U.S Ambassador Cameron Munter: The Art of Diplomacy

"Diplomacy is the art of having the other guy have it your way." Ambassador Cameron Munter

U.S Ambassador Cameron Munter He is the C.E.O. and president of East West Institute a nongovernmental organization that focuses on conflict resolution.

Ambassador Munter has been a career diplomat serving in some of the most conflict ridden areas of the globe he served as ambassador to Pakistan from 2010 - 2012, where he guided us Pakistani relations through a strained period including the operation against Osama bin Laden.

He previously served as ambassador to Serbia where he negotiated Serbian domestic consensus for European integration and managed the Kosovo independence crisis.

Emy diGrappa (00:03):

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Ambassador Munter (00:18):

So, my path was a path that you could describe in institutional terms as going from being an academic to being a diplomat to being a businessman to being the president of an NGO. It's pretty dry. What really happened was...

Emy diGrappa (00:35):

Hello. I'm Emy diGrappa. This is What's Your Why? Each week we bring you stories asking our guest the question, why? We learn about their passion, why they do what they do, why should we care and what can we learn. What better place to explore the human landscape than from the state known for its incredible landscapes, Wyoming. And what better organization than Wyoming Humanities. Serving our state for over 45 years, we share stories, ideas and wisdom about the human experience. Welcome to What's Your Why?

                 Today we are talking to Ambassador Cameron Munter. He is the CEO and president of the East West Institute, a non governmental organization that focuses on conflict resolution. Ambassador Munter has been a career diplomat serving in some of the most conflict ridden areas of the globe. He served as ambassador to Pakistan from 2010 to 2012, where he guided US Pakistani relations through a strange period, including the operation against Osama Bin Laden. Previously, he served as ambassador to Serbia, where he negotiated Serbian domestic consensus for European integration and managed the Kosovo independence crisis. Welcome Ambassador Munter.

Ambassador Munter (02:16):

Yeah, how are ya?

Emy diGrappa (02:18):

What's your why? What's been your career path and your journey and why did to chose it? How did you start on a career path to be a US ambassador? That's what we're gonna talk about today.

Ambassador Munter (02:28):

Well, thanks for the opportunity. It's great to be here in Jackson and talk about this and it's not the kind of thing I usually end up doing because the work I do at the East West Institute is really conflict mediation. It's the kind of thing that where we find a situation where we anticipate that there may be conflict, we try to develop relationships so that we can talk to people and avoid that conflict in the future. But already, you can see the elements appear. What are the qualities I'm talking about? Talking to people, that means empathy. Right? Trying to figure out what they want in the future is trying to extrapolate what they've done and where they're going. So it takes a certain amount of attention to the kind of person you're talking to and especially in my case, it's cross cultural. An academic to being a diplomat to being a businessman to being the president of an NGO. It's pretty dry.  

                 What really happened was I was someone who decided I wanted to study literature. I studied it. I got a doctorate in literature and history. I realized I would starve to death if I tried to be a teacher. I took an exam, I became a diplomat. I realized that I like to live in different countries. I like to be with people who are other than myself and I like, through a sense of collective responsibility, to feel a certain amount of solidarity for those other people, but putting it in the context of certain values that I have. I'm an American patriot. I'm glad to re- I was glad to represent America overseas. And to get inside the world of other people.

                 Now in diplomacy, diplomacy is the art of having the other guy have it your way. You want the other guy to see it. You don't wanna force him to do something. That's for the military. You wanna convince that person that they wanna work with you. So I spent the first half of my career in places like Poland and Czechoslovakia under the communists. And then during the process of trying to unify Europe after the end of communism, I had to get to know a lot of people who were undergoing enormous stress and change in their lives and figure out what they wanted.

                 I was working in the White House in 911 and realized after that, we were working on very different issues. Real issues of conflict, cultural difference and realizing that it wasn't always possible to find common ground. You had to find out just where you differed. So I went twice to Iraq. I was in Serbia when Kosovo became independent. They burned my embassy down. Uh, went to Pakistan and I was there during the Bin Laden raid. So I spent a lot of time then trying to figure out how do you cope with differences and avoid conflict.

