Carol J. Williams (UW ’77) is a retired foreign correspondent who covered revolution and war for 30-plus years for the Associated Press and Los Angeles Times. She has reported from more than 80 countries, with a focus on USSR/Russia and Eastern Europe. She has been awarded more than a dozen international reporting honors, including five Overseas Press Club awards and a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1994 for her coverage of the Balkan wars. Retired from mainstream journalism, she curates “World Briefing by CJ Williams” on Twitter @cjwilliamslat, writes on foreign affairs for Seattle’s PostAlley.org, and speaks on media and foreign policy at events held by civic groups, libraries and University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies.
Why is giving to the Ellison Center for Russian, East European and Central Asian Studies meaningful to you?
Carol J. Williams: The education I got at the UW as an undergraduate and the Soviet Studies and Russian language classes I took later prepared me for a career as a foreign correspondent that I yearned for from a very young age. I got to experience life in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, a time when there was a fleeting glimpse during the years of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost reforms of the possibility of an end to the adversarial superpower relationship and better lives for Soviet citizens. I want my modest contribution to the Jackson School and the Ellison Center to prepare the scholars and diplomats and journalists of the future to engage with their counterparts in Russia as I experienced during that brief window of hope. I realize we are now light years away from any such reform but it has to start somewhere.
Why is International Studies important for the future of our global community?
C.J.W.: As U.S.-Russian relations have been on such a dangerous downward trajectory since the breakup of the Soviet Union, I think it’s important now more than ever that students of history and foreign policy re-evaluate how we engage with our perceived adversaries. I’ve always been bothered by political analysis along the lines of zero-sum game. Soviet successes in space were viewed as dangers to be overcome rather than accomplishments to be jointly developed for mutual benefit. The arms race upped the ante on each side’s advantage in annihilating the other.
After the Soviet breakup in 1991, Western business flooded into Russia with joint ventures that benefited the elites in exploiting Russia’s enormous natural wealth but the needs of the population were ignored, nurturing resentment and hostility to democracy and capitalism. I know it’s naive to think centuries of division can be overcome in the short span of history since 1991 but I had the opportunity to live through that fleeting reform era and the idea that a leadership that renounced repression could provide a better life for its people.
How did taking Soviet Studies and Russian language courses influence your career path, or perhaps enhance your skills and impact as a journalist focused on international affairs?
C.J.W.: My B.A. in 1977 was double majors in psychology and editorial journalism. I had always been interested in foreign affairs and in particular the superpower relationship. I realized if I wanted to be a correspondent in Moscow, I would need Russian language proficiency and a better understanding of 20th Century Soviet history and international relations. While working at the Associated Press bureau in Seattle I took classes part-time from fall 1980 until late spring 1983, when the AP brought me to New York headquarters to prepare for my foreign posting which began a year later. I could never have gotten the career start I had without that education.
What’s one piece of advice you have for students coming to the Jackson School?
C.J.W.: Take advantage of all that is on offer. My one regret is that I didn’t broaden my post-B.A. studies to include learning more about the Middle East and Asia. There is such a rich menu of courses taught by professors with profound knowledge in their fields of expertise. The world is your oyster.