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Representing U.S. interests abroad

Jan Garrison

Ambassador's first priority


January 30, 2020

Former Ambassador Shaun Donnelly ’64 told Culver students attending one of the Global Studies Institute’s sessions Monday that technology is changing the role of diplomats around the world.

With instantaneous communications available, each country’s top government leaders can talk directly with each other instead of relying on the ambassadors to relay their messages like they did for decades. But it doesn’t mean that ambassadors and embassies are not still an important part of foreign affairs.

Donnelly served as the United States ambassador in Sri Lanka; the deputy chief of mission for the embassy in Tunisia; and worked extensively on international trade as part of the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Retiring in 2008, he is now a vice president in the investment and financial services section of the United States Council for International Business.

The primary responsibilities of an ambassador and the embassy personnel is to advocate for American interests in the country where they are stationed. That includes serving as the “eyes and ears” for the State Department and to provide “the why” behind different announcements or news events.

And that doesn’t always mean the ambassadors work in their field of expertise. While his was business development, Donnelly said his stint in Sri Lanka came at time when the country was involved in a bitter civil war.

It was his job to represent the United States in supporting the government, but also protect the human rights of the rebels, which comprised 10 to 15 percent of the country’s population. Most of his time was spent balancing those two sides. There was little else that could be done, especially in regards to any business or trade development, he said. “You are driven by what you are dealt.”


Classes doing a Skype session with Christine Elder, U.S. ambassador to Liberia.


He added former Secretary of State George Schultz had a unique way of reminding new ambassadors of their main job. Schultz would have the ambassador visit him in his office for a casual talk and then wrap up by asking them to find the country they represent on a big globe that sat in his office.

If they pointed to the country where they were heading, he would remind them that they represented the United States first, even though they were living elsewhere. It was a trick question and didn’t take long for the word to spread, Donnelly said. But it also served as a constant reminder.

The goal is to always find a “win-win” situation, Donnelly said, with both the United States and the other country involved coming out with something positive. But when that can’t happen, ambassadors and the embassy staff must represent the United States’ interests first.

Donnelly, who helped negotiate the original North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), said the agreement did need to be updated. When it was originally drafted, the internet didn’t exist and protecting intellectual property rights weren’t a major concern.

Pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) shows the Trump administration’s distaste for multi-lateral agreements. The agreement the United States negotiated with 11 other nations bordering the Pacific was designed to pressure China into negotiating in good faith.

But the U.S. pulled out and imposed tariffs on Chinese goods to renegotiate a new unilaterial trade deal. But phase one of the new Chinese agreement doesn’t provide that much more than the old agreement. The real test will be the second phase of negotiations covering business and intellectual property protections.

Donnelly added that Culver provided him with a solid educational foundation, teaching him to write and speak. But he also has come to rely on the basic Culver Values of how to be “part of the team” and “sacrificing for something bigger than yourself.” He gets satisfaction from that, he said, and it has always been with him.

Along with Donnelly’s presentations on Monday, the students also participated in two Skype sessions with Donnelly during Tuesday’s classes. They talked with Christine Elder, U.S. ambassador to Liberia, and Krishna R. Urs, the U.S. Ambassador to Peru.

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