BookLife Talks Tom Armbruster
A sponsored Q&A with the author of 'How to Become an Ambassador: An American Foreign Service Odyssey'
Did you always plan to write a memoir about your experiences?
No. The State Department has a diversity problem and an image problem. Historically, the department has been “male, pale, and Yale.” That is changing, and I was happy to recruit students from New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and New Jersey while Diplomat in Residence at the City College of New York in Harlem. I placed minority and first-generation Americans into internships, and some have now entered the Foreign Service. It was also great to showcase the diversity of America through public diplomacy programs. For example, we invited African American astronaut Alvin Drew to come to the U.S. consulate in Vladivostok. He was a big hit—as popular as rocker Alice Cooper, who was also a great public diplomacy star for the consulate.
I wrote the book to recruit people who perhaps had not considered a career in the Foreign Service, and to give them a reality check. I want readers to see that diplomacy is more than cocktail parties and high-level negotiations. It is also about service, adventure, and learning something new every day.
What’s the craziest thing you either saw or did during your time as ambassador?
The interesting, challenging, and difficult moments all happened outside the embassy compound. I found myself in Russian nuclear facilities, traveling to Afghanistan to talk to imams, exhuming Americans killed by drug violence in Mexico, and visiting Americans in prisons around the world. Along with negotiating an emergency response treaty with Russia, I was the “control officer” for presidents and cabinet leaders. Seeing President Clinton relax at the Café Pushkin in Moscow, taking Secretary of State Rice to a girls’ school in Tajikistan, and seeing Fidel Castro in Cuba at the Pan American Games are the kinds of special privileges that come with diplomacy.
How do you make sure you are telling “the truth,” or how do you refresh your memories when writing?
Thanks to public diplomacy, a lot of the truth is on YouTube. For example, we nominated a young Marshallese poet, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, to be the Civil Society speaker at the United Nations. Her poem “Dear Matafele Peinem,” about the impact of climate change on the Marshall Islands in the voice of a mother addressing her child, was moving and had a huge effect on world leaders. You can watch a clip of Jetnil-Kijiner receiving the first standing ovation at the United Nations since Nelson Mandela addressed the assembly. Luckily, my wife, Kathy, is the institutional knowledge in the family, and as a librarian, she also keeps me honest.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
I hope they will see that international cooperation is vital in a globalized world and that the work American diplomats do overseas makes a difference. I hope they’ll see the breadth of our engagement, from development work and environmental restoration to expanding opportunities for American businesses. And I hope they’ll log on to careers.state.gov and take the Foreign Service test.
What’s next for you?
Travel! I recently led inspection teams to Bangladesh, Colombia, Nepal, Denmark, Mauritania, and Chad. There is so much to explore. They say it’s a small world, but as my brother says, “I wouldn’t want to paint it!” I want to learn more, use my Spanish and Russian language skills, and stay engaged on impo tant issues like global sustainability and environmental diplomacy.