Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Embassies: “An Artifact of an Earlier Age?”


Do embassies still matter?  Donna Oglesby, a senior official at the United States Information Agency (before it was incorporated into the State Department), argues that globalization and the communications revolution make embassies and field officers more important than ever.

 

Donna Oglesby served 26 years in the Foreign Service, with a focus on Latin America. She finished her career as USIA Counselor.  In retirement, she went on to teach for two decades at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Donna Oglesby’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning July 1, 2016.

Read Donna Marie Oglesby’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Joseph Baldofsky

[Some] thought that embassies and the people who serve in embassies were an artifact of an earlier age.

Critique of Embassies: Jessica Mathews–when she left the State Department and went to the Carnegie Endowment–wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs about the power shift. She argued that traditional state actors were being replaced by non-governmental organizations and private actors who had been empowered by information technology to operate globally. They were creating a global civil society within which all of this democratization and other issues activity was taking place. Not only was [United States Information Agency] USIA not necessary, but embassies weren’t necessary either. Why do we need embassies in the field, she would argue, if non-governmental organizations–who have expertise in the issue areas we’re concerned about, like women and girls, democratization, human rights, and climate change–are able now to function on a global basis? She thought that embassies and the people who serve in embassies were an artifact of an earlier age. We don’t need them….This idea is in full flower now on the left.

Sixty to seventy percent of the populations of nation states do not experience globalism . . . they are not going to Davos meetings.

Globalism and Nationalism: Q: How would you respond to embassies aren’t necessary? A: I responded then and I responded the same way now [2016] that I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. It’s bunk. Information technology does empower a certain group of people around the world who are globalists, to connect to one another. No question. But those people are maybe 20–25 percent of any national population. They do not represent everybody. They are resented by the people who identify nationally. There are certainly global citizens who move around the world in global connection…. They, however, are not in contact with the other 70 percent of the population of their countries who live in “flyover” country. It is that gap between their awareness of what’s going on in their countries and their international connections that is creating the politics of reaction that we are dealing with today.

 

Embassies in the field are necessary because they understand what is happening on the ground. Davos Man moves in a global bubble. The politics roiling Western Europe and the United States are in reaction to his very existence . . . . There are still national societies. They are not disappearing remnants. Sixty to seventy percent of the populations of nation states do not experience globalism; they are not on that treadmill; they are not going to Davos meetings. They look at “global citizens” as having lost interest and respect in them and their needs. If they are in democratic societies, they are going to pay them back for turning their backs on the nation. That’s what we are seeing right now. So, if we didn’t have officers in the field, we would not be in touch with people who might come into power.

It is essential to have people in the field to keep Washington honest.

Washington and the Field: I think one of the very important duties of field officers is to point out that the issues Washington dwells on are not the issues that are of concern everywhere. I think people in the field do want to talk more about corruption than headquarters does. When you sit in an embassy – if you are good at your job and get out to develop an understanding of what is going on in that country – much of what you are expected to do from Washington doesn’t make much sense. You should push back.

 

. . . It is essential to have people in the field to keep Washington honest. Otherwise hothouse Washington sucks all the oxygen out of foreign policy work. If all focus is on things that matter within the beltway, that may not matter in Ankara, or matter in Dhaka, or matter anywhere else in the world, what is the point? We need field officers to remind ourselves that there is a world out there and there is a world of people who are living different lives according to a different value ranking. We have to understand that.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education

     BA in Political Science, Washington College                                                     1964-1968

     MA in International Affairs, Columbia University                                           1968-1970

Joined the Foreign Service                                                                                 1970

     Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—Cultural Affairs Officer                                                1971

     San Salvador, El Salvador—Cultural Affairs Officer                                        1977-1979

     Asuncion, Paraguay—Public Affairs Officer                                                      1979-1982

     Washington, D.C.—Branch Chief of Latin American Wireless File              1982

       —Director of the International Youth Exchange Initiative                          1982-1984

       —Deputy Director of Latin American Affairs                                                  1984-1986

       —Director of Latin American Affairs                                                                1986-1988

     Chiang Mai, Thailand—Minister Counselor for Public Affairs                     1988-1992

     Washington, D.C.—Counselor of USIA                                                              1992-1996

Retired                                                                                                                  1996

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