John Koenig served as the U.S. ambassador to Cyprus from 2012 to 2015. As a career foreign service officer, he has held assignments in Belgium, Greece, Indonesia, Italy and the Philippines, served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Berlin, and was a Political Advisor to the NATO Joint Forces Command in Naples, Italy. He now works at the University of Washington where he is a lecturer at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.
Fw: video interview with Ambassador Koenig
This interview has been edited for clarity and emphasis. The transcript below largely represents the natural progression and language used in the interview.
How has the role of U.S. diplomacy evolved over your years at the State Department?
John Koenig: Well, I thought about this, since I suggested that this might be a topic, and I would say that it would be perhaps better to use the word “devolved,” rather than “evolved,” even though that sounds highly critical…
But I’m afraid we should have a critical perspective on the way that U.S. foreign policy and engagement in international relations has evolved over the time that I was in the Foreign Service, those 30 years. It’s not just that our execution of international relations, and diplomacy as part of that, has devolved. I think the concept of diplomacy, the genuine concept of diplomacy — of engagement, of compromise, of negotiation, of trying to reach mutually acceptable outcomes — has lost support in the American political and foreign affairs debate.
Why is this? I ask myself that all the time. One factor that is often cited, and I think is highly relevant, is the increasingly dominant role that the military plays in the execution of U.S. foreign policy, which has rendered diplomacy less central to our efforts in international relations. There were two major steps in this evolution. One that is sometimes cited and is sort of institutional in its nature is the Goldwater-Nichols act of 1986, which reorganized the defense establishment in very many ways, but one of the most important for my work was the creation of the so-called regional combatant commands, things like EUCOM or CENTCOM or PACOM. That really strengthened the role of the U.S. military command structure and opened the door to them to engage a lot more in things that were traditionally reserved more for diplomacy and for civilians. The military assistance programs and engagement programs that were run by these combatant commands were often very significant and sometimes even overshadowed the work of civilian agencies. The other big event, not surprisingly, was the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which sort of knocked us, I think, a little bit off of center and launched us on a course of policy development and action that was in the end, I think, not very well conceived.
Other things also lessened the role of diplomacy. One of the most important was probably the breakdown of the bipartisan consensus. The Iraq invasion, of course, had a big role in that, but I think Iran policy has been much more contentious for a much longer time, and it has been more susceptible, I would say, to external interference to exploit partisan divides in the United States and kind of reduce the space for a rational discussion around policy.
And finally, I think our own sort of drive to become more unilateral in our behavior internationally has reduced the role of diplomacy and diplomats. We have often been the worst breakers of the rules that we ourselves wrote for international affairs. There are sad cases like the International Criminal Court, where we participated in negotiating in order to protect our interests on the Rome Statute and then refused to even attempt to ratify it, and in the end, the Trump administration went so far as to threaten to arrest the head of the International Criminal Court for having endorsed an inquiry into human rights violations by Israel and Palestinian organizations and war crimes in that region. We have our drone program of targeted killings, which is intensely unilateral and hasn’t received enough scrutiny over the last, let’s say, seven or eight years. We have the real abuse of our sanctions regime. Sometimes I can’t really overstate how much time and energy we devote to sanctions. I spent a lot of my time as a senior U.S. diplomat in Europe, talking about sanctions, probably a surprisingly large amount of that time. And we have tended to move from fairly narrow-focus sanctions on kinds of behavior that are clearly illegitimate in international relations —like terrorist finance and proliferation of WMD and precursors and those kinds of things — to apply sanctions much more broadly as a policy instrument in what we sometimes describe as, I guess, “muscular diplomacy,” but is more correctly described, I think, as coercive diplomacy…
So you know, sadly, overall, I would say we have become wedded to this notion of American leadership and American exceptionalism and even more broadly stated an American purpose, at the same time as our place in the world has diminished and our willingness to engage in diplomacy has also fallen off.
By the way, let’s just add at the very end of this that I think this is a good reason for young people to go into the Foreign Service. It doesn’t sound like a real sales pitch, does it, but we need more young people to come into the Foreign Service with their perspectives on things, their understanding of how to move issues forward, their drive to bring their priorities to the State Department and the U.S. Government and the execution of foreign policy. You know, the service is no longer quite as “male, pale, and Yale” as it used to be, but it could still use a lot of change in every dimension of diversity, including diversity of ideas, so I hope that a lot of people at Yale and other places will be thinking about careers in the State Department and in the Foreign Service.
