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NewsMar 29, 2023

Glimpsing the world of global affairs

Former Ambassador Cameron Munter shares fascinating, and often funny, tales from the foreign service

By John Sullivan

Live in the moment. Put down roots. Find something you love, then specialize in it.

None of this advice will lead one to success in the U.S. Foreign Service as a diplomat, Ambassador Cameron Munter told an intimate gathering inside and outside the University Hall Amphitheater on March 23.

Munter’s jocular and riveting presentation concluded the 2022-23 season of the Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University. This, despite beginning his career as an “unemployable academic,” he quipped, calling the diplomatic service “that great welfare system of the U.S. government.”

“You are not rewarded by being deeply, deeply engaged in an issue,” Munter said. “A diplomat needs to be broad, rather than deep.”

Cameron Munter leans on podium
Former Ambassador Cameron Munter spoke at the final presentation of the 2022-23 season of the Thought Leadership Series at Lesley University on March 23.

So, his humanities background paid off, after all. And, as a history major, he was well-suited to “cope in one of the four medieval institutions that still exist in the United States: the military, the Catholic Church, the foreign service and, of course, universities.

“These are the medieval, hierarchical organizations where you have to actually do with the boss says.”

Until it’s time not to obey — for the good of the mission.

“If you’re not obedient and learn the rules about how diplomacy works, you’ll be thrown out,” Munter said. “If, after five years you’re still being obedient, you’re not going to succeed.”

That is, unlike foreign policy, the art of diplomacy isn’t like playing in a symphony: “It’s jazz,” Munter said, underscoring the necessity of improvisation in the face of unpredictable circumstances and personalities.

The kind of environment that favors people whose expertise is broad, rather than deep.

Munter’s experience as a diplomat, however, is both broad and deep. As university President Janet L. Steinmayer pointed out in her introductory remarks, “Among his assignments during three decades as a foreign service officer, Munter was U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2010 to 2012, and to Serbia from 2007 to 2009.

“Those were not easy assignments,” the president continued. “In Serbia, he urged the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy after it was attacked by protesters. Several years later, he was amid political struggle with the CIA over drone strikes in Pakistan. (His view was that they should be rare and highly targeted.)”

Yet, Steinmayer added, “Ambassador Munter seems to relish tough assignments: He served twice in Iraq, in Mosul and in Baghdad. He was also National Security Council director in the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. Yet, tonight, I trust he will find Lesley University a safe harbor in which to share his thoughts and experiences with all of us.”

He found that, both in person and among the ranks for the virtual attendees who logged on for the hybrid presentation. And Munter also insisted the job of diplomacy isn’t one of nonstop strife: An extrovert who doesn’t mind attending several parties a night would feel right at home, he said.

Munter added that, at least in Central Europe, one could navigate the uneven terrain of foreign affairs with a drinking metaphor. In and around the breakup of the former Czechoslovakia, he said, he hit upon an apt explanation, which he shared with his boss at the time, a humorless ambassador.

“There are three zones in Central Europe,” he deadpanned. “A beer zone, a wine zone and a vodka zone. Those of you who know Central Europe know this is absolutely true.”

The Czechs, Munter explained, took on the “boring and filling” personality of their preferred libation (beer); the Slovaks adopted the “smooth and duplicitous” manner of their adult beverage of choice (wine); and the Poles preferred vodka, and the “fiery and self-destructive” characteristic that of that liquor.

cameron munter interviewed by roger lowenstein
Former Ambassador Cameron Munter is interviewed by former Lesley trustee Roger Lowenstein, a journalist and author who was also a college chum of Munter.

“You hate the country that drinks what you drink,” Munter said. “Who do the Poles hate? The Russians. What do the Russians drink? Vodka.

“Who do the Slovaks hate? The Hungarians. Wine-wine. The Czechs? The Germans: they drink beer. I said, ‘This is it! This is the first great idea I’ve had since I joined the foreign service.’ He said, ‘Get out of here!’”

But Munter wasn’t done: He published his thesis in one of Prague’s underground newspapers edited by young American expatriates who, he said, “were hanging around with berets and Gauloise (cigarettes), sitting in cafes, having fun.”

Munter had some fun of his own, publishing under the nom de plume Ignatius Gripweed.

It received rave reviews.

“A week later, the ambassador called me in, and he said, ‘Have you heard of Ignatius Gripweed?’ And I didn’t respond. He said, ‘You know, he stole that idea of yours,’” Munter said to audience guffaws.

Soon afterward, though, Munter was sent to the Muslim world, where his alcohol-based assessments were of no use.  

Of course, not every anecdote was so lighthearted. Munter discussed an embassy being overrun by, essentially, Serbian football hooligans, necessitating the destruction of computers holding classified material.

He spoke about the post-9/11 shift in foreign policy, where narrowly focused military leaders, engineers and other specialists dominated global affairs.   

“When I was serving in Iraq,” Munter said, “a general came up to me and said, ‘We love you foreign service officers, you like to admire problems. I’m a Marine. We solve problems.’”

“I get it,” Munter added. “You do not want foreign service officers building a bridge across the Tigris River. But I, as a foreign service officer don’t want you deciding where the bridge goes. Because I know who lives on both sides of the river.”

Munter shared plenty more about his experience in the Middle East, and took questions from journalist and author Roger Lowenstein, a college chum and former Lesley trustee, to round out the evening.

Throughout, Munter explained that successful foreign affairs requires understanding of all the issues, representing values rather than interests, and preparing for the unexpected.

“Foreign service is a type of character rather than a type of knowledge,” Munter said.