                 What I came away with is this. That if you're going to be a diplomat, you say how do you get on that path? How do you become ambassador to Pakistan? And I always disappoint students when I tell them, "You know, the best thing to study is theater arts. "Hm. Theater arts. What about international relations? What about economics? What about..." Sure, you gotta be smart. You gotta know that stuff too. But someone who's in theater arts plays a role. And the role you play, because you're representing the United States is not always your own and you don't always agree with that role. But you have to do it convincingly. It's not playing a role to be false. The only thing you have is your credibility.

                 So you're talking to people who are different than you, say, Pakistanis. You're adopting a role and internalizing it. Sometimes you have to be very bloodless. We used to make a joke that, you know, it's not Tina Turner, What's Love Got to Do With It? There's no, it's very reasonable, rational. You have to play a role so that you are not getting excited and you're tying to bring reason into the situation where perhaps people's lives are at stake. So you have to be a good actor. And by actor, you have to be sincere, you have to be skilled and you have to be empathetic.

                 So I've taken a lot of time explaining that to you, but I hope that gives you an idea where I came from, how I did it and how I assess it now.

Emy diGrappa (06:30):

As an ambassador, let's say in Pakistan, making big decisions on people's security in their lives, how are we supposed to interpret that?

Ambassador Munter (06:30):

Yeah.

Emy diGrappa (06:42):

How are we supposed to know what's really happening and especially in these days when people aren't even trusting the media?

Ambassador Munter (06:51):

It's, it's interesting you mention the word trust. It's a key issue both in the work that I did every day. But in the representation of what I did to the United States. The kinda question you asked, it's the same question I used to get when I went back to Washington. And I would meet with Senator McConnell. I would meet with Congresswoman Pelosi. They would say, "Why are we supporting you in this? Explain to me. What, we don't know. How do we do this?" And I would say, "I need you to be able to have a coherent notion of what we want to achieve." So there's the intellectual element of saying we have to know what we're talking about. We have to know what we want to do. That takes a certain amount of time and patience and I'll help you do it. And you have to trust me, that I'm going to be able to explain this to you honestly.

                 I am also gonna explain to people who are very different from us, the people who live in Pakistan, why America wants to do this. Now, I can make this up if I want. I would much rather, Senator McConnell or Congresswoman Pelosi or President Obama, I would much rather understand what you really want here.

                 So, the process here, there's of course an intellectual process whereby you say, "What's in it for us?" We want peace between Pakistan and India. We wanna make sure that the terrorists who live in India and in Pakistan and there are many of them, uh, are not killing American soldiers in Afghanistan. We want to see if American businesses can make money there. If American students can maybe study there and Pakistani students study with us. That is, all the things that reasonable countries do with each other.

Emy diGrappa (08:23):

Right.

Ambassador Munter (08:23):

You can't do any of it without trust. So the relationship building is the key. All that stuff I was describing to you, all of the pieces of the puzzle about economics and about politics and about f- about, um, relationships of countries, which are in a way, abstractions. The real thing you're doing from your heart is trying to figure out, "Can I trust this guy? And to what extent am I trustworthy to them?" You lose your trust, you can't be a diplomat.

Emy diGrappa (08:52):

So building trust in these relationships, do you spend time with these people, um, maybe in their homes, their, with their families? How, how do you do that?

Ambassador Munter (09:04):

Well, you're absolutely right. To make it personal. The first thing you do is that imagine you're thinking about Pakistan. You haven't been there, I imagine and you think about it and you say, "What are these people like?" They're not quite human for you because you haven't seen them. So imagine what they think when some guy in a suit and tie comes from the United States and they've seen movies and they have all these ideas. I'm the last thing from being human for them. So how do I make myself human? One thing I do is I eat. I'm a big fan of food diplomacy. I eat what they cook and if I can stand it, I don't wanna lie, but if I can stand it, I'll say, "This is the best food I've ever eaten." And they say, "You don't mean it." "Oh yeah, I do." You know?

