On Thursday, January 30, 2020, the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution co-sponsored an event with the Department of Political Science at Christopher Newport University to bring Dr. Dan Whitman to speak on his almost 25-year tenure with the U.S. Foreign Service, spanning positions in Africa, Europe, and Haiti. More specifically, he spent a bulk of his career at the Africa Bureau and was a senior advisor to the U.S. President’s African Leaders Summit in 2014. Immediately the audience was prompted with questions. What is conflict? How can diplomacy lessen the blow or avoid it altogether? Dr. Whitman shared personal anecdotes at the beginning of his discussion to remind the audience that ideas are ingrained in the human existence, but convincing someone else to buy into those ideas is at the core of diplomacy.
In a colloquial manner, Dr. Whitman was able to engage students and community members alike by discussing the resolution of conflict as a means to motivate joining any sort of service job. As he described, conflict is caused by three things: scarcity of resources, miscommunication or misunderstanding, and perceived injustice. The scarcity of resources has a snowball effect considering everyone has basic needs and in many instances, people are willing to fight for what they want as well. Miscommunication comes from dancing around whatever issue is occurring between two states, groups or people. And in many ways, Dr. Whitman argued that the miscommunication aspect is one of the most dangerous pieces of conflict altogether. However, perceived injustice is unique in the sense that in most cases, someone views themselves as a victim whenever they are involved in a conflict which blurs the line between perceiving and actually experiencing injustice.
Due to this, Dr. Whitman went in-depth as to why conflict is avoidable and why diplomacy is the answer. Good diplomacy, according to Dr. Whitman, is simply being able to point out what the miscommunication between parties is. If the conflict can be brought up and addressed, it allows for easier discussion to take place earlier when future conflicts arise. To deepen this point, Dr. Whitman provided a historical perspective by examining the work of George F. Kennan who is credited with the containment strategy that prevented nuclear war.
Yet beyond simply discussing the good work done by George Kennan, Dr. Whitman pointed out that his talk was focusing on a realistic approach to foreign service. Working in foreign service can be incredibly rewarding. Dr. Whitman’s stories very clearly proved that he found a great deal of joy in his work with the State Department. However, as he said, working in the foreign service is not for everyone. The work is challenging, exhausting, and Dr. Whitman agreed with George Kennan who described it as “disorienting.”
To help those listening to his presentation, Dr. Whitman offered life advice and his insights on how to navigate what the best move for each individual is when determining if life in the foreign service is a good idea. “You need to decide if you are truly the type of person who is okay and happy with the changes and stresses that come with uprooting your life every few years. Are you sedentary or nomadic?” Dr. Whitman pressed the value in checking in with oneself to evaluate how you feel when it comes to moving frequently, relationships back home suffering, and the possibility of living somewhere you don’t enjoy. However, he also talked about the wonderful opportunities that come with living abroad, being emerged in a new culture, eating exciting food in a local’s home, and making worldly friends.
After his discussion, Dr. Whitman opened up the floor to questions. A student asked him what his best piece of advice was to give to students. He said, “there is no such thing as a mistake; you just proceed with a plan and another plan for when it doesn’t work.” And he encouraged the audience to try the foreign service if they felt an itch to do it. The worst thing that could happen was getting turned away, but according to him, the majority of people who work in the foreign service do not pass and get accepted their first time through. Dr. Whitman suggested if you believe that “world peace will not be angels, harps, and avocados. It will be a process of knowing we will die, but we see how we can prolong the process,” then foreign service work, or any type of service job, might be for you.