Respect, Trust and Partnership: Keeping Diplomacy on Course in Troubling Times

Speaking Out


When John Kerry swore me in as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam in 2014, I said it was a “dream come true” to be able to serve as America’s representative in a country I have loved for more than two decades.

A three-year tour as ambassador in Hanoi was the high point of my 30-year career in the Foreign Service and the honor of a lifetime. The high-water mark of that tour was hosting President Barack Obama during a history-making visit to Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City one million people turned out to welcome him, and I knew we had done something right.

I am deeply grateful to the Foreign Service, not only for the privilege and joy of three decades of adventures (mostly in Asia), but also for my family. Thirteen-and-a-half years ago I met my future spouse in a business meeting of GLIFAA (formerly Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies), an employee affinity group. By extension the Foreign Service gave us our 4-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.

A diplomatic career also allowed me the great privilege of serving something bigger than myself: the United States of America. So it was with mixed emotions that I decided in 2017 to resign and join a number of other senior Foreign Service officers headed for the exit. While each of us has a different reason for departing, many of my friends and former colleagues are deeply worried about the policy direction of the current administration, as am I. I fear that some policies are diminishing America’s role in the world, and decided that I could not in good conscience implement them.

Many of us who were determined to strengthen America’s role in Asia considered that abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement was a self-inflicted wound. America left the playing field to those who do not share our values, and left American jobs there, too. Others grieved the U.S. abdication of responsibility regarding climate change, especially in a year marked by multiple storms so immense that they are supposed to happen only once in 500 years. A large number of colleagues voiced their dissent regarding the so-called “Muslim travel ban,” abhorrent in a country whose true strength derives from its diversity. What happened to the nation that welcomed “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”?

Closer to Home

And then the outrages came even closer to home. I was asked to press the government in Hanoi to receive from the United States more than 8,000 people, most of whom had fled South Vietnam on boats and through the jungle in the years immediately following the war.

The majority targeted for deportation—sometimes for minor infractions—were war refugees who had sided with the United States, whose loyalty was to the flag of a nation that no longer exists. And they were to be “returned” decades later to a nation ruled by a communist regime with which they had never reconciled. I feared many would become human rights cases, and our government would be culpable.

I assessed that this repulsive policy would destroy our chances of success in pursuing President Donald Trump’s other goals for relations with Vietnam: reducing the trade deficit, strengthening military relations and coping with regional threats to peace such as those emanating from North Korea. I voiced my objections, was instructed to remain silent, and decided there was an ethical line that I could not cross if I wished to retain my integrity. I concluded that I could better serve my country from outside government, by helping to build a new, innovative university in Vietnam.

At a ceremony in the Treaty Room at State, with a portrait of Thomas Jefferson looking on, I had the opportunity to reflect on three decades of service, behind me the flags of countries where I had served as a junior-, mid-level and senior officer. My spouse, an African American man, stood at my side. Our children, Mexican-American, rode on our shoulders while Deputy Assistant Secretary Constance Dierman acknowledged the sacrifice of service, including the sacrifices that families make. My mentor of 26 years, Ambassador (ret.) Cameron Hume, presented a U.S. flag to my spouse.

I reminded the mentors, mentees, colleagues, friends and family members attending of what another departing diplomat, Tom Countryman, said at his retirement: “We [must be] firm in our principles, steadfast in our ideals, and tireless in our determination to uphold our oath—to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’”

Now more than ever. The challenges to the Foreign Service, and to our democracy, are existential. Some who remain at State feel besieged and demoralized. Yet I urge those Foreign Service officers who believe in making a difference to remain, if possible, because it is still a privilege to serve our country. I continue to believe the experienced diplomat’s language, regional expertise and deep understanding of a global challenge will pay off, and give that individual the chance to change a bit of history.

The Power of Respect

For those who choose to remain and who love diplomacy as I do, I offer a few thoughts on what can be done to best serve the United States, even in difficult times. I learned in my last three posts—India, Indonesia and Vietnam—about the power of respect, trust and partnership. The United States casts a long shadow, and when we show respect it has a big impact. Showing respect means figuring out what is really, truly important to our partners and taking that seriously. It costs America almost nothing and gets us almost everything.