                 Or in another country, uh, you know, they don't, they don't drink in Pakistan. It's, it's an Islamic country. But in, say, Serbia, I would say, "What do you guys drink with dinner?" "We have [foreign language 00:09:56]". You know, we have this plum brandy. And I say, "How do you drink it?" "We drink it all at once. I'm with you." In other words, you share their experience. You make yourself human. You try to show them and what do, does everyone, everyone eats.

Emy diGrappa (10:09):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ambassador Munter (10:09):

Right? What does-

Emy diGrappa (10:09):

Right.

Ambassador Munter (10:10):

... everyone do? Everyone, um, eh- do- involved in sports. We would involve, we would, we would make sure that, you know, if I was gonna go out and take a run or ride a bike, talk to the people there about running and bike- do they do this kind of thing? And I would say one of the things that really gave me some credit is that I play jazz piano. And so even though relations with Serbia were not that great, I did talk them into making me be the opening act of the Belgrade Jazz Festival in 2008. So the, this guy who they think of, they the Serbs think of this guy who's a, uh, a very remote person who lives in an embassy behind armed guards and all this kind of stuff, well, he is the guy pain- playing Keith Jarrett, uh, on stage here. It humanizes me.

                 So all these things that I've described when you say, "How do you do it?" You try to say what are the things that are universal? What are the things everyone does? And you do them with them. And if you can show respect, that's the other piece of the puzzle, if you can r- show respect for their traditions, that is to say really appreciating a [foreign language 00:11:16] that's cooked in Karachi, which I do, um, then they say, "What a great guy." I mean, maybe I'm not a great guy, but as long as they think so, they're gonna be in a position to maybe develop trust with me about all those other things that I, as a representative of the United States, need [inaudible 00:11:33].  

Emy diGrappa (11:34):

How does that trickle down to the population? The, the relations that you build and the decisions that you make at the top, you know-

Ambassador Munter (11:34):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (11:44):

... with Washington and the Pakistani government. How does it trickle down to people-

Ambassador Munter (11:44):

Right.

Emy diGrappa (11:50):

... that it affects?

Ambassador Munter (11:51):

Well, there's something we call public diplomacy which in the classic era of diplomacy which is probably a couple hundred years ago, very, you know, quiet diplomacy would take place and the common people wouldn't know anything about it. That's not true anymore. With modern communications, people know about what's going on. People, eh, watch on TV when there's a, say, a terrorist attack or a, or a cultural event or something that happens. And so you have these ideas about other countries. And believe me, every other country in the world has ideas right or wrong about the United States.

                 So you engage with your team of people in an embassy in public diplomacy. And public diplomacy is outreach, trying to make sure that you are, in addition to eating people's breakfasts or, uh, enjoying what they like to, like to do, uh, as sports or something, simply spending time and discussing with them. Showing that you know how to listen as well as talk. Showing that you know how to answer the questions they ask about what diplomacy does.

                 So I spent a lot of time in Pakistan traveling to eh, Rawalpindi or to Lahore or to, uh, Karachi talking with people. I would talk with people in [foreign language 00:13:01] madrasas in mosques. I would talk to people in fields. I would talk to business people at big dinners. So what I was trying to do was twofold; learn a little bit from them. But also to communicate what it is I did every day. But that's only half of the story. I would come back to the United States and I would also travel around the United States and talk to people who said, "Why don't we just bomb these guys, you know? They were hiding Osama Bin Laden. They're a bunch of Islamic fanatics and they're terrible people and let's take..." And I'd say, "Look. There are people, I'm sorry to say, who probably say the same thing about the United States. You don't need to do that. Let's talk about who these people really are. Let's talk about what our goals are, what we want to achieve. Let's once again humanize them, show respect for them in their difference and figure out where we have common ground."

