Retired U.S. ambassador Harriet Lee Elam-Thomas says that diversity in diplomacy is needed now more than ever. She is a Black woman who over four decades rose through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service to career minister, serving tours in France, Mali, Cote d’ Ivoire, Greece, Turkey and Belgium. She was also this country’s ambassador to Senegal (2000-02) before retiring in 2005 after 42 years of service.
Elam-Thomas’ recently published memoir, Diversifying Diplomacy (Potamac Books, 2017), gives the reader a first-person account of “the little Elam girl,” the youngest child of parents who left the segregated South and relocated in Boston, where she was born and grew up. She recently talked to the MSR by phone.
“It is indeed needed and critical,” she stressed, referring to the importance of diversity among U.S. diplomats. The current lack of diversity, she added, isn’t necessarily the fault of the current Trump administration,
“Every new Secretary of State…for the last 40-some years [has] merely given lip service to the whole idea of diversity,” Elam-Thomas explained. “[Colin] Powell did a much better job” as the first Black to serve in this position under former President George Bush (2001-05).
“Because he was a general, he knows that on the battlefield, you need to have people of all races. You [couldn’t] care less if they are Black, White or green…in the midst of the war.” She also pointed out that the U.S. military is more diverse than the U.S. Foreign Service.
Elam-Thomas admitted that she didn’t envision a life as a diplomat. She recalled, “I wanted to be a legal secretary,” and work for her older brothers, two of whom became lawyers. But during a trip to France while in college, “They welcomed me in such a way that I had not been welcomed like I have value,” she remembers.
That was in 1962. “I felt really empowered. I was 18 or 19 at the time.” A later opportunity to work with foreign exchange students as a “junior diplomat” finally convinced her to seek a career in Foreign Service, despite the fact that at the time there were few if any Black females to emulate.
“I didn’t have one role model at the time,” Elam-Thomas said. But she proudly pointed out that the late Patricia Roberts Harris, the first Black woman chosen as a U.S. ambassador (for Luxenberg, 1965-67) by President Lyndon Johnson, in essence, became her role model.
More importantly, Elam-Thomas also realized her true diplomatic role: “I didn’t realize that whenever you step out the door you represent the United States of America,” said the ambassador, who in addition to English speaks French, Greek and Turkish. The retired ambassador once worked at the United Nations and served as acting deputy director for the U.S. Information Agency.
But diplomacy involves much more than the offices of secretary of state and the ambassador, Elam-Thomas pointed out. “The ambassador position should not be politicized,” she opined. “Each administration has the right to have ambassadors who have been supportive of them during their campaign,” but, she quickly interjected, it’s the behind-the-scenes career diplomats who are equally important. They often aren’t political appointees.
She cited as an example Powell’s successor Condoleezza Rice (2005-09). “She did not know Egypt, Asia or Latin America. She had to rely on career diplomats to provide her the briefing and support whenever an issue came about, and she would be required to not only be knowledgeable but be able to resolve” the issue as well.
“Very few Americans know what diplomats do. We have been trained to be experts in the cultural geography of the area,” Elam-Thomas explained, adding that things overseas have become even more challenging post-Sept. 11, 2001; she was ambassador at the time. “I had full-time bodyguards the following day. My work became even more difficult…to present a face of America that is not anti-Muslim,” she stated.
Since her retirement, Elam-Thomas has advocated for more diversity in the diplomatic field where she saw few faces that looked like her. Now the director of the University of Central Florida Diplomacy Program, Elam-Thomas stressed the importance of being world-savvy and “authentic” for a long and successful diplomatic career.
“Every American embassy is established thanks to our relationship with the host country. We are a guest in that country; we cannot superimpose our values on another nation,” she advised.
“I dare say that if it were not for the career diplomats who are still working in the trenches, still working to ensure the safety of Americans abroad to bring some credence…they are still highly effective. They are the face of America.”
Elam-Thomas would like to see these faces become much more diverse.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.