Former ambassador dishes on life as a diplomat
The first thing a foreign diplomat has to learn is, don’t drive the same route to the office every morning.
Patricia Butenis didn’t know this or much else when she joined the United States Foreign Service in 1980, but her ignorance worked out well. After 34 years, she retired in 2014 with the rank of career minister after having served as U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka. She loved her career choice.
“I only had the vaguest idea of what I was getting into,” she said during a “State of the State Department and Diplomacy” presentation March 24 as part of the Great Decisions Foreign Policy Lecture series at Kirkland Village. “It remains an exciting career of service to our country.”
Many Americans know little about the activities of the State Department and even less about the life of diplomat, Butenis said. For starters, she said the primary job of the agency is to “represent your values and your interests as American citizens.” Diplomats may have opinions, but those opinions are secondary to United States policy.
Butenis worked under Democratic and Republican administrations from Jimmy Carter through Barack Obama, and said, “In our official duties, ambassadors are expected to be non-political and to do our job without any political identity.”
That doesn’t mean diplomats don’t have input. For example, she noted how department officials are allowed to formally offer their input into their specific areas of expertise and may voice their disagreement with established policy.
“We offer policy advice if that’s what the administration wants,” Butenis said. “We have experience and deep knowledge. In sum, we know every corner of the world.”
Butenis shared stories about her final stop in Sri Lanka during the Obama administration. During this tour of duty she attempted to decipher the actions and ambitions of the often brutal and sometimes complicated President Rajapaksa and his brothers, who served as the country’s senior civilian and military leadership.
While many actions comprised a typical day, Butenis’ basic assignment was to acquire critical information from foreign leaders, seek common ground with them without compromising U.S. positions, and applying the right amount of pressure on allies and foes.
“In diplomacy, words matter,” she said with a chuckle.
Now retired, Butenis is offering her opinions about the condition of the State Department and the Trump administration’s foreign policy. In her assessment, many people at State suffered from damaged morale with President Trump’s appointment of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That situation has improved under current Secretary Michael Pompeo, who, Butenis asserted, is thought by some to have the respect of the president in the same way the Henry Kissinger did with President Nixon.
Butenis deployed some humor during her Great Decision speech, saying that many people think diplomats “just host cocktail parties and dinners.”
While that is an exaggeration, she said, it is true “soft diplomacy” is certainly part of the job description. Moreover, Butenis said, “You’d be surprised how much business can get done over dinner.”