An Interview with Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr.

by Forum Staff

Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr. is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service and served most recently as the U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines (2010-2013). Prior to that, he served as Executive Secretary of the State Department, Special Assistant to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Director of the Department’s Operations Center, and Director General of the Foreign Service. Ambassador Thomas joined the Foreign Service in 1984, and served as U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh from 2003 to 2005. He also served in the White House as the Director for South Asia at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2002. His other postings include: New Delhi, India; Harare, Zimbabwe; Kaduna, Nigeria; and Lima, Peru. Ambassador Thomas speaks Spanish, Hindi, Bangla, and Filipino. He is a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross and pursued further study at Columbia University.

In a conversation with The Fletcher Forum, Ambassador Thomas discusses his distinguished career in the Foreign Service and comments on a range of foreign policy issues from the role of diplomacy in solving global problems to advancing the rights of women and girls to the disaster relief efforts in the Philippines. He also provides shrewd advice for young professionals aspiring to careers in public service.

FLETCHER FORUM: Your distinguished career in the Foreign Service has taken from you from Africa to Latin America to South Asia, and most recently, to the Philippines. You have had the opportunity to impact and implement U.S. foreign policy the world over. In your view, what unique role does diplomacy play in confronting the myriad global challenges we face?

THOMAS: I strongly believe that diplomacy is key to protecting the safety and security of Americans at home and abroad and that continued engagement with allies as well as potential adversaries is essential to our future prosperity. As diplomats we must employ a “whole of government approach,” where we utilize all U.S. government assets and partner with Corporate America and non-governmental organizations to reinforce friendships with allies and strengthen our relations with countries and regions that pose challenges to our way of life. In my last post abroad, we had nearly thirty agencies working in concert to improve bilateral relations with the Filipino people and President Aquino’s administration.

FLETCHER FORUM: What, if anything, has changed from when you started your career in terms of how diplomacy should be carried out or the skill set needed to do so in an increasingly globalized world?

THOMAS: The skill set needed to be an effective diplomat has not changed during my thirty years in the Foreign Service. What has changed is the tools that we can employ. I know that Ambassadors Tom Pickering, Jeff Davidow, Ruth Davis, and Ed Perkins would excel in today’s State Department as they did years ago. We conduct diplomacy as they did. In Manila, I insisted that our officers study local dialects, travel the country, meet all levels of society, refrain from making snap judgments, and use innovative means to connect with the populace, which is precisely the type of work habits those distinguished ambassadors employed when I was a junior officer. That said, in the Philippines and many emerging nations, social media is an important new tool that we use effectively to tell America’s story, to promote democracy and open markets, as well as to highlight our humanitarian relief efforts. Like most of my ambassadorial colleagues, I often used Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit to demonstrate America’s partnership in democracy and values to Filipinos.

FLETCHER FORUM: Is a “Smart Power” approach to global politics—one that leverages development, diplomacy, and defense—the best way to exert leadership in the world today? Why?

THOMAS: I support the use of “Smart Power” to leverage diplomacy, development, and defense not only to exert leadership but also to develop effective partnerships. The “rebalance (or pivot) to Asia” is an excellent example of “Smart Power.” We have increased our military and diplomatic assets in Asia. We have posted an ambassador to the Association of South East Asian State (ASEAN) as a demonstration of our commitment to SE Asia, and U.S. leaders regularly attend summits in Asia. We have also invested significant energy into the Transpacific Partnership with the goal of creating millions of jobs in the United States and Asia.

In the Philippines, we devoted much time to improving our military, trade, and development relationship. We have assisted the Philippines—our treaty ally—in improving its military capability and economic strength. We increased our joint military exercises but also gave more assistance via USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation as the Philippines improved transparency and proved to have an honest government at the national level. We had successful trade missions and worked closely with American companies interested in corporate social responsibility partnerships. We were very conscious of our former role as a colonial power and went to great lengths to ensure that we were partnering with the democratically elected government in areas of common agreement. It was essential to ensure the Aquino Administration that the past days of gunboat diplomacy and support for a dictator were not part of our agenda in a country where some in civil society incorrectly feared that the United States was trying to play a hegemonic role.

FLETCHER FORUM: You recently completed three years of service as Ambassador to the Philippines, during which you were widely admired for your work on many key issues and on advancing the U.S.-Philippine relationship. You paid special attention to advancing the rights and status of women and girls. Why did you make investing in women and girls a key priority, and how can governments work best to break down economic and political barriers that prevent women and girls from reaching their full potential?

