On the New Era of Diplomacy and Being in the Foreign Service: Interview with Cameron Phelps Munter

By Maïmouna Diarra (PO ’19) and Gabe Magee (PO ’20)

Mr. Cameron Phelps Munter was the former U.S. ambassador to Serbia (2007-2009) and Pakistan (2010-2012), serving as a U.S. Foreign Service Officer in some of the most conflict-ridden regions of the world for almost thirty years. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Mr. Munter taught European history at the University of California Los Angeles, and also taught at Columbia University School of Law.

After his retirement from the Foreign Service, Mr. Munter was a professor of international relations at Pomona College from 2013 to 2015, and served as a consultant to the equity funds KKR and Mid Europa Partners. In addition, he also advised the Gates Foundation project on polio eradication.

Currently the CEO of the EastWest Institute (EWI) in New York, Mr. Munter heads research in conflict resolution working to reduce international conflict and addressing seemingly intractable problems that threaten world security and stability.

CJLPP: Do you see any problems in diplomacy between the United States and other countries that may not be as prevalent or as talked about or publicized as much as others?

Munter: One of the things that’s key to understand diplomacy is that there are always parts of diplomacy that are not visible. That is no more or no less now than at any other time. We sometimes use the language of what’s above the water line and what’s below the water line. What you see and what don’t you see. An example of above the water line would be kind of a public diplomacy, a statement by the president about relations with Russia. Or a statement or a policy negotiation about trade with Mexico or something like this. These are public, these are kind of diplomacy relations out in front, and people talk about it. There are things that you don’t see, and there are a couple of reasons for that. Sometimes they’re secret, there are questions of famous efforts by people like Henry Kissinger going quietly to China to open negotiations. This quiet, sometimes done through proxies, back-channel diplomacy, is important because there are times where you want to keep things secret. You don’t want to blow up the possibility of talking. But there’s another kind of diplomacy that’s not seen which is where there are millions of different ties between countries, and you don’t see a lot of them simply because they’re not of interest to many people.

I don’t know if you spend a lot of time studying American relations with a country like the Philippines, but not many people know a lot about it. It’s not that it’s not important or that they don’t like it, it’s just that we’re busy thinking about Russia, we’re busy thinking about China, things like that. So there are a great number of issues in diplomacy that are not visible or only become visible when there is a problem. I use the example of the Philippines, because they had an election where they had a kind of law and order candidate come in who was a pretty tough guy who decided that he would reverse the policies of his predecessor, and on issues of the Philippines relationship to China, as opposed to Philippines relations to the United States, he turned things on their head. So that kind of diplomacy –what happens in a case like that is you see something that had been going on and on: U.S./Philippines relations –all of a sudden gets turned on its head. And so what’s visible is crisis. Just because you see the crisis, doesn’t mean that’s the only thing there is. There’s lots of stuff going on in the world you don’t know about. That doesn’t necessarily have to be bad or a crisis. It’s that there are relations that are just carrying on every day, whether its business relations or security relations, etc.

So the answer to your question is: are there problems in diplomacy that may not be visible? Yes, because we may be talking quietly to the Russians even while there’s tension between the countries. We may be doing quiet things. Or, there may be a lot of things going on – like the U.S. relations with Chile, which you might not hear about very often, right? Because it’s not a problem. So the point I would make to this question is be careful about seeing the world as so fraught with danger. You’ll hear about the dangerous stuff. But there’s a lot going on that is going on and the reason people don’t pay attention is because it’s not too bad. This should make you a little more optimistic about the state of the world, right? Because so much is going on that is simply not grabbing the headlines. And when people over-sensationalize, they sometimes make mistakes.

CJLPP: Is there a demand or need for an evolution or change in the type of diplomacy that we have been engaging in for the past however many years?