I know that your previous answer addresses American transgressions over a longer time frame the last month or two, but, as we know, President Biden just participated in the G7 conference, a NATO summit, and will participate in an EU-U.S. summit in a few days. In terms of the recent change of administration and foreign policy priorities, do you see recent changes to U.S. foreign policy as moving in the right direction or is it a red herring?
John Koenig: I wouldn’t call it a false sign, I actually think I’m quite positive about the changes that have been made by the Biden administration. I’m in a little bit of a different position with regard to a lot of these issues than the Biden administration is, but in many ways, they have corrected mistakes that were made by the Trump administration and, in some ways, a few ways, I think they’ve begun to signal that they are going to take foreign policy and American international engagement in a new direction, which would be a positive thing. I particularly think that the role of Joe Biden personally and his National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan — that role is critical — these two individuals, I think, are more open-minded and perhaps a little bit more reflective about traditional American foreign policy goals than a lot of other people in this administration, many of whom I know.
So what do I think about these latest developments? Well, I mean kind of, on the one hand, on the other hand about the Biden administration, is also the way I feel about the results of this trip.
The G7 communique, I think, set out as its top issues, the ones that belong there. So that would be, of course, in light of the COVID pandemic, pandemic disease, climate change and how to address it globally, the issue of international inequality, disparities, all these things which are related to new schemes for international development. These were, sort of, the top line issues in the communique which is the demonstration of agreement; that’s where you show where you actually have arrived at agreement in the G7. And those were all good topics to lead with but, unfortunately, the level of ambition is rather low. There’s a lot of lofty talk, but, as many people have pointed out, the undertaking with regard to vaccinations for the COVID pandemic is really rather modest, certainly not adequate, when you consider the potential costs of the future evolution of the disease. And I would say the same is true, as some others have pointed out, for environmental issues and global warming…
It is a very modest set of objectives that they set out. They clothe it all in extremely ambitious, sort of, verbiage, but in fact the real commitments are very, very modest relative to the threat. And this is, I think, one of the tragedies of international relations and American foreign policy over the course of my lifetime. We tend to sort of run to where the drama is. We love that, sort of, confrontational element of foreign policy, but the cooperative element of foreign policy and the real challenge, the sort of existential challenge of some of these things, new technologies that are highly disruptive — global climate change, pandemic disease — we don’t get very excited about them and the constituency for major investments in these kinds of challenges is low, is small in the United States.
So, you know, I don’t feel good about this. I think that, unfortunately, if you were to follow the coverage of the G7 and also the NATO Summit and, to a degree, even the US-EU summit in the American media, you would think that it was all about China and whether or not Joe Biden can persuade everyone to get on the bandwagon for a more confrontational policy with China. I think that was the message that the U.S. government wanted to send. They used every outlet they could to push forward that version of these meetings, and therefore the coverage — even though I feel it’s far too over-dramatized and so forth, you know I don’t really care whether Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin get on — the coverage is pushed in that direction. It’s made into infotainment. And that’s partly the responsibility of our own officials, they highlight these things, so I think that’s really regrettable. But we’re working, I think, in a very difficult public environment in the United States, which has been molded by years of rather misguided, I think — I don’t know if it’s education, but certainly public discourse.
One thing that really struck me recently, and this is a completely different story, is when the Intelligence Community report on the UFO sightings by American military personnel came out, you know, you would think that if people thought there was substantial evidence that there were really extraterrestrials visiting the world in these kinds of technologically super-powered vehicles that we would think, “Wow, this is like really existential.” I mean, this is about human existence, this is about our place in the universe, this is somehow deeper than the way it was treated as a national security threat. Like this is, I mean, we have a kind of Independence Day movie-style approach to these things, which is just ludicrous. We need to be a little more reflective, a little more connected to the things that we really care about and a little bit less wedded to the drama of confrontation.
In terms of categorizing your foreign policy views in the debate between realism, progressivism, and constructivism you have previously been described as a Jeffersonian realist. Could you explain what that means and how you arrived at that certain school of thought? What did that really do for you in terms of your career?