THOMAS: In regards to women, I lived in Bangladesh, which is one of the homes of micro-finance. I saw many cases where women through micro-finance were able to improve their families’ financial well-being, pay their children’s tuition, and most importantly, serve as role models to their daughters. I did not see any of the women become millionaires, but the dignity and the self-worth that came through the benefit of micro-finance made them rich and could not be measured. In the Philippines—a country where millions go abroad seeking employment because of the lack of opportunity—I thought it was essential to provide support. Filipinas working abroad send money home, but in some cases their families are becoming dysfunctional as grandparents have difficulty raising their apos (grandchildren). We see the negative social effects of single or no parent households in the United States. It is the same in the Philippines with rare exceptions.

Playing golf I met “umbrella girls,” many younger than my daughter, who spoke with fear about having to seek jobs overseas because they could no longer carry umbrellas once they reached thirty. Most were high school dropouts and single mothers without many options. The school drop-out rate in the Philippines averages seventy percent, and the primary reason is hunger. I thought it would be easy to help the “umbrella girls” obtain entry-level jobs in the service industry. It was not. I was surprised to learn that a college degree is required to work in one of the Philippines’ many call centers or to serve a latté at a hotel. The effect is depressed wages and despondent employees but also a waste of talent. We needed to help the Philippine government increase economic and educational opportunities for women and girls to counter these trends and to combat the scourge of human trafficking—the global form of modern-day slavery that harms a disproportionate number of Filipinos.

It is incumbent on the United States, as treaty ally and friend of the Philippines, to assist women and girls. I believe we can improve opportunities within a generation through our development programs. If we can assist the Filipinos in developing market-oriented economic policies that allow for increased foreign investment, we would simultaneously be allowing the government to use its resources to increase educational and vocational opportunities for women, making them less vulnerable to the horrors of human trafficking.

FLETCHER FORUM: Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda made landfall in the Philippines on November 8, 2013. We have seen the tragic devastation it has caused as relief organizations, governments, and servicemen and women have mobilized to help. You are surely no stranger to crisis management and disaster response given your years of service in the Philippines. In your view, how can the U.S. government work most effectively during these kinds of crises to help Filipinos, the Philippine government, and relief organizations in disaster response efforts?

THOMAS: First, let me stress how proud I am of my colleagues in our embassy in Manila, who have led the relief efforts. I know that our government understands the enormity of the challenges that the Philippines faces and is developing long-term plans to provide assistance. Chargé d’Affairs Brian Goldbeck, USAID Director Gloria Steele, and many others worked together prior to the typhoon making landfall to ensure that U.S. civilian and military assets were ready to assist. They also engaged the Philippine government at the highest levels to ensure that we would provide the relief and recovery assets that the Aquino Administration wanted. I am positive that we did nothing to embarrass the government while working to rebuild both southern Zamboanga, Mindanao, after an August insurgent attack and also central Bohol after a devastating earthquake in October. On the contrary, we worked closely with President Aquino’s press staff and the U.S. military’s media to coordinate messages that highlighted the joint Philippine-U.S. response. One example is the YouTube video that Embassy Manila made with the Philippine military.

FLETCHER FORUM: During your career in public service, you also served in the White House at the National Security Council. You have no doubt witnessed the changing nature of national security in the twenty-first century, with the rise of non-state actors and cyber issues, for example. What do you think are the most pressing challenges and concerns facing U.S. national security interests, and how must the United States adapt its policies or grand strategy to confront the unique security challenges of today’s world?

THOMAS: When I think of the changing nature of national and international security, I refer all to my friend Maria Ressa’s book Ten Days, Ten Years, from Facebook to Bin Laden. Ressa is a Filipina-American journalist, Fulbrighter, and Princeton alumna with extensive experience in South and South East Asia. In her excellent book, she writes about the kidnapping of local journalists and the use of the internet by terrorists intent on destroying democracies. Ressa warns us about the challenges we face from these non-state actors. I was so impressed that I invited her to dinner and had her conduct a seminar for members of our country team in the Philippines.

FLETCHER FORUM: Given your distinguished career in public service, what knowledge or experience would you share with aspiring public servants and young professionals interested in pursuing a career in international affairs or the Foreign Service?

THOMAS: I am currently the Diplomat in Residence for the Southwest, housed in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University in Tempe. In addition to Arizona, I will travel to Idaho, Nevada, and Utah seeking candidates to join the U.S. Foreign Service. My advice to students and aspiring diplomats contains the same words Ambassador Princeton Lyman gave me years ago: set no barriers on what you can learn, engage everyone from the head of the nation to the shoeshine man, study languages, work hard, be kind to all, and have fun, because if you are not enjoying your work, you will fail.

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