among us and our allies. We didn’t just walk in one day and say “Hey, let’s negotiate this agreement.” The Iranians knew they were facing a unified and strong front. Think about the issues out there – climate change, for example, must have a diplomatic solution. The arctic, cybersecurity, migration – all of these issues are issues that are going to have to have some kind of diplomatic solution in the future.

Interview Edited By Iman Farah

Article featured in:

Jackson School Journal – Autumn 2015

Volume 6, Number 2. Autumn 2015