Munter: You’ve jumped onto the topic that I’m going to be addressing tonight , which I call the new diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy is the diplomacy of people who represent countries. That is someone from Washington talking to someone from Beijing. So it’s intergovernmental. You may know the phrase from history – it’s a westphalian system. This system, which was basically built after a series of wars in Europe in the seventeenth century, was meant to say diplomacy is the art of countries talking to each other. And what’s inside the country is no one else’s business. What has happened in the twentieth century is that, and is especially accelerating in the twentieth century is it’s harder and harder to fit diplomacy, if you will, to shoehorn diplomacy, into that narrow set of relationships. What about business relationships? What about people to people relationships? What about the ties between different universities? What about problems such as global warming that go over borders? Problems such as proliferation and illegal economies that cross borders? What if you’re dealing with a problem that a diplomat from America and a diplomat from let’s say Mexico can’t solve? So the answer here is if you need evolution and a change in diplomacy – it’s changing whether you like it or not. It’s not that the old fashion of diplomacy of Washington and Brussels or Washington and Tokyo goes away. It simply is not sufficient to cover all the things that are going on in the world.

CJLPP: What do you think accounts for that change? For example, would globalization be an influential factor?

Munter: A lot of things could be under the term “globalization”—we’re thinking about that primarily in terms of changes of communication and economics. Certainly we know much more and therefore we are not able to kind of ignore and compartmentalize as much as we could before. The fact that sovereignty is extended beyond just a few powerful states to many states—not that all states are equal, just that there are people in South Africa that have a lot more of an opinion—that opinion can be made public, and it can have an impact much more than it could have twenty years, fifty years, a hundred years ago. So yes, those trends you’re talking about have caused that change, and the wise traditional diplomat, instead of resisting that, embraces it. I’ll give you one example. When I was ambassador in Pakistan, one of my jobs was to spend a lot of the taxpayer’s money to try to eliminate polio. There are three countries in the world where there is polio—Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. So, Pakistan and Afghanistan, they have a common border so we thought—let’s deal with this. For a lot of reasons—we were clumsy, there was a lot of terrorism, there was a lot of problem—we spent a lot of money and we failed. And so we did not eradicate polio.

When I left the foreign service in 2012 I became a consultant for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Now their job, among other things, is to eliminate polio. They went about it differently. They had more flexible approaches, they used different people to convince some of the people in the more remote areas to accept, you know, vaccinations and things of that sort. And probably by about 2018 they will have eliminated polio in Afghanistan and Pakistan. My point is not to say that Bill Gates is better than the U.S. government. He’s different; he did it differently. He did it with different people, so that is when what is in the interest of the United States is actually carried out by someone who is not a government employee. So that new diplomacy is the diplomacy of coalitions, right? Rather than just saying “We do the diplomacy and you just stay home.”

CJLPP: How did you become an ambassador, or how does one become an ambassador, and can you tell us about your personal transition from academia to your ambassadorship?

Munter: One of the things in my generation, I finished my doctorate in the early eighties, that may be different from now is that, I felt at least, during the seventies and all when I was in school that I had time to explore different things. I didn’t have the kind of enormous student debt or other kinds of pressures that face students today. So I felt I could spend time really thinking through problems, and I spent a lot of my twenties doing that. So I went into academia not necessarily because I felt I was the best academic or something. I did it because I had spent a lot of time thinking about problems in history—I got a doctorate in history—and wanted to understand the world better. So that when I finally got into the job market, I realized it was a very difficult job market. And I thought what else might I do that would take advantage of the things that I’d studied and I might enjoy, given that I like to think I’m curious, enthusiastic, and all these other kinds of qualities. So, I took the foreign service exam and got in.

The foreign service exam is a very fair exam. You can’t get into the foreign service because you know someone. Everyone takes the same exam. If you’ve spent, you know, five months, ten years, kicking around in academia, you’ve picked up more information, you have a bit of an advantage, right? Which is good, right. I found that it all of a sudden wasn’t that big of a switch from being someone who learned and was curious, to someone who learned and was curious for a living. Once you become a diplomat you don’t stop learning. You’re moving every two or three years, from Zambia to Paraguay to China. You always have to keep learning. You’re learning new languages, you’re learning new cultures. You’re never getting stuck in what you knew. So that picture you might draw moving from academia to being in an applied world is not so much the shock of doing that. I was able to continue in a world where I was always changing, always curious, and always finding something new. And not getting stuck. You know, some people want a little bit more predictability in their life. They want to live in a place where they know their friends, and they stay there for ten, twenty years and have a house and all this. Nothing wrong with that. That wasn’t that important for me.

Part of learning to be an ambassador, learning to be a diplomat is really trying as hard as you can to be honest with yourself –what kind of life do you like? Some people would like to be an ambassador because it’s cool and you live in a big house and you get to do things but they don’t think about the fact that there are other elements to this life, you’re uprooted a lot, that you’re putting a lot of strain on your family, you’re doing all these kinds of things –think about that stuff, be honest with yourself, before you go in. It’s a lifestyle as much as it is a profession. Last thing I’ll mention as far as what it takes to be an ambassador is people have said to me “What’s the best thing you could study to be an ambassador?” and I say, only half-joking “Theatre arts. ” You do a lot of acting as an ambassador. And I’m not saying you’re acting like you’re being phony. You’re taking on the personality that is necessary at a certain time. Part of what you need to do is you’re playing a role, if you don’t like playing roles, if you’re excruciatingly “I’m always open and honest” then you might have problems being a diplomat. Because sometimes you’re angry and you’re not always allowed to show that you’re angry. Sometimes you’re not angry and you have to do a little bit of Kabuki and pretend you’re angry. Because you’re not there because you’re you. You’re representing your country. And if your country wants you to be angry, you act it out. You see what I mean? And the better diplomats are the ones who are acting just like in a movie. If it’s obvious that you’re acting, you’re not a good actor, right?

But if you’re sincere about it, you can do different things at different times. Now this sometimes leads people to say “Oh, diplomats. They’re false. Diplomats speak with forked tongues…” That kind of thing. And what you have to realize is on the contrary, the only thing you have as a diplomat is your honesty. You don’t have weapons to make people do things, you don’t have a huge amount of money to buy them off. You’ve got to convince them. You’ve got to be able to say—“I’m going to act in this role as an American diplomat, as an American ambassador.” And as I act in this role, I have got to be effective to get the other guys, say the people in China, or wherever, to see it my way. Part of it is seeing it their way. How do I know how to talk to them, what’s their interest? And so you have to be extraordinarily conscious of communication. That’s again—who else does this? Actors. So that’s the quality that I think is really key. Obviously at a very basic level you’ve got to be a smart guy who’s good at language, but the really good diplomats are those people who can play a role and play it sincerely.

CJLPP: What were your most rewarding experiences or interactions as an ambassador? We would be particularly interested in your experience as U.S ambassador to Pakistan given the context of Pakistan, and the events that took place in the country, during your Ambassadorship.

Munter: Well, being an ambassador is one thing. When you are a younger diplomat, you have more of an opportunity to get a more authentic experience–my first assignment was in the 1980s in Poland, when Poland was still a communist country. I was a pretty junior guy so I wasn’t an ambassador, but I had the opportunity to get to know this culture at a time of real change. You know, just before the Berlin Wall fell. It’s extremely rewarding to understand trends in a country which is not your own, and be able to send those ideas, to translate them back to your country when, as you hope, your country is doing the right thing. I would argue that in the late 1980s when we were against communism we were doing the right thing. So all these things align, and that’s very satisfying. You’re pushing for freedom, you’re supporting a solidarity trade movement, you’re trying to help people have dignity, you’re pushing American interests and trying to make peace in the region and stability… When all those things come together, sometimes it’s just an accident of history, that can be very satisfying. So that’s not being an ambassador, that’s being a diplomat.
Now as an ambassador, what’s very satisfying, is when you see that you’re able to… now the word “ambassador” in many languages, or in the French language comes out to mean “a messenger,” someone who is in between. You are not really someone who is making up policy, yes you are a little bit, but mainly your job is the “go-between”, you’re a messenger. So, what you really want to do as an ambassador is see that you are explaining your country’s position clearly and honestly, and that you are seeing that people understand it, and doing the same when the other country says “x” and “y,” that you are taking that back to Washington and they are understanding it. Now, it also goes beyond governments as I was saying earlier, but in general you are trying to make sure that both sides understand each other. This doesn’t mean that they agree, and it doesn’t mean that one side is better, you know because I was a patriot, but the point is you are trying to make it so that you don’t have misunderstandings or miscalculations that could lead to conflict. If you are going to have a conflict, it should be because you understand everything, and you still disagree, right? So there’s an element of marriage counseling in this when you think about it. Its behavioral psychology, it’s how do you prevent people from having a fight that’s unnecessary, and part of that is empathy for the position of others and clarity in the explanation of your own position.

When I was in Pakistan, Serbia or when I served in Iraq, I was trying very hard to make sure the sides understood each other and that was the most satisfying. As it turned out, the period in which I was a senior officer in the American foreign service was a very unsettled time. So, the fact is, in addition to the satisfaction of making things work, you also have to cope with what happens when everything falls apart. In 2011, when I was in Pakistan, we had a series of disasters. I could argue that the single best thing I did as an ambassador was preventing those disasters from becoming worse. Now no one really likes to sit around and prevent things from getting worse, but I would have to say that one thing I’m proud of is there was one time during that year at the time of the so called Ramond-Davis case, this was a CIA spy who shot people there, where things could have spun out of control. There could have been very bad violence, and a rupture in relations, so I’m proud, whether or not I’m justified in being proud, I’m proud that things didn’t get out of control. Preventing disaster isn’t really in the job description, but that’s what you have to do sometimes.

CJLPP: How do you feel your work advances the relationship between the United States and Pakistan?

Munter: You know, I went to Pakistan partly because there were some people in Washington led by a guy named Richard Holbrook, a famous diplomat, Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State at the time, and Barack Obama, who believed that there had been very bad relations between Pakistan and America. There had been misunderstandings and we wanted to get past that, we wanted to build trust in the relationship and make a relationship that was not just founded on how do they help us on the war on terror, but on how do we make sure they stay stable and peaceful, and, we hope, democratic. After all, with over 200 million people, and it being the sixth largest country in the world, and their possession of nuclear weapons, you don’t want to get [the interaction and diplomacy] wrong. So we went into that relationship with the hopes that we could build trust and build a better relationship. Many people thought that we were naive, and I would say that if you ask people in Washington now, they would say they were right. They would say, “you guys were naive, you went in there, and things went to hell in this period and now we are much more critical of Pakistan, and now the Pakistanis have it coming.” There is a very strong anti-Pakistan feeling in Washington right now. And so, you ask if I advanced the relations? Objectively, its hard for me to say that US relationships with Pakistan is better than it was. I’d like to think that I made every effort to prevent the kind of conflict that comes out of people just shutting their eyes and being angry. So it’s not a satisfying story, but it is part of what you are called upon as an ambassador, its when the situation is rough, how do you make sure it doesn’t get even rougher.

CJLPP: How were relations between the U.S and Pakistan affected after the Bin Laden event, as you were involved in that aftermath and atmosphere?

Munter: What happened in the Bin Laden event was: the fact that we didn’t tell the Pakistanis that we were coming in meant that we violated their sovereignty and one thing that’s very important in a lot of country, that you can say about America too, no one likes to be humiliated. We decided as a country it was more important to us to have the secrecy to make sure we got him than it was to tell the Pakistanis, so we didn’t tell them. And so I had a lot of cleaning up to do after that. There were enormous hurt feelings, there was shame because many of them were shamed, you know “how could we have this guy (Bin Laden) in our country and we didn’t know”, some of them were angry—they said “who does America think they are just, going in and killing people in other countries. You think you’re God.” So there was a lot of explaining, and this has to do with what I mentioned to you the above the water line and below the water line. Some of this was quiet talk with people in quiet situations, but a lot of it was going on and talking to the public. I was trying to convince them and trying to explain to them what was going through our minds while being more than happy to listen to them about why they feel a certain way.

I work now at a think tank [the EastWest Institute], a non-profit that does conflict mediation, we do a lot of work on China, we do a lot of work on Russia, we do a lot of work on Turkey. And people say “well gosh, you know that Putin and the Chinese Communist Party aren’t big civil rights guys”. And you say look “ anyone can negotiate with Canada, the trick is how do you negotiate with people precisely when you have differences of opinion. So after the Bin Laden raid the differences of opinion were very stark and very conscious. I’m fairly proud of the fact that I think we kept a certain level of civility, and a certain level of mutual respect while we were talking about things we really didn’t like about each other.

CJLPP: Moving onto your current position, at the conflict prevention and resolution think tank called the EastWest Institute, what are the most prominent security threats you have ascertained?

Munter: In a kind of conceptual sense, there is enormous mistrust in the world. And part of that is, not that anyone is being good or bad, but the result of things like the hiccups in globalization like the economic crisis of 2008 or the result of the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that there is a lot of questioning of the international global order. You can have an established order like the Americans made after 1945, where it was basically Americans policing the seas, setting the rules for trade, setting the rules for currency, setting the rules for the way the UN works, human rights, and things like that. No matter whether or not you liked this American moment, there was a structure of people brought into it. The biggest danger now is, and you can come down on whether you like the American structure or don’t like the American structure, the biggest danger is that it’s not clear what’s going to happen. It’s the uncertainty that’s the greatest danger. So you have people challenging that, people like North Korea, and we’re not sure what they’ll do and they aren’t sure what we’ll do. And that uncertainty and the inability to predict what will happen and therefore to cut it off before it happens, is the biggest danger that I can see today. Yes, it’s because of uncertainty and the anxiety that that produces when people are afraid that there’s not a clear path ahead.

CJLPP: President Trump’s foreign policy is often critiqued as isolationist. Would you agree? If so, what are your thoughts on President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, and how will it affect the United State and its relations with its allies and adversaries?

Munter: In terms of his foreign policy, I don’t think he is ideologically consistent. That is to say he changes all the time. He has said NATO is obsolete now, he says NATO is not obsolete, he said Obama you should stay out of Syria, and then he goes on and is bombing Syria. The things he was criticizing Obama for, now he’s doing. You might call it pragmatic, you might call it utterly unprincipled, you can call it a lot of things, but the fact is, it’s not ideologically consistent. So I think it’s probably wrong to call him an isolationist. There are some isolationist elements to what he does, when he talks about trade protectionism for example, but it’s not one thing or another. I think this is another thing we have to live with in the current era, that at a time when global trends bring uncertainty, he is adding to that uncertainty, which makes things even more tricky right now.

CJLPP: What threat does President Trump’s foreign policy add to security threats?

Munter: One of the things that foreign policy professionals generally criticize about President Trump is that he is by design not predictable. Most of the things the man said while he was running for President was “I’m not going to tell people what I’m going to do, I’m going to keep them guessing.” The thing is, with President Trump, is that being unpredictable might work when selling hotels, right? I don’t mean to make fun of him, he is the president. But the point is, that unpredictability scares the hell out of a lot of foreigners, so this problem of the unpredictability being one of the biggest threats, he, unfortunately, intensifies that and so people are very scared around him.

CJLPP: Moving on to your most recent work in security, the EastWest Institute is particularly invested in the advancement of cyber-security. What is one aspect of cyber-security from a foreign policy perspective that most laymen may not even think about?

Munter: Remember, we started by talking about things you do above the waterline and below the waterline? In cyber, where we work is very much above the waterline. In cyber security, the problem is not that there are often no rules. And so, one of the things we do is the establishment of norms. The important thing that needs to be done is we need to figure out where is common ground. If the Germans are worried about data privacy and Americans are worried about internet freedom, and the Chinese are worried about state sovereignty over the internet, how do you find rules so that they don’t crash into each other? The problem is that right now in cyberspace it is very difficult to do that. Now, we as an institution, what we at the EastWest Institute, is bring together governments—Israel, Russia, China, India—we bring together businesses and high tech companies, we bring together intelligence agencies and cops, we bring together think tank wonks and we try to get everyone to say, what is it that we all agree on? Where is the common ground? And so, in cyber, we are trying to work mainly on the establishment of conventions, the establishment of norms, so that there are ways that will prevent us from banging into each other in cyberspace.

CJLPP: Mr. Munter, it looks like we have run out of time, so we will not be able to get to the rest of our prepared questions, but thank you so much for taking the time out of your day to speak with us. Your insight, knowledge, and experiences are so profound, and we thank you for sharing them with us.

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