John Koenig: I didn’t call myself so much a Jeffersonian realist. I did, however, convey to you that a colleague of mine at the University of Washington had described my views after another forum as being those of a Jeffersonian Realist. I’m afraid I would not run away from the term, but I think I am essentially a neo-realist. And I find that I agree with many, many perspectives that are shared by writers, who I think embrace the neo-realist school and really span the ideological spectrum in the United States because realism and neo-realism are less driven by the goals of foreign policy than about the practice of our policy. In my view, the two schools that kind of informed my work if you want to cite them would be realism and liberalism on one hand stressing international institutions and norms and the other being one that stresses sort of the mechanics of foreign policy and the definition of national interest and the role of states and an anarchic international environment. Those, to the extent that I thought about these schools while I was working as a diplomat, were the ones that informed my work and I remain I think fairly wedded to them to the degree that they are tools of analysis.
As far as the schools of sort of more academic analysis, I was a practitioner but in academic analysis I see a lot of value in constructivism – it’s very close to what I studied when I was an undergraduate and even as a graduate student. I was always an anthropology major and I studied cultural anthropology and a lot of these things about epistemology and all these kinds of concepts that play such a role and constructivism are shared with anthropology and several other of the social sciences, but especially anthropology.
I just don’t find it very useful as a tool for policy development. It reveals a lot about the conduct of international affairs and foreign policy but it doesn’t lead to very clear prescriptions for what to do. And when you’re a practitioner, after all, you go in and you do things every day, rather than just think, so it’s really a challenge, I think, for this school to formulate thoughts that are relevant to the policy process. I got a question some time ago. Somebody asked me, you know you have your kind of tendentious views about things here and there in the Middle East. What do you think of Edward Said’s perspective? I like it, but it doesn’t make any difference. It’s really, really difficult to translate some of these more purely academic analytical schemes into policy. I would hope that they could get more into policy by being embraced by people who are involved in policy. That would help.
I think the bigger problem, though, is not so much these schools which don’t factor very largely in our work from day to day, but this notion of Wilsonianism and it’s hold on the American foreign policy establishment. There is a strong drive to make the world safe for democracy in the foreign policy establishment. The Germans call it sort of dismissively and somewhat weirdly Aktionismus – the desire to always act. And I’m afraid this is a major problem with American foreign engagement. We sort of have the position act first and think later because we are so obsessed with the notion that by controlling a situation we will somehow be able to manage it, to the benefit not just of ourselves but to others and to the so-called rules-based international order.
I think this is a big mistake and it derives from a vast over estimate of the place of the United States in the world and our ability to influence the course of events and also our stake in these events that happen in different parts of the world. We seem to think that everything has a bearing on the wellbeing of Americans.
We need to get much closer to national interest and that’s another reason why I really like realism or neorealism.I think currently these different groups – progressives, liberals, constructivists, Wilsonians, and perhaps isolationists – they will have a very different perspective on what the national interest is. But, we really need to discuss it a little bit; we don’t even talk about it. We are willing to take anybody’s assertion that something is in the national interest as an imperative in many cases to intercede, and I find this frustrating.
Recently the outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israel was a great example of this. Martin Indyk, a very well known and I think very respected and credible observer and participant in policymaking with regards to the region, said this kind of very frequent thing:
“’You can turn your back on the Middle East, but the Middle East won’t turn its back on you.’”
Well okay, in what way was this violence somehow directed against the United States or a challenge against the United States? Clearly it was disruptive to regional peace. I mean it maybe required some response, but it was not about America. The notion that everything that goes wrong in the world is somehow about the United States and therefore requires an American response with so-called American leadership under the indispensable nation brand that Madeleine Albright gave us is nonsense. We need to stop doing it.
We are not being a constructive member of the international community. We are ignoring the real challenges that face mankind. We are obsessing over their national day to day confrontation of events and players in the international system who we regard as non-constructive or disruptive.
How would you say this definition of national interest you’re suggesting may interact with something like the responsibility to protect, in the case of a violent eruption or a potential genocide? As you know, we’ve kind of seen the United States be heavily criticized for waiting to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, so how would you propose reconciling them both?
John Koenig: I think it can be reconciled. I first of all believe, to a considerable degree, not as an imperative but as a concept, in the responsibility to protect.
