The September 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and subsequent responses from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been powerful and painful reminders: The extraordinary individuals who become U.S. foreign service officers, as surely as those who join the armed forces, offer not only their skills and expertise but sometimes their very lives to advance United States interests. They are truly in the nation’s service — sometimes in workaday posts, and sometimes in places that become the front lines.
I was on a university campus recruiting applicants for the Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowships when I learned of the rage erupting in the Middle East. Like millions, I was stunned by news of the violent attack on the Benghazi consulate resulting in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American officials. I felt deep hurt for the victims and their families, and sadness for all Libyans, who have been struggling along with Ambassador Stevens and his team to help Libya complete its transition from decades of dictatorship toward democracy, market economy, and integration with global institutions.
I did not know Ambassador Stevens, but having served as a U.S. ambassador, I know his work. I know how hard it is to help an unstable country in a volatile region through so difficult a transition. Persistent ignorance, hatred, and intolerance in that region — and among some in our own country — continue to ignite and fuel the passion that triggered the violence we witnessed last week and the protests we continue to see in several other countries. The phrase "flash point" is, perhaps, overused. Still, there can be no doubt that in these times, more than ever, even a momentary lack of thought, care, and understanding can lead to widespread and devastating consequences.
While addressing university students in a beginning Arabic language class early on September 12, I underscored the Benghazi tragedy as exactly the reason to continue toward advanced studies in Arabic, and to use that knowledge of Arabic language and cultures in the Middle East creatively to foster greater cross-cultural knowledge, interaction, cooperation, and tolerance at home and abroad. More than this, given the complexity and sometimes the risky nature of relations among all our international allies, potential partners, and competitors, these events demonstrate how urgently we need thoughtful and well-prepared young people to take up the challenge of serving their country.
Recent studies have suggested that, while many young Americans recognize the scope and weight of global issues, too few have a clear understanding of those issues, or of our nation’s place and our partners in them. Even fewer have actually committed themselves to study closely the range of concerns that the United States’ relations with the world represent, or to take a hand, personally, in conducting international business, forming international understandings, and leading international initiatives. Then again, many of the same studies lead us to believe that too few young people think they themselves can actually do much about large-scale concerns.
Ambassador Stevens knew that individuals can and do change relationships between nations, one person at a time. Stories abound of the ways in which he reached out to individual Libyans living among them and getting to know them, their culture, their personal concerns — all in the framework of a sophisticated understanding of the historical, economic, social, cultural, and religious dynamics that shape their lives and their connections with the United States.
This kind of expertise comes from rigorous, determined preparation, from a genuine openness to other cultures, and from deep personal commitment to serve. I see those qualities in the passionate young people I meet on college campuses. I believe that they can and will reach beyond themselves to serve in global affairs, given the opportunity and encouragement to do so, and with the confidence offered by role models like Ambassador Stevens.
I told those university students that there is so much more work to do in this regard in the greater Middle East and throughout the world. The Benghazi tragedy should serve as a wake-up call to young people that they are urgently needed to pursue United States interests and support its relationships worldwide. It should bolster their determination to use their diplomatic talents, experiences, and wise judgment to strive even more vigorously for a more peaceful, secure, democratic, tolerant, and prosperous world. It should demonstrate to them that one person — any one of them, every one of them — can make that difference.
James I. Gadsden is a retired career foreign service ambassador who served as U.S. ambassador to Iceland. He is currently a senior counselor for international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation