by Matt Raab
Ambassador Michael Hammer, a 1985 graduate of the Walsh School of Foreign Service, returned to campus on Thursday, January 26 to reflect on the U.S. foreign policy interests and issues in the Western Hemisphere and his personal experiences as a career foreign service officer. Hammer offered his perspective on the nature of U.S. diplomacy in the region and insight on his career path to a group convened by the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and hosted by CLAS Director Father Matthew Carnes.
Currently, the Deputy Commandant and International Affairs Advisor at the Eisenhower School of the National Defense University, Hammer has spent 28 years as part of the U.S. Foreign Service, joining in 1988. Prior to his current posting, he served as U.S. Ambassador to Chile from 2014 to 2016 and Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs from 2012 to 2013. He also worked in the White House as Special Assistant to the President, Senior Director for Press and Communications, and National Security Council Spokesman. From this body of experience, Hammer discussed international relation dynamics in Latin America from the perspective of the executive branch.
“Historically there is a real focus at the White House and throughout the U.S. government on Latin America, which is under-appreciated,” Hammer said in his opening remarks. He identified a pattern of commitment to relationships in the hemisphere that often escapes widespread attention.
“Obama’s first two calls were to the Canadian Prime Minister and the Mexican President,” Hammer said. “And his first trip abroad was to Canada, he [went] to Mexico shortly thereafter. Then he had the summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.”
With the current administration, that trend has continued.
“We get to the new administration and the new president and again you see the first calls made were to the Mexican president and the Canadian prime minister,” Hammer said. “We begin another administration with a pretty intense focus and interest in relations with the hemisphere.”
Much of the event focused on the intricacies of balancing U.S. engagement in the region with local sentiments. The types of questions that the U.S. foreign policy apparatus needs to answer, Hammer explained, are complicated.
“How do you advance our interests in the best way? How do you show that the President, or the Secretary of State, or the White House team and others, care enough and are engaged enough to be working as partners, to advance our common interests,” he said. “Or then risk there being a a vacuum where our partners in the region look elsewhere.”
Another issue is the difficulty to prioritize a region that is not a major generator of the ‘crises’ that typically draw the president’s attention elsewhere.
“The reality is the president and his core national security team have to focus on the crisis areas,” Hammer said. He noted how President George W. Bush’s aspirations for a ‘Century of the Americas’ were disrupted by the 9/11 attacks, and issues like the war in Syria limited President Obama’s attention to Latin America.
Nonetheless, Hammer stressed both that the United States has critical partners and interests in the Western Hemisphere, and that the U.S. government has consistently recognized and valued them. For future success, he hopes to see not only engagement with ‘crisis’ areas and with international partners, longstanding and new, who have expressed interest in working with the United States.
Hammer also spent time on his career path when he left Georgetown and through the Foreign Service, offering advice to students interested in similar trajectories.
“There are a lot of smart people, there are a lot of very well prepared people,” he said. “But there are not as many people with the right attitude.”
Hammer prioritized a positive attitude as a crucial partner to intelligence and ability.
“This is something I tell Foreign Service officers, and maybe it’s a little counter intuitive,” he said, “but if you do the little things right, and if you have a good attitude about what it is you’re doing, you’re likely to get greater and greater responsibility.”
For the Ambassador, that attitude ultimately meant he got to follow in the tracks of some celebrated fellow alumni.
“ICC was finished when I was here, I came to the first few classes here, and I never thought coming to a place like this that I’d end up like Pat Ewing in the Oval Office 15 years later,” he said. “So that can be any one of you or in your respective governments, and it probably will be.”