I was very much involved in the Libya operation because I worked directly for the commander, as his political advisor, in the NATO command structure so… That was undertaken, initially, with the notion in mind with something like the responsibility to protect because of the threat that Gaddafi posed to the people in Benghazi and Eastern Libya at that point during the Arab Spring…
I think it can be resolved by multilateral engagement and a greater willingness to enter into international agreements, including binding international agreements which the United States has tended to eschew now for more than 20 years. There will always be this kind of “Apres vous Gaston” problem in international engagement or interventions where nobody really wants to seize the nettle and go in and take the risk of involvement in the hard part of intervention and stabilization and reconstruction. We should be extremely judicious in what our role is; we should not always want to lead. In fact, in Libya, we did not lead, but we provided the critical sort of enablers for that operation to take place.
I think that that is the appropriate role unless there’s a much stronger impact on American vital national interest than just the general concern, which is a valid one about the responsibility to protect.
But the US also hasn’t really endorsed the responsibility to protect. In fact, when I was a diplomat, we would fight against the responsibility to protect as a principle in international relations when Canada and Sweden and others were putting it forward because we thought that it would require us to take action in some cases where we might not want to. This tendency to try to evade commitments that are broad-based and international and maybe even global is a major flaw in our policy. I think we need to commit much more closely and strongly to multilateral engagement realizing that it entails compromise and the acceptance that the views of others will influence the outcome in ways that sometimes we might find to be deleterious. We tend to walk away far too soon and throw up our hands and act unilaterally.
You were also the Deputy Permanent Representative to the U.S. Mission at NATO, as the Alliance expanded its Afghanistan operations and intensified outreach to the Middle East. How did you interact with the U.S.’s contentious involvement in the region and what were your key recommendations?
John Koenig: Well, it was a little complicated. First of all, I was against the Iraq invasion from the beginning. That happened just as I was going to NATO as the deputy chief of the mission . Just before I arrived it caused great discord in NATO. So I’m going to treat the Iraq invasion and our Middle East engagement somewhat separately from Afghanistan.
I worked a lot while at NATO headquarters on things that derived from our decision to invade Iraq with a coalition of supporting countries. Some of those things were intended to mend fences between the US and our allies who were opposed, most notably France and Germany, to our invasion. Some of them were intended to somehow supplement or ameliorate our efforts and the damage caused by our efforts to that region.
NATO was not directly involved in operations in Iraq or any combat operations during my time and really never during the history of the Iraq engagement of the United States in the coalition. I helped to create the NATO training mission in Iraq which was just a supplementary effort, but it could enlist allies in a broader sense and also obtain the endorsement of Paris and Berlin – which was important to us and important to Paris and Berlin; they didn’t want this rift to persist in the NATO Alliance.
Another thing I worked on there was outreach to the Middle East. The creation of more formal group outreach by NATO to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council: the so-called Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. I came up with the name because every other name that we suggested was so contentious. I worked a lot with the Italian mission which had strong views about this and how it related to NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue which is very important to Italy, quite naturally. But, I also worked a great deal and learned a great deal from the Deputy Secretary General of NATO – an Italian Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, a friend of mine. He taught me a lot about how to set realistic goals, be persistent, and listen a lot. That’s how we managed to create what we managed to create. It wasn’t a grand initiative but it helped to fill in the gaps in the Middle East so that NATO could have a dialogue with countries that shared some of its security concerns and interests.
Afghanistan was a little bit different. First of all, there was really broad consensus about the American invasion of Afghanistan and the NATO operation that moved in behind the United States and the coalition…
There were a few doubts, I would say at the time that I was there, that this was a mission that had to be conducted. Completely different from Iraq. I was very much involved in the effort to transfer ISAF (a UN mandated training and a stabilization mission) to NATO. It was a handoff by the Canadians to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Kabul. Then to enlarge ISAF all the way around Afghanistan and to create a mechanism for other countries to take on a lot more of the security burden – the lower end security burden in Afghanistan. That succeeded. But already in 2005 while I was still at NATO, the signs of failure were strong.
I should have said more, I think. We had quite a few ‘emperor has no clothes’ briefings in the North Atlantic Council and other settings in Brussels by commanders and other experts… people involved in things like the training of Afghan security forces or the counter-narcotics efforts of various parties… the United States, coalition, and NATO. It was really already pretty evident that we were not going to succeed in this more ambitious mission of transforming Afghanistan and creating a sort of stable long-term situation in Afghanistan.
That’s the place where I am very encouraged by the evolution of Joe Biden’s thought. He was a person who, fairly early on, took a stand for a narrower focus for the mission. In the Obama Administration, he famously argued against the surge which brought forces above 100,000 in Afghanistan. He now has agreed that the US has to end this mission because, simply: we are there without a mission. We’re there without clear objectives. We are simply a placeholder, one of many participants in a security environment which is not evolving in a way that is positive or has much bearing on American national interest.
You previously served as the political advisor to the NATO Joint Forces Command in Naples, Italy. My question is what were your main priorities in this role and how did you come about the process of defining them – which principles of those priorities evolved from?
John Koenig: It was a great job, I will just say at the beginning. It was something very different from anything I’ve done before in the Foreign Service, and I actually had to kind of leave the Foreign Service in order to take the job. I later came back in.
We had two major areas of activity in that headquarters. One was overseeing the relatively small NATO operations in the former Yugoslavia. KFOR was by far the largest at that stage and managing those operations, as well as our engagement with a large number of countries, including the countries most interested in these operations like Serbia, Bosnia, and Montenegro. That was one part of the job. That engagement role was broader as well. We talked a lot to a large number of countries… Israel, Turkey, everybody.
The other part was the role that I had in participating in oversight of the Libya bombing campaign. I won’t really get into the Libya bombing campaign more unless you want, but it was a tragic example of mission creep and irresponsible behavior by the United States and the international community as recognized by President Obama himself.
How did I define what I wanted to do? I wanted to work on the things that were most important, so I was sitting in a military headquarters at the operational level overseeing the actual mission commands out in the field, and I wanted to work on the things that were most important. This is a bit unusual for political advisors; typically, they are not exactly shunted decide, but they’re sort of channeled into supplementary or complementary work that has a lot more to do with just diplomatic engagement by the headquarters.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was a little more ambitious, so I wanted to influence military planning which is really what it’s all about. I just set about doing two things. One was to become a trusted advisor of my three successive American four star admiral commanders, and I did. I spent more time with them probably than almost anybody else in the headquarters except perhaps their deputy…
I was even made at one stage the operations director in the joint headquarters, so I was in the position of a major general in the US army which I probably wasn’t qualified to do.
But, I really tried to bring myself close to the work of the headquarters at its most essential, and I also had a great staff composed of NATO national officers – most of them were majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels. They did a lot of analysis, and my direction to them, and they did a fantastic job, was to influence Defense planning, to influence the operational planning in the headquarters by engaging very actively with the relevant parts of the headquarters and with the headquarters of the various operations down in the field (KFOR, Bosnia). They did that very well, so I was very, very happy with the outcome of all this. I think we managed to bring both my perspective plus the perspective of my team to bear on what was the core work of the headquarters rather than just serving as engagements secretary .
You’ve been stationed in many European countries during your time in the US Foreign Service…
What are your opinions about the EU guiding economic and security policy for the majority of European states at the moment? Specifically, how do view the U.S.’s role in forming and maintaining the European security umbrella through NATO, especially in the context of Russia and China?
Next, do you believe that Jean Monnet’s vision for federal Europe is still possible?
Lastly, what is the role of Germany within the EU as well as with US-German relations and EU-German relations?
John Koenig: Those are great questions. As a person who spent the last 20 years of my career living in the EU, working with the EU, and also with European national governments, I am a great believer in these institutions. I think that Americans need to try much harder to understand how they work and what they seek to do.
Let’s start with the big sort of “meta” question for the United States, which always comes up. What about the American security umbrella which is provided via NATO? There was a very, very interesting article by Stephen Wertheim today in the New York Times about whether or not progressives in particular (I’m a progressive in American political terms) and liberals should support NATO. I have been a devoted fan of NATO for many years, and I certainly left the foreign service in 2015 thinking that I would never deviate from that point of view. I used to give talks about the need for a new Cold War against Russia, for example, which I wouldn’t give anymore…
I think we need to think about this a lot; what are we doing with the American security umbrella? What is the impact of it? We know that it has created a stable situation and we ought not to discount that. It is quite important that we sustain stable conditions in this area which is so vitally important to the world economy and American interest more broadly, and our greatest partner in advancing an agenda of human rights and democratic principles – which means a lot to Americans and should I think. So, we want stability to persist in Europe, and NATO is the mechanism by which we deliver that. But, what are we doing by continuing to provide the security umbrella…
I think we may be creating a situation where Europe doesn’t get serious about defense. There’s no question that Europe has the capacity to undertake its own defense. It is vastly wealthier than Russia (for example) collectively. And, in fact, individual European Union member states have much larger GDPs than Russia, most notably France and Germany. So, why are we undertaking such a high element of the Defense burden for these countries when they are able to cover their needs themselves?
I think we need to constantly ask that question. It’s not really so much a matter of whether countries are spending the NATO benchmark of 2% of their GDP on national defense. That’s perhaps illustrative, but the problem is that they’re not serious about defense. The European Union does not have a very strong pillar regarding territorial defense. It came in, in the middle of the last decade, but it’s never really been acted upon in any significant way. I’m afraid we, by continuing to uphold the Article Five guarantee in NATO and by doing other things (including leading in many cases the planning and conceptualization of NATO’s engagement on the eastern edge of the alliance), we are in some ways fostering a situation where many NATO allies can shirk their national defense responsibilities. Now, what does this mean? It simply means that they’re not actually undertaking one of the most basic requirements of states. Self-defense comes pretty near the top of any list of what are the elements of a state, and these countries have, over the years, rented out their self-defense requirements to the United States in this guarantee.
We have to always have it under review. I think that if we were to back away carefully, not in the kind of haphazard and almost grotesque fashion of Donald Trump, we might actually have some positive outcomes. I’ve been talking and teaching about this for a long time, but I do worry that nothing is moving in the right direction. Regrettably, despite some innovations in the defense and security realm Europe has not really bitten the bullet. They are not very serious about national defense…
I would say we should encourage them to do the unthinkable, for example, to develop a Europe-wide nuclear deterrent. It’s a cheap investment in territorial defense. It is the essence of the United States Article Five guarantee and has been for like 60 years. We ought not to be so afraid of the possible proliferation effects or possible security dilemma effects that would arise from having Europe manage to arrange an autonomous nuclear deterrent capability.
So is it still possible to achieve the vision of a federal Europe, John Monnet’s vision? I don’t know if it’s possible. I think it’s worth trying. I think this intermediate stage of European integration, this creation of a sui generis, unique supranational arrangement is not very stable.
I mean Brexit was the clearest indication of that, but the difficulties of dealing with the Hungarian government and to a degree Poland are equally indicative of a problem with sustaining an adequate level of adherence to norms. Then there were pretty shocking failures of solidarity both in the economic crisis and in response to the Covid pandemic.
I think the bicycle will fall over eventually if it doesn’t keep moving forward, and it’s not moving forward. It hasn’t moved forward for a long time. The one exception to that is of course the agreement finally by Germany to support a mechanism for shared debt instruments in the context of the pandemic. If that can be continued, you then can get some other incentive to harmonize fiscal policy and maybe to undertake more federalization of security, that would be a good thing. I think that this confrontation between nationalist sentiment and the drive towards closer integration in the European Union ought – for the American interest – to be resolved in favor of integration and federalism.
You know the US has not always played a very constructive role in this. I’m just going to add that, at the end – particularly in our approach to the Iraq invasion but also now in the way that we’re dealing with things like Nord Stream Two and even China. We have had a hard time resisting lobbing divisive grenades into the European Union when we think it serves our interest. But, I think that’s to mistake our strategic interest with our sort of short term tactical interest. I think we need to stop doing this. We have relied traditionally over-much on a small state strategy when we’re not happy with what we hear from Berlin and Paris mainly. It used to be London but London was almost always on our side and now of course they’ve chosen to duck out.
We need to have a higher regard for the institutional integrity of the European Union and not be so tempted to undermine it whenever we think that there’s some short-term policy advantage to our own strategic objectives such as confrontation with Russia or confrontation with China.
You’ve interacted with many multilateral organizations such as the EU and NATO. I’m wondering how your interactions with those organizations shaped your time and role as a US ambassador? Can you maybe elaborate on some of your priorities and principles?
John Koenig: Sure. Well you know what I tried to do… I think throughout my career… I mean I came into the Foreign Service with a somewhat unusual background. I went to Johns Hopkins SAIS for my master’s degree which was not unusual. Before that I studied anthropology, and I was rather different in terms of socioeconomic background from the majority of my colleagues. I’ve been more of a sponge I would say. I like to listen more. I talk a lot, as you have noticed, but I also try hard to listen. I think I came into the Foreign Service, and I came into every one of my jobs in the Foreign Service, with more of an open mind than a lot of my colleagues. I’m not ideological. In fact I just can’t stand ideology. I find it terribly disruptive of sensible statecraft, and I’m afraid the United States has a serious penchant for “ideologizing” everything. So I came in and really enjoyed the jobs where I listened a lot. I mean just to give one example that’s kind of odd…
I was assigned to East Berlin in the late 1980s. One of the things that I did because my German was very good – I wasn’t a spy but I was just a listener – is I would go out with a colleague (a guy named Matthias Manz), and we would just go to places and hang out and talk to East Germans. And, these perspectives really informed my view which tended to be accommodating. I mean… I think that people – I’m not saying that I loved the SED and that I thought Erich Honecker was a hero – I’m saying you have to see that there is no black and white.
You are generally talking about incremental efforts to move major issues in the direction that you think serves American interests and, in some cases, that was the global interest.
That’s how it happened again in Indonesia, when I was there. When I was basically full time (not entirely but let’s say 80 to 90%) covering Islamic political movements. I just sort of sat on the floor or in chairs and talked to people many hours a day and just absorbed what they said and interpreted it to try and understand for the US Government what Indonesian Islamic political thinkers and activists thought about issues that were important to us.
That was my background and it continued on in international organizations. I valued the perspectives of other people. We often treated others, and this is a liability for the United States… We treat people who stand in our way as obstacles to better policy when sometimes their ideas are better than ours. When you walk into a room in NATO in particular — but this is generally true even in something like the G7, which kind of happens in the shadows — there’s no question that the American representative represents the biggest country. But, there is a question whether the American representative represents the country with the best ideas or the best understanding of the problem at hand. We tend to “bigfoot” people because we are big. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we always get the best outcome. That’s one reason why I thought it was so useful to point out my relationship with Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo. Italy punches under its weight. Italy has more good ideas than we’re often prepared to recognize, but they often are different from American approaches.
How did I use this when I became ambassador to Cyprus? I knew the Cyprus problem pretty well. I’d spend more time on it probably than virtually any other American diplomat, certainly any other senior American diplomat. So, I kind of knew what I wanted to achieve. I had a lot of contacts on the island. I understood, I thought, how it fit into American national interest, and I had a great team in the embassy to work with and a great team back at home in Washington. We were quite ambitious at the time in trying to address a possible solution to the Cyprus problem, so I had a lot of interesting work to do. But, one thing I would say that I learned there is how easy it is to forget to listen to people when you are pretty well in command of the facts of the situation. You’re pretty sure you know what you want to do and you have the authority to push your ideas through without having to rely on the sort of consent or support of others. That’s a real risk. That’s the classic American dilemma. I think that we stopped listening because we’re too… We have often misguided convictions which we hold very close to our hearts…
When I criticize some of my colleagues, former colleagues, or others for advocating high risk, “principled” stands in places like Ukraine or Taiwan, it’s not because I don’t believe they’re entirely sincere in advocating these approaches, I just don’t see the connection to American interest… the balanced connection to American interest. The risk in this quixotic sort of stand is higher than the possible gain to the United States.
That’s something that I think is easy to learn when you’re dealing with the Cyprus problem. It’s a modest-advantage, modest-disadvantage situation – you don’t want to disrupt it so much that it becomes more dangerous for the United States so you have to operate in a fairly narrow band.
Do you have any advice for students planning on pursuing a career in diplomacy, or with the State Department?
John Koenig: Well, yes, please join the forest service, I will just put that out there right now. It’s a good time to be interested in the Foreign Service. The Foreign Service is going to be growing over the next several years. I think the Biden administration would be a really interesting one to work in. As I said, I think some of the things that it is doing and some of the ideas that it has are very, very creative and helpful. When I look at things that were written by Jake Sullivan – not so much since he came to office as the NSA but in the year or two before he came to that position – I think there are ideas lurking in the White House and in the State Department which would be really enjoyable and important to work on.
