The Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy hosted four former U.S. ambassadors for the talk “The U.S., Iran, and Security in the Persian Gulf,” the final installment in the school’s Weiser Diplomacy Center Series, on Thursday.
Michael Barr, the dean of the Ford school, stressed the importance of the “Conversations Across Differences” series in developing relationships with those of differing backgrounds.
“Practicing diplomacy both abroad and here at home is essential for working through moments where differences seem insurmountable,” Barr said.
The topics discussed varied from the Gulf states’ perceptions of Iran, to the effects of the power dynamics in the Gulf on the United States, to the relationship between the U.S. and Iran, especially since the U.S. has no embassy there. Instead, Switzerland has acted as mediator between the two countries since 1979 following the Iranian Revolution.
Panelist Gerald Feierstein, a former ambassador to Yemen, compared the diplomatic tactics of President Barack Obama and President Donald Trump, pointing out that Obama focused on specific behavioral concerns while Trump’s approach has been to apply an unmanageable amount of pressure, which Feirstein said has not worked.
Feierstein said he holds out hope that the two countries will be willing to have a peaceful discussion in order to start moving forward.
“Both sides gingerly are interested in finding a way to get back to the table,” he said. “Both sides recognize that a train wreck kills a lot of people, including the engineers.”
However, Ronald E. Neumann, former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan, said he does not share Feierstein’s positive outlook.
“Optimism is free, so one might as well indulge,” Neumann replied, sparking a round of laughter from the audience and the other panelists, including Feierstein.
Deborah McCarthy, who served as an ambassador to Lithuania from 2013 to 2016, commented on the usefulness of sanctions, provided they are used appropriately.
“Sanctions are an effective tool if you outline clearly the behavior that you want to change,” McCarthy said. “Intent is really for the behavior of the state to change.”
Public Policy junior Karuna Nandkumar said she understands how important navigating those differences can be, especially considering her career ambitions in international diplomacy.
“I had the opportunity to spend last summer interning at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City,” Nandkumar said. “Learning about other cultures, other people and the politics of other countries has always been something that’s really interesting to me. I’m focusing in the Ford School in diplomacy and international security issues, and I hope to go into that field.”
When asked for advice on how students interested in international affairs can best prepare themselves for such careers, Former ambassador to Qatar Patrick Theros had a simple yet meaningful answer.
“Succeed at what you’re doing right now,” Theros said.