Showing respect builds trust. Real, powerful partnership comes when you build trust. And you build trust by finding where interests converge, and then doing things together. The diplomat’s job is to find those shared interests and make them the bases of our actions. All those cables, all that contact work, the outreach—all of it should lead to action.

Real, powerful partnership comes when you build trust. And you build trust by finding where interests converge, and then doing things together.

Here are three examples:

India. India’s nuclear tests put it outside the nonproliferation regime. A real partnership was only possible if we ended the ostracism. So the United States showed respect and built trust by pursuing a civil-nuclear initiative with India.

Indonesia. Indonesian special forces committed atrocities during the Suharto regime, so we didn’t engage them. A real partnership was only possible if we ended the ostracism. We showed respect and built trust with Indonesia by re-engaging with the special forces, while respecting international human rights norms.

Vietnam. The war left massive scars. A real partnership was only possible if we dealt honestly with the past. We showed respect and built trust with Vietnam by pursuing the fullest-possible accounting of those lost, removing unexploded ordnance and cleaning up dioxin. And we were honest and respectful about even our most profound differences over human rights.

Building a Partnership

When I first visited Vietnam in 1996, the year after we normalized diplomatic relations, our countries could hardly envision a partnership. The past was a heavy burden, and the differences in our political systems were irreconcilable. But Vietnam had, and still has, leaders who are committed to finding where interests converge and then doing things together. And the United States had leaders like Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), former Secretary of State John Kerry and, later, President Obama, who were also committed to our comprehensive partnership.

So, together, our two countries deepened trade and security and people-to-people ties. During my tour as ambassador, we prepared for not one, but two presidential visits to Vietnam, as well as visits to the United States by Vietnam’s General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc.

Building trust wasn’t easy, because we had to keep earning it. We had to do what we said we’d do. For example, we promised the Vietnamese people we would continue cleaning up dioxin, also known as Agent Orange, left from the war. Because the process for cleaning up dioxin is very expensive, it took three years to find the resources to remediate the largest, worst hot spot. That we are proceeding is a result of determined, persistent leadership spanning several administrations. And by keeping our promise, we strengthen trust, to the benefit of Vietnam, the United States and the world.

Respect and trust are not zero-sum, nor are they transactional. They involve relationships, not just money and power. Military dominance alone won’t build the strong alliances and partnerships that we need in the Indo-Pacific region.

Those partnerships provide real, tangible benefits to the United States. Strong partnerships with India, Indonesia and Vietnam create jobs for Americans, contribute to regional stability and help us address global challenges to human health, the environment and international security.

When we commit to these partnerships—and I have seen this again and again—we facilitate commercial deals worth hundreds of billions of dollars and boost educational exchange, creating or supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States. We form security partnerships with countries that share our interest in open sea lanes and upholding international law. We create a more prosperous and safer America.

Don’t Give Up

Before leaving post, I urged my embassy colleagues not to give up. Even if as ambassador (and therefore the president’s personal representative) I could not in good conscience implement certain policies, I thought my younger colleagues might face a different choice. Early in my career, I had considered leaving State when, serving on the Korea desk, I disagreed strongly with the administration’s approach to North Korea. But I held on, believing that the pendulum would swing again and that I could do more good by remaining with the department than by quitting. There have been many difficult periods for the Foreign Service, and we have ridden through the ups and downs.

Now, from the perspective of a former FSO, I offer the following suggestions to those who continue to pursue diplomacy:

• As long as you can remain true to your beliefs and ethics, don’t give up. We’ve been through tough cycles before. This will end.

• Develop language and regional expertise. It continues to matter.

• Show respect in ways large and small. It matters when a representative of the United States—no matter what rank—shows respect.

• Build trust by engaging with counterparts in endeavors that are of mutual interest.

• Build partnerships based on respect, as they are essential for America’s future and will enable us to recover when the clouds pass.

• Keep relationships going. Those who argue that only interests matter, and that relationships don’t, have been proven wrong by history before and will be proven wrong again.

When the United States shows respect and builds trust, we build relationships that benefit enduring shared interests. After 30 years in Asia, I know that is the only way to make America even greater.

Ted Osius is the vice president of Fulbright University Vietnam. He served as U.S. ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to 2017. A founding member of GLIFAA, he was a U.S. diplomat in Indonesia, India, Thailand, Japan, the Vatican and the Philippines, and worked on Asian challenges from the White House, the United Nations and the State Department.