Faculty affiliated with the Middle East Center are in high demand for their Middle East expertise and are frequently engaged in teaching beyond the University of Washington. This summer Affiliate Professor Kristian Coates Ulrichsen led training sessions for the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI). In the interview below Professor Coates Ulrichsen talks about his experiences at FSI.
Q: Could you explain briefly what the Foreign Service Institute is?
A: The Foreign Service Institute is a branch of the State Department dedicated to training and preparing foreign service officers and members of other government departments working on foreign affairs to better advance US interests worldwide. It is based at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (named for former Secretary of State George P. Shultz) in Arlington, Virginia. FSI organizes more than 600 courses each year and provides instruction in over 70 languages in addition to the professional training that all entrants to the foreign service undergo after they join. In addition to working closely with the State Department (‘Main State’ in FSI jargon), the FSI also reaches out to the academic and practitioner communities for area studies expertise.
Q: How do you approach the challenge of bringing FSI students up to speed on the complexities of the Middle East?
A: One particular challenge is that some of the consular officers who are heading to posts in the Middle East have no prior background or expertise in the region. The area studies component of the course they do at FSI consists of an initial week that looks at ‘broad-brush’ issues across the region, such as politics and religion. The second week is divided into three sub-regional courses that focus on North Africa and the Levant in addition to the Arabian Peninsula (which I have taught). The challenge is to provide a comprehensive introduction to the region in twenty 90-minute sessions squeezed into five intensive days of study. A trick is to make the sessions highly interactive and also engaging so that they become a sort of ongoing dialog between and among the participants and the instructor and make it easier to absorb large amounts of sometimes complex information. I also invite in guest speakers who bring their own academic and practitioner perspectives, and the visit to the State Department to meet and talk with Desk Officers is always appreciated, as it gives the consular officers an insight into what will be expected of them once in post.
Q: How did the students’ attitudes evolve over the course of the training week?
A: From having, in some cases, very little knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula on the Monday morning and, in others, thinking that the region can be summed up in two words, ‘oil’ and ‘security’, the amount of information the course participants were able to pick up by Friday afternoon was quite astounding, and was reflected in the questioning they subjected their Instructor to! With almost no exception, the six times I have led the course I have found the participants to be fascinated by the Arabian Peninsula, whether it be its history and culture or its current political, economic, or strategic trajectory. This deep interest can clearly be seen on the final day of the course when I ask the participants to do short presentations on a topic of their choice, and the results are almost always highly impressive. Many of the participants have kept in touch and have requested additional suggestions for reading on their country of destination which suggests that the course has sparked a genuine interest that has extended beyond the training week itself.
Q: What do you see as the impact of these FSI training sessions?
A: Given that the consular officers are going to be representing the US (and US interests) in a volatile region it was important for them to grasp the often intangible nuances that frequently underlay official policy pronouncements and decision-making. Most participants leave the course with a sense of excitement at the prospect of going to the Arabian Peninsula (after Arabic language training) as well reassurance that what might beforehand have seemed an impenetrable part of the world actually isn’t so difficult to understand after all. For the course participants, whether those that are heading to the Gulf or their colleagues in other parts of government who are DC-based, they also get to network with each other and build professional relationships based around a common region of interest. For me, the work I have done at FSI over the past couple of years has been an opportunity to translate some of my academic expertise into a policy setting and to develop a far better understanding of the foreign policymaking process from the perspective of the individuals who collectively make the machinery of state work.
In Autumn quarter 2016, Professor Coates Ulrichsen will be teaching “Reassessing the Arab Spring” (JSIS 487A/587A).