What should you do? Looking through your journal, I saw a lot of signs that people are doing the right thing. I think studying individual cases closely and thinking about them sufficiently to write about them is a very, very useful thing to do… because grand strategy (operating on an abstract level) is very, very prone to “ideologization”. So, you begin to see things in black and white, but when you delve more deeply into any situation, even if you still retain a clear perspective and maybe a moral perspective on what’s going on there, you see the complexities of interpersonal, and inter-institutional behavior. Nothing is as clear-cut as it is portrayed, generally speaking more superficially, in the media. I think studying these cases and putting yourself in the position (to the extent that you can) of the individual participants is incredibly useful.
This is done all the time with the Cuban Missile Crisis. I think you’ve probably done it yourselves with the Cuban Missile Crisis as a case study…
And I would just say that despite the common wisdom that John F. Kennedy was a hero in the Cuban Missile Crisis and that his brilliant management of the Ex Comm delivered the world from nuclear holocaust, if you delve more deeply you know that’s not true, and you also know that Nikita Khrushchev was not a villain really. He was sort of a co-hero, if you have to have heroes and lionize everyone. And even Fidel Castro is understandable.
I think international relations, to be effective, is built on understanding not so much just the issues but your partners or adversaries. If they are adversaries — I think we tend to use that label too often – but the others who are engaged on the same issues with you.
This may be a frustrated anthropologist talking here but understanding the perspective of others is really the most important thing you can do in international relations. It is the essence of diplomacy. It’s the only way you can achieve anything through diplomatic engagement, which after all is just the way to resolve differences short of use of force. I would hope that everybody would study these cases. You will get good grades. Pass the test. Go into the Foreign Service, and help us get better outcomes after a sort of dreary couple of decades in the international environment.
I heard that you are a Seahawks fan and I’m also a big fan of the NFL. I’m curious what your predictions are for the Seahawks this next season? Do you think they’re going to make it to the playoffs, the Super Bowl?
John Koenig: Well Super Bowl would be a little bit of a long shot. Although I never lose hope you know, not even when they didn’t give the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the Patriots’ two-yard line during Super Bowl 49. That was the closest I came, by the way, to having a physical fight with anyone since I think I was in elementary school. I was watching the game with a bunch of people in Rome, with some friends, and most of the people there were Patriots fans. I guess I got in somebody’s face. I don’t know. Anyway, I backed off. He was much younger than me probably would have really done some damage.
So what do I think? I think the Seahawks will go to the playoffs almost for sure. I know that most analysts have said that they might be the third strongest team in the Western Division. I don’t buy it. I think that they’re going to come in first or second. I think the real contender is the Rams.
I just don’t have any faith in the Forty Niners. I’m sorry. I’ve watched them for a long time – if you’re a Seahawks fan you’ve watched the Forty Niners almost as closely as the Seahawks for the last few decades.
I am very committed to all this. I did a couple of things that I’ll just mention to show that I’m a real fan. I’m not a very analytical fan. My son is very much into sports statistics and was the sports editor of the Harvard Crimson and all sorts of other things. I’m just a fan…
I’m just like a crazy-in-the-head fan. So when I was at the embassy in Nicosia [Cyprus] during the playoffs in 2014 and2015, we flew the 12th Man Flag under the American flag on our flag pole. I don’t think that was authorized. I didn’t ask for permission. It made me feel good. I think it made some people in the embassy feel bad. But hey, you know some things are worth it!
When I was at my low point – I had a contentious relationship with the President of Cyprus toward the end of my tenure as ambassador there – my staff arranged for me to have a Zoom conversation with Marshawn Lynch. That lifted my spirits more than anything else possible really. He had just been denied the game ball, basically, in the Super Bowl against the Patriots by Pete Carroll for a reason I will never understand, and he was holding out briefly before he re-signed with the Seahawks for the last year that he played. I begged him to re-sign and he gave a very Marshawn answer…something like ‘hear you man, haven’t made up my mind, thanks’. Something like that.
It was a very brief conversation. Really was not easy to get him to talk a whole lot more than he does normally. I’m a big fan. I’m hopeful for the current season. I think we are the most exciting team in the NFL year in and year out… I will add at the end that I had hoped that Tom Brady’s career would finally be crushed when he went to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers but, clearly, I was wrong.