                 And so even though I can't say that I reached, you know, everyone in the United States, I considered it part of my job to communicate what we were trying to do to try to build what we thought was gonna be peace, stability and mutual respect among countries in the region, which was the American goal there. And if people bought it, great. And if people didn't buy it, I did my best.

Emy diGrappa (14:16):

How does the republican and democratic differences play in the international, um, what do you wanna say?

Ambassador Munter (14:28):

The arena you would say [crosstalk 00:14:29]

Emy diGrappa (14:28):

The arena, yeah. Eh, instead of, I mean here it's very obvious, you know, it's healthcare, it's all those domestic issues. But how does it play out?

Ambassador Munter (14:38):

Yeah. In terms of image, it's a very interesting proposition. I would sometimes be asked when I was overseas, what's the difference between a red state and a blue state for example? And I would say, "As I understand it, when you live in a red state, you live among people who are like you. And you have a sense of community and you like it that way. When you're in a blue state, you live among people who aren't like you. And you have a community and you like it that way." And that's the difference in a general cultural sense, in a simple way, between America, but they're all Americans. And even if you're a blue state guy and you spend time with red state Americans you're all Americans. Now, you can like different football teams. You can vote for different people, but ultimately, there are things in common.

                 Many people in recent years, especially the last year, have questioned whether we have that sense of community that we, whether we have that sense of commonality. Uh, I don't question that. I think we do. And I've traveled a lot in this country. I've served, for example, in Iraq in the middle of a war with a lot of soldiers from places like Tennessee and Kentucky who were pretty amazed to be out there getting shot at with a guy who's a blue state Californian. Right? But the fact is we're all Americans and we, whether we are different in what we appreciate about our cultures, there's pretty much, a, a consistency.

                 So even though these things are very difficult things in modern social media, for example, the fact that people tend to hear, uh, what they wanna hear or they tend to hear news that reinforces what they think. And these kinds of tendencies, despite all that, I think there's an enormous, uh, sense of common values in very general sense and common feeling among Americans. Compare that to a place like Pakistan, where the people who live in Punjab don't speak the same language as the people who speak in, uh, in [foreign language 00:16:34] or in, uh, [foreign language 00:16:35]. So you have these people who really can't talk to each other. We may have a lot of differences, but what holds us together as nation not only of people, but of values, is still much stronger than most other people in the world are fortunate enough to have.  

Emy diGrappa (16:52):

That's excellent.

Ambassador Munter (16:53):

May I add one thing though?

Emy diGrappa (16:54):

Okay.

Ambassador Munter (16:55):

That you can't take that for granted. That is to say, it does take an effort especially because those of us who, I live in New York City. So it's a little easier for me. I can stand on any street corner and I'll see a Russian, a Jamaican, a Pakistani and, and, and a Frenchman. And they're all Americans. Right?

Emy diGrappa (17:15):

Right.

Ambassador Munter (17:16):

I can do that in New York. It's easy. It's harder when you're in more homogenous places. You don't tend to see people who aren't like you. Nonetheless, when I meet someone who comes from, uh, say, Kansas and lives in a town where everyone's white and we share an experience, it's all what I was talking about when I said what I would do in Pakistan. You can figure out these people. You can make them human. You can figure out what they care about. Now, ultimately they do care about what you care about.

Emy diGrappa (17:44):

What do you share with young people? What do you think that they should be thinking about these days on what's going on not just globally, but in our nation.

Ambassador Munter (17:53):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (17:54):

And how do you advise them to learn and pay attention?

Ambassador Munter (17:58):

Well there's one thing that worries me. And that is that there seems to be a sense of, I'll put it in the word individualism I guess, that seems very pronounced. And one of the things that was very powerful for me when I was a young diplomat, is that I was able to go to Poland under communism. And you remember the name of the movement, uh, that was there at that time. It was called solidarity. And solidarity is that is sympathy for someone who is not like you. That is to say, the suffering of someone else is my own suffering.

