Something New Every Day

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A Q&A with one of America’s most seasoned diplomats

U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria James Entwistle ’78 greets Nigerian  President Goodluck Jonathan and First Lady of Nigeria Patience Jonathan.

Jim Entwistle ’78 presents credentials to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan and Minister of State Foreign Affairs Prof. Viola Onwuliri.

Foreign Service Officers are stationed at the more than 270 embassies and consulates—in hostile, war-torn nations and amicable, peaceful countries. Broadly defined by the Department of State, the mission of a U.S. diplomat in the Foreign Service is to promote peace, support prosperity and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the U.S. abroad. A significant number of Davidson alumni have answered the call to service and are currently occupying posts all over the world.

Jim Entwistle ’78 has been a U.S. foreign service officer for almost 34 years. Entwistle and his wife, anthropologist Pam Schmoll, met and married in Niamey, Niger during his second foreign service assignment. They brought up two kids in the foreign service: Jennifer is now a social worker and Jeffrey is an aspiring actor. Entwistle’s career has taken him to Cameroon, Niger, Thailand, the Central African Republic, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand (again), the Democratic Republic of the Congo and now Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa.

What role did your Davidson undergraduate experience play in your decision to join the foreign service?

I should tell you that the foreign service was a lifelong ambition and that I tailored my Davidson education towards that goal. But, of course, that wouldn’t be true. I saw a flyer on a bulletin board at Davidson about the foreign service exam, which I thought sounded interesting. I flunked the written exam the first time and took it again out of sheer cussedness. The rest is history!

I really got the overseas bug my junior year at Davidson when I took a seminar on the European Union organized by Professors Earl Edmondson and Randy Kincaid, which included a couple of winter weeks in western Europe. I met some English relatives on that trip who I continue to visit until this day.

After I graduated I went to grad school for a week and realized my future wasn’t in the halls of academia. At that point, I went to western Kenya and taught school in a rural girls high school, through a very informal program a Davidson faculty member had arranged with a Kenyan professor. So, that’s where the Africa bug started. I reconnected with a number of classmates there. Dave Keller, Peter Clifford and I had some great driving trips around Kenya in a claptrap VW van. And I taught at Musoli Girls School outside of Kakamega with Liz Holmes ’79.

Of course, there are myriad Davidson connections to Africa. During my second assignment in Niamey, Niger I reconnected with Davidson classmate Jeff Metzel who was working on a development project. We and our wives (Jeff also met and married his wife in Niger) became great friends. Jeff perished some years later in a plane crash in West Africa. He had grown up as a missionary kid in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During my last assignment as the U.S. ambassador there, I had the privilege of putting flowers a number of times at a memorial for Jeff on the campus of the International School of Kinshasa, where he went to high school. One of those relationships and connections that you’ll never forget. And here in Nigeria, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Davidson basketball great Andrew Lovedale (our first interaction had been my screaming at the TV in Bangkok while watching the 2008 NCAA Tournament Kansas game that almost took us to the Final Four). Andrew, through his NGO A2S, is doing great work in Benin City, Edo State.

What was your first posting and what surprised you most when you got there?

My first posting was Cameroon. I spent a year at the embassy in Yaounde and a year at the consulate in Douala. Probably my biggest surprise was that the Parisian French I’d learned at the Foreign Service Institute bore very little resemblance to the French spoken in Cameroon!

Is there any thread of similarity in your many, varied posts that you can see now that you didn’t see then?

I was an Air Force brat growing up, so I think I’ve always gotten itchy feet after a few years anywhere. Thus, I’ve tried to go someplace completely different on each assignment. Looking back at my assignments in Africa and Asia, I think the thread is that I’ve always sought challenging assignments that I knew I would have to push myself to succeed in. I’ll bet my counterparts at Western European posts have a nice life, but I’m confident the issues I work on here in Nigeria are much harder and more relevant, and that my job is much more interesting.

One of the challenges of serving in such posts is never knowing what issue will be on your plate next. For example, when I was the deputy chief of mission in Sri Lanka, the Indian Ocean tsunami struck halfway through my assignment and I pretty much spent the rest of my time there coordinating a huge U.S. civilian/military humanitarian assistance effort in Sri Lanka and Maldives. I remain tremendously proud of having been part of that.

How have international perspectives on the United States changed during your time in the foreign service?

Well, the world has certainly changed since I joined the foreign service in January 1981! At that time, the American hostages were still being held in Iran. The first day of training, the instructor said we were going to be sworn in and then swapped for the hostages (he was joking!). Also, that was at the height of the Cold War, so our relations with many countries were, to a very great extent, fashioned around those interests. Now, of course, those days are long gone and our relations around the world are limitless.

I’ve noticed that even in countries where some of our policies might be unpopular for a while, U.S. culture and education and products remain tremendously popular, which I think illustrates that our ties with any country have to be measured on a number of different levels. Of course there have been huge changes in communications. In Cameroon in 1981 it was almost impossible to place a call to Washington. Now I text my kids in the States. Amazing.

Another huge change I see is that when I started in this business, almost all interaction with another country was through government-to-government channels. Gradually, over the ensuing decades, there has been a mushrooming of contacts between universities or companies or institutes entirely outside of the gov-to-gov channel. I’m constantly stumbling on such initiatives here in Nigeria and that’s a wonderful thing.

In what ways does being the ambassador differ from other posts you’ve held?

Well, as Mel Brooks once said, it is good to be king. Seriously, I remember when I was starting out I would look up at the ambassador and think he or she had a pretty cushy job. Now, I realize that ambassadors work hard. I’ve always had a short attention span, so I’ve always preferred jobs where I worked on a wide variety of issues rather than one issue in great detail. That’s a strength in the foreign service, I think, since unexpected things constantly find their way to your inbox. On any given day I might help a U.S. company with an investment dispute, or call on a governor upcountry or put together an analysis of the political situation—you never know.

And, of course, being a U.S. ambassador is a tremendous responsibility as well since your primary duties are the protection and welfare of American citizens in your country of assignment and ensuring that all U.S. government personnel are safe and secure. Those are humbling duties and I’m very grateful to have been entrusted with them twice as an ambassador. But, it’s also great fun. I always say that foreign service officers are the luckiest people in the world. What could be better than representing your country around the world?

How does the Ebola epidemic affect your work as ambassador?

It’s been a good example of what I was saying about never knowing what you’ll be working on next. Here in Nigeria, the response to Ebola has been a success story as the federal government and several state governments responded immediately and correctly to the Ebola outbreak. The United States was proud to help and support that Nigerian effort through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the situation here in Nigeria is contained thanks to that effort.

Over the decades, the role of health issues in U.S. foreign policy has grown dramatically. Some months back, up north in Kano, my wife and I visited with a group of HIV-positive mothers and held their babies who, thanks to a U.S.-funded program, are HIV-negative. What could be better than that? I always say that the United States and Nigeria have a huge partnership in a wide variety of areas. To me, “partnership” means we’re not here to do things for Nigeria but to do things with Nigeria, as two equals working to make the world a better place. Nowhere is that partnership more vivid than in the health sector.

What Davidson alumni connections have you made around the world?

In addition to the connections in Africa I mentioned already, it seems like I bump into Davidson alums everywhere. I’ve worked off and on with fellow foreign service officer Tom Niblock ’79 in several different incarnations. When I ran the political section at the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 15 years ago, one of my colleagues was Laura Malenas ’92. Every time I get a “Diplocat” email, I’m struck by how broad the network is. And I was delighted to see my ATO/Davidsonian partner in crime, Phil Duncan ’79, in the audience both times I was sworn in as an ambassador up on the eighth floor of the State Department!

What advice would you give to Davidson students and young alumni interested in the foreign service?

Read the New York Times every day before you take the exam! Seriously, I suggest anyone interested in overseas work take the foreign service exam, which is challenging and interesting in and of itself. And if, as I was, you’re at loose ends when you get the offer, try it for a few tours and see what you think. If you decide to do something else, that’s fine. The experience will enrich whatever you choose to do with your life.

Even given all the communication changes during my career (I speak as someone who doesn’t have a Facebook page and can’t imagine what I would ever use Twitter for!), I still think the fundamental skill for success as a diplomat is the ability to go out and learn about a complex, cross-cultural issue and then quickly and succinctly turn it into a crisp, tight analysis for Washington policymakers. So, in my view, the best preparation for the foreign service is to use your time at Davidson to learn how to write.

See where some of today’s Davidson ambassadors are in The Diplocats.

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About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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