‘Ebb and flow’: US Ambassador Pamela Spratlen on embracing perseverance amid political uncertainty

Illustration of Ambassador Spratlen
Xinyu Li/Staff

W hen, 40 years ago, Pamela Spratlen frequented the classrooms of UC Berkeley’s graduate school of public policy, she thought she would soon be working in Washington, D.C.

Though her father had wanted to serve in the foreign service, he had been shunned because of the U.S. Department of State’s unwillingness to consider African American candidates at the time, and she had never truly considered working in international affairs in any capacity.

Today she is the sitting U.S. ambassador to Uzbekistan, with 30 years of foreign policy experience and several State Department awards for meritorious service under her belt.

Her road to becoming a U.S. ambassador was far from simple. Before Spratlen attempted the extensive foreign service examination, she had already worked for nearly nine years in the California Legislature as a committee consultant in state budget management. But after noticing that her work had become monotonous year after year, she sought to broaden her horizons.

Once she joined the State Department, she held various roles in regions around the world, including serving in Guatemala as a foreign service officer, in Moscow as an assistant coordinator of the U.S. embassy and in Washington, D.C. as director of several State Department divisions. After she was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as an ambassador in 2014, she became the United States’ chief representative to a developing region that was once part of the former Soviet Union and the keystone to many American interests in the East.  

In the current political climate, her task seems all the more arduous. Spratlen’s primary role, as she described, entails “(telling) America’s story” and convincing foreign powers of the congruity between their interests and those of the United States. It’s a task made no easier by the commander in chief’s regular tweet-storms of accusations, name-calling, and behavior toward foreign leaders and powers alike.

“Ours is a job of persuasion,” Spratlen explained. According to her, one of the most significant misconceptions of her profession is how much power an ambassador possesses. Though Spratlen serves as the face and voice of the United States to citizens abroad, most of her work involves a great deal of coordination as she communicates the directives of the president and works to shore up the United States’ reputation overseas as a free and principled nation.

From the perspective of an outside observer, then, it may seem that the president she serves is actively sabotaging those efforts. This month, Gallup published an international poll finding that global approval of the United States’ leadership has sunk below 2008 levels and dipped, for the first time since 2007, below that of China.

Gallup poll with presidential ratings

Gallup / Courtesy

As corroborated by a Pew Research Center survey, public perception of the United States, as assessed individually by country, has consistently plunged in most save nations for a few marked exceptions — most notably Russia. Meanwhile U.S. President Donald Trump, fresh out of a conference during which he designated a swath of nations “shithole countries,” maintains that “America is being respected again” under his presidency.  

Despite the president’s attitude, Spratlen spoke of the State Department’s permanency and its crucial administrative roles in terms of issuing visas, granting amnesty and allowing for cross-departmental cooperation. “There are some things that will be timeless what we do, that what do regardless of who the president is,” she said.

Closer to home is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s decision to drastically curtail the State Department by reducing both funding and personnel in an ambitious plan to significantly shrink the foreign service by October 2018. Even before he entered office, Tillerson made no secret of his plan to slash the department’s budget by one-third and his wish to shed the department of 2,000 key employees.

In encouraging the departure of personnel who have not committed a fireable offense, or indeed any offense, Tillerson, a former CEO of ExxonMobil, is employing techniques remarkably similar to that of corporate downsizing. In his least extreme measures, Tillerson froze hiring and handed out $25,000 buyouts in order to encourage officials’ departures. In more aggressive measures, top diplomats — primarily officials of Black or Latinx heritage — have found themselves sidelined or asked to leave.

The exodus of experience and diversity can only hurt the United States when, according to Spratlen, “courageous” and “adventuresome” individuals are needed more than ever in times of uncertainty. The dismissals of long-term, high-ranking officials is especially problematic. “It takes a long time to actually become a diplomat,” she explained. “It takes 15-20 years; that’s when a person really becomes the most valuable to the organization.”

Tillerson had already fired six top diplomats before 2017 was over, one of whom was a Bush administration veteran ambassador, along with the department’s counselor. All the while, no cuts came for the 34 positions meant to be filled by political appointees that still stand vacant, of the 44 available.

Despite the crescendoing “fire and fury” of the administration, Spratlen chooses to keep her gaze forward. From her own experience under four administrations, she sees an impermanence of politics in the grand scheme of the American directive.

True to her profession as well as her professionalism, Spratlen speaks of contemporary political attitudes in a way that is at once prescient and dismissive. “I would say the big picture kind of things tend to endure, but some administrations might prioritize human rights, others might prioritize security, others might prioritize the business agenda of the United States and still others, perhaps cultural or social trends,” she explained.

In particular, Spratlen singled out the emphasis on human rights as one she has seen to be “very different from one administration to another” in the overall conception of U.S. foreign policy, continuing, “our job is to figure out how to articulate those values as they ebb and flow over time.”

Cyclical agitation is familiar to Spratlen. She attended school at UC Berkeley just more than a decade after the Free Speech Movement catapulted the campus to national attention — though by then, the spirit of the movement’s fervor had mellowed. “Somebody coming from the ’60s was probably a bit surprised at how peaceful it was at the time. … It was a very pacific time and place,” she reminisced.

The change of a career, the conclusion of a military conflict, the fall of a global superpower — nothing is truly intransigent when one possesses the foresight of patience. But along with that foresight comes an unavoidable mandate toward action. It’s a call to step away from complacency and to fight for change — to hold onto the belief that, sometime after the dust clears, a returning visitor might marvel at a pacific time.

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.