                 Now, this he- this comes in many cases from, uh, a certain ethical background. It can come from a certain Christian background. But it's not unique to us. It's something that I think is very important. So having solidarity for those who are not like you, having sympathy for those who are poorer than you or who are less fortunate than you and having an understanding of difference while appreciating it is a very important issue for me, kind of, personally. And it was reinforced by what happened to me in my career.

                 I sense that we're having a little difficulty with that now in the United States. That solidarity with people who are not like you. You know, I have kids. My kids say, "Oh that guy's a moron." Yeah, okay. Maybe he's a moron, but why is he being a moron?" You know, dismissing people out of hand is something that I think is easier in an age of, uh, social media. And I think that it's something you have to try and I [inaudible 00:19:26] you, to your question what do I try to tell people to do? I say, "Take the extra time to humanize someone with whom you may disagree to try to figure out why that person or that group or those people might act that way even if what they're doing is reprehensible."

                 Now, look, I'm not a pacifist who is, or, or a relativist who just says everything's okay. If you find out that someone after you really make the effort, that someone is really, uh, doing things that are just ethically and mora- morally repugnant, you should say so. But you shouldn't say it till you've really tried to figure out why they're doing it. What motivates people to do the kind of things that they do. You at least get some sort of window into a mindset that's not your own. And that's what solidarity is.

                 There is a phrase they use in Polish that is called a [foreign language 00:20:16]. There can be no freedom without solidarity. And what that means is the freedom that we all value and that we talk about all the time carries with it a certain responsibility that you feel for the other. That you have some notion about other people. Otherwise, freedom is license. Freedom is selfishness. And so if you want to have the kind of understanding of your world where you can do things with other people, achieve something more than just what you want, I would say pay attention to the freedom that you have. Don't lose the solidarity that you need to have.

Emy diGrappa (20:54):

Is our freedom of speech at stake here in this country?

Ambassador Munter (21:00):

I don't think so. I mean, I think that what we have, again, I would put it more there's a million ways to speak now. Anyone can write a response to a twit, uh, to a tweet. Uh, anyone, the, there's many, many more opportunities to communicate than you ever had before. And a lot of people 20 years ago, 15 years ago would've said, "Oh, this is the opening of new age in which everyone's gonna get along. You know? Uh, hasn't happened.

Emy diGrappa (21:23):

(laughs)

Ambassador Munter (21:24):

But those opportunities are still there. You'll have free speech. The issue is are you gonna have the ability to listen? Listening in a lot of ways is a lot more important than speaking. Are you able to hear what other people say? Can you work on that? And free speech can ultimately be under threat if people don't know how to listen to each other. Listening takes tolerance.

Emy diGrappa (21:48):

Right. Exactly.

Ambassador Munter (21:49):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Emy diGrappa (21:50):

It sounds like your career path and your passion as an ambassador has been human relations.

Ambassador Munter (21:57):

Absolutely. And, you know, who isn't? Maybe yours, eh, in, in broadcasting has been the same as, as mine. Uh, I am currently working for a nonprofit, privately funded nonprofit that goes out, uh, to different parts of the world and tries to anticipate where there are crises and, and get people to talk to each other who don't normally do that. I go to China. I go to Russia. We have an office in Brussels. We have a, opening an office in Turkey now. We do a lot in the Middle East. So that this human relations is something in my case that I believe is very important to do with the people who are very much culturally different from me.

Emy diGrappa (22:33):

Right.

Ambassador Munter (22:34):

That's important. But it's no less important at home. What you learn in the way a family gets along at Thanksgiving is the same kind of stuff that I'm doing sitting down at an, at a table with a bunch of Russians.

Emy diGrappa (22:48):

It sounds like a great journey.

Ambassador Munter (22:49):

It sure is.

Emy diGrappa (22:50):

Thank you for being here.

Ambassador Munter (22:51):

Thank you.

Emy diGrappa (22:56):

Thank you for listening. I'm Emy diGrappa. This Think Why podcast is brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities. We use the humanities as a lens to explore the human experience. You can find us online at thinkwy.org.