Each time I get the opportunity to present my passport at a foreign country’s border, I often wonder what is going on in the mind of the border control officer on the other side of the plexiglass. I wonder how he or she feels about America and Americans, and what interactions they may have had with the Americans who represent the rest of us in their country. However, when I traveled to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during the 2021 Christmas break, not only did I have these thoughts while waiting to be admitted into the country, but I also stood at the border “armed” with new perspective, which I had gained from my conversation with Ambassador Cynthia Efird who served as the United States Ambassador to Angola from 2004 to 2007.
Foreign diplomats, especially ambassadors earned my admiration and respect long before I immigrated to the US (from Nigeria) in 2002 because I perceived (and still perceive) them as the “controllers” who shape the impression foreigners have about their home country. Therefore, over the next few months, I plan to interview retired US ambassadors, and share these interviews with you through this new column titled, “Diplomatic Tea” so that, just like me, you will gain perspective, find a new level of appreciation for the people who represent us abroad, and perhaps decide to join their ranks as one of United States of America’s finest ambassadors.
You were the US ambassador to Angola from 2004 to 2007. How was that experience?
I was Ambassador to Angola just as relations between Angola and the US were improving. I found a wide scope to improve not just the bilateral relationship but the human rights situation in Angola as well. Our government played a key role, especially in public health through the President’s Malaria Initiative, the PEPFAR program to decrease the incidence and stigma of HIV/AIDS, and cooperation with the World Health Organization, other partners, and the Government of Angola during both cholera and hemorrhagic fever outbreaks. We were a valued partner in reducing death from these scourges, and in encouraging childhood vaccination campaigns. We also played a role in winding down internal conflicts and in promoting democracy. The US government criticized when appropriate, offered technical assistance when we could, and reached out to every corner of the country. There remain many challenges in Angola, but the people are better off and peaceful change is more likely because of US actions over the course of our engagement with that country.
Throughout my career, I found that the US was most persuasive when it was most honest, clearly expressing our key values while admitting our short fallings. I remember the US Human Rights report of 2006, criticizing the Angolan military for civilian abuses in Cabinda province, was released shortly after the revelations of US abuses of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison. Although all US Embassies are obligated to publicize the report, I was advised by some colleagues to be quiet to avoid charges of hypocrisy. Instead, I welcomed the chance to discuss mutual problems and held a press conference. When the inevitable question came—how could the US, talk about military impunity when our own record was disgraceful—I answered that we wanted to provide an example of how to deal with such problems. I pointed out that the world knew about Abu Ghraib because military lawyers publicized the problems through our free media, thus making accountability possible. I urged Angola to open its own media to discussions of human rights abuses, as the only way to move forward. The local media covered the press conference in full, including the remarks about the importance of media in achieving accountability. In the subsequent weeks, there were more discussions of the Angolan military than ever had appeared in the local media previously.
The Biden Administration is slowly going through the confirmation process for new ambassadors. What advice would you give to the current ambassador to Angola or any African country considering the state of US–African relations at this time, and China’s increasing presence on the continent?
I would advise US Ambassadors to travel widely within their host country, to meet with as many citizens of those countries as possible, and to represent the values of the US in outreach not just to government officials but in as many fora as possible. It is important to work with the diplomatic community, especially our democratic friends, in achieving bilateral, regional, and global objectives.
As the Biden-Harris Administration comes up to its one-year anniversary in just a few days, how well do you think they have been able to regain some of the standing America lost because of the damage done to our reputation by the last administration? As a matter of fact, do you think America can go back to where we used to “stand” in the world especially after how the January 6th insurrection played out in front of the entire world?
The Biden Administration is laying the groundwork for an active foreign policy that once again works closely with democratic friends rather than being cozy with autocrats. We are actively working on climate change issues, we are talking with Iran about nuclear weapon reductions, we have led on an agreement to ensure that the world’s richest corporations are fairly taxed based on where their sales are, we are working with regional allies to confront Chinese aggression against Taiwan and with NATO to discourage Russian adventurism against Ukraine. Congress has passed a State Department Authorization bill for the first time in nearly two decades, which will, in the words of the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez (D-NJ) “return diplomacy and values to the center of US foreign policy and national security.” This necessary foundation building has occurred over just one year. During that same period, there have been problems in coordination inter- and intra-governmental, especially during the Afghanistan withdrawal and the sale of submarines to Taiwan. Once habits of mutual action have been shunted aside, building them up again is not an easy process. All I can say is “Thank Heavens” we have returned to the right track!
This response makes me feel quite hopeful about the future of our democracy and leadership standing. The constant gridlock in Congress, and the lack of willingness on the part of the Republicans to deal decisively with the January 6thinsurrection has been quite discouraging.
Not only did this administration inherit an American reputation tarnished by the January 6th insurrection and several actions of the Trump Administration, but we are also trying to step back into leadership during a very challenging time when the entire world is very distressed about the COVID-19 pandemic. While Americans are being urged to take booster shots, many in sub-Saharan countries including my home country, Nigeria have not received their first dose, some reports say the COVID-19 vaccination rate in Nigeria is around 4%. And quite frankly, this virus anywhere is this virus everywhere. What do you think America and western allies can (and should) do to effectively fight this virus, which cannot be kept at bay through travel bans?
We need to continue as we have begun: to be the world leader in sending vaccines to countries in need, to pay our dues and continue as an active member in the World Health Organization as promised by Secretary of State Blinken in February, and to work with big pharma to enable countries to produce anti-COVID medicines and vaccines. Public health measures cannot stop at any country’s border. We either conquer together or we will die of this or the next global pandemic.
One of the most broken systems in America is immigration. Despite the noise around it, nothing has been done for decades, and it just keeps getting worse. Vice President Harris recently announced a $1.2 billion private investment for Central America to help tackle the root causes of mass emigration from the region. What are your thoughts about this, knowing fully well the extent of the corruption and inequities in many developing countries? Also, do you believe there can be a bipartisan solution to America’s immigration crisis, and what might it look like?
This is such a complicated subject with many moving pieces. This year we are celebrating USAID’s 60th year. Several USAID programs have targeted poverty, inequities, and corruption. Immigration problems will never be solved until people can live with dignity in their own countries. We need to harness our strengths, including the entrepreneurial spirit of our private sector. Above all, we must realize that immigration issues cannot be solved with walls. I believe that bilateral solutions are possible; the polling indicated most US citizens want a fair system to permit the immigration that is essential for US economic growth but that is rule-based.
What advice do you have for WNDC members or others reading this who are considering first, second or third careers in diplomacy?
My own experience over 30-some years in the Foreign Service was wonderful. I cannot imagine a better career experience. For anyone willing to work hard to serve our country, while learning and experiencing other cultures, it is a terrific opportunity. There is lots of information on the career path and how to apply at www.state.gov. The disrespect shown to State, diplomats, and diplomacy in general over the last administration has led to a hollowing out of the Service, as many colleagues have become discouraged. For new entrants this unfortunate situation is, paradoxically, a benefit. Promotions and opportunities in the next few years will likely be increased. This is a good time to be involved in the “rebooting” of US diplomacy. In general, diplomacy is a craft learned through a long apprenticeship. People with experience may find opportunities limited and more available in the State Department civil service, rather than the Foreign Service track.
— Tope G. Fajingbesi, Interim Chair of the Foreign Policy Task Force