On November 15th, 2017, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy (ISD) hosted Ambassador James Dobbins (SFS’63) for an installment of the Distinguished Practitioners Series following the publication of his memoir, Foreign Service: Five Decades on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy.
Over the course of his fifty year career, Ambassador Dobbins has served in a variety of State Department and White House posts, including Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, Special Assistant to the President for the Western Hemisphere, Special Adviser to the President, Secretary of State for the Balkans, and Ambassador to the European Community. He’s served under ten Presidents and thirteen Secretaries of State. He is currently a senior fellow and Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security at the RAND Corporation. Ambassador Barbara Bodine, Director of ISD, moderated the discussion.
Bodine introduced Dobbins to the audience saying, “He’s agreed this afternoon to talk with us about the lessons learned, about his career, giving back to a next generation of policy makers, and as a BSFS alum, basically talking to himself of several decades back.”
If there were to be one single theme that defined his career, it would be the work and writings he has done on nation-building. Dobbins noted a pronounced acceleration in nation-building instances over time, starting with once every 10 years during the Cold War to once every two years during the Clinton Administration. Then, under the George W. Bush Administration, the country invaded three new countries in the first three years. He concluded, “there’s lessons we should have learned, lessons that individual administrations learned, but not much that was passed on from one generation to the next.”
Bodine asked him about his involvement in German reunification efforts post-Cold War. After serving as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bonn, the capital of Germany at the time, Dobbins returned to Washington to be the number two official in the European Bureau. Two short weeks later, the Berlin Wall fell and “German unification suddenly became not just an empty talking point, but an actual operational priority.” He credits much of his involvement to being in the right place at the right time.Dobbins says, “There were lots of people in the Foreign Service who knew more about Germany than I did. But, none of them were in Washington. They were all somewhere else. And so I was the most senior person in the U.S. Government who was in Washington who had any experience in Germany.” Dobbins attributed much of the success of German reunification to the personalities involved: President George H.W. Bush, an experienced and seasoned politician and Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
One audience member asked him about the most rewarding aspect of his career. “There are two types of Foreign Service Officers,” he responded. “There’s Foreign Service Officers who join the Foreign Service to live abroad, to experience foreign cultures, and to observe and report on them. And there’s people who join in order to make foreign policy.” In his opinion, in order to succeed, you have to be good at both. If you only want to do one or the other, “you’ll have a mediocre career.”
Ultimately, Dobbins concludes:
There were points in my life when family life and four years in Bonn, an idyllic post on the Rhine with a big house and five servants and supervising 500 people in the biggest U.S. mission in the world, that was great. But going back and doing the diplomacy that reunified